A Brief History
On May 6, 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning any further immigration of Chinese workers to the United States for the next 10 years. This Act followed previous agreements imposed on China, the Burlingame Treaty of 18689 and the Angell Treaty of 1880 that also sought to limit Chinese immigration to the US. It seems xenophobia was alive and “well” even back then!
The Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to last 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 by the Geary Act of 1892, which was made “permanent” in 1902. Chinese workers remained banned from immigrating to the US all the way until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act.
European Americans were not merely racists when it came to resenting immigrants. People of Slavic, Irish, and Southern or Eastern European backgrounds were likewise discriminated against and largely shunned, especially those of the Catholic faith. Obviously, Jews had also been treated as unwanted, and the amount of Arab, Central Asian, or Indian sub-continent people made up a minimal amount of the immigration to the US. Efforts to ship Black African-Americans “back” to Africa continued throughout the 19th Century as well.
The California Gold Rush of the late 1840’s and 1850’s saw a large influx of Chinese immigrants, eager to find work in menial and labor intensive jobs on the West Coast of the US. When massive numbers of workers were needed to build the railroad system in the US, many Chinese provided much of the labor in the Western part of the US. West Coast cities such as San Francisco developed large Chinese neighborhoods. The State of California sought to rid itself of excess Chinese labor as the Gold Rush wound down, with efforts to forbid Chinese from moving to California and even enacting laws forcing some Chinese to leave the state in the new State Constitution of 1879, which also forbade Chinese from holding local or state government jobs. Even after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, Californians kept up with anti-Chinese legislation, much of which was found to be Un-Constitutional by the US Supreme Court. White Supremacist organizations sprung up, and most labor unions opposed Chinese immigration (except the International Workers of the World, IWW).
This shameful Chinese Exclusion Act also made Chinese immigrants ineligible for becoming US citizens, making them permanent aliens. Deportations were the order of the day, with demands that Chinese Americans produce a “certificate of residence” or get kicked out. Those that had families in China could not bring those wives and children to the US, and those that left to visit their homeland were often denied reentry to the US. Obviously, this discriminatory activity did not sit well with the Chinese, and numerous lawsuits and protests were levied, including a trade war in 1904-1906 in which China refused to accept US imported goods.
In 1943 with the embarrassment of the US discriminating against an ally in the War against Japan led to the Magnuson Act that repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 2012 Congress recognized the wrongful nature of the hated Act, and in 2014 the State of California followed suit. Today, over a quarter of all Asian Americans are of Chinese origin, and these Chinese Americans make up around 3.8 million Americans, with New York City and San Francisco having the largest Chinese American communities. Chinese Americans have higher academic achievement than the median American, and also enjoy higher economic status ($65,000 median household income for Chinese Americans compared to $52,000 for non-Hispanic White Americans, as of 2010). Chinese students make up the largest ethnic bloc of foreign college students in the US, especially in graduate and scientific courses.
Chinese Americans have come an enormously long way toward success in the United States after being discriminated against so heavily for so long that the transformation in status is astounding. Question for students (and subscribers): If you have any Chinese American success stories to share, please do so in the comments section below this article, and remember, those we discriminate against now may well be the next success story!
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Soennichsen, John. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (Landmarks of the American Mosaic). Greenwood, 2011.