Anti-Chinese Laws and Racist Mobs
As reported in the Revolutionary Worker -- The Chinese immigrants who came looking for the "Golden Mountain" did the hardest, most dangerous and lowest paid labor. They were denied the most basic rights and subjected to racist violence and terror. In 1858, 140 years before California's anti-immigration Prop 187, the state passed an immigration law excluding Chinese from entering the state. And in 1862 a "White Labor Protection Act was passed.
The constitution of California was rewritten in 1879 forbidding any man or woman of "Chinese or Mongolian" ancestry from earning a living by working for a white man. And the legislature delegated "all necessary power" to towns and cities "for the removal of Chinese." The state constitution declared that the Chinese people were "dangerous to the well-being of the State."
In 1882 the Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which decreed that a Chinese man who worked with his "hands," who was a "manual" laborer, would be prohibited from coming to America. And the people from China who were already residents were barred from becoming citizens. Chinese, like Black people and Indians, were not allowed to testify against whites in court. They were barred from public schools and forbidden to own real estate or get business licenses or government contracts. In San Francisco, laws were passed against the Chinese like a "queue tax," a "cubic air ordinance" requiring that every residence have so many cubic feet of air per inhabitant, and a "pole law" prohibiting the use of carrying baskets on poles. Laws that specifically targeted Chinese immigration stayed on the books until 1965. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943--and even then immigration of Chinese was given a quota of only 105 per year!
The white labor movement in California became a major force behind the racist campaigns to drive the Chinese out. Mobs stormed through towns where Chinese immigrants lived, burning homes and looting shops. Chinese were lynched and scalped. They had their pigtails cut off and were branded with hot irons. In one incident a mob caught a Chinese miner and sliced off his genitals. In one Nevada town a Chinese laundryman was tied to a wagonwheel and the buckboard was driven at high speed through the town until the man's head fell off. One Chinese crab fisherman who was beaten to death was branded by hot irons, his ears sliced in half with a knife and his tongue cut off.
On a single night in Los Angeles in 1871, 20 innocent Chinese men were lynched or burned alive by mobs of white men. Four men were crucified spread-eagle and then executed with knife and gun.
And in 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, 28 Chinese men were murdered by local townspeople. In an orgy of bloodletting, mobs not only burned the Chinese alive but then mutilated their dead bodies.
The racist treatment of Chinese immigrants in California in the late 1800s was very connected with the oppression of Black people in the South. The anti-Chinese measures during this period were passed in Congress by a combination of Southern and Western votes. Southern plantation owners and politicians would not tolerate a policy in California that might have unsettling consequences in the South. And the more California became committed to a Jim Crow policy in relation to the Chinese, the greater was its obligation to support Southern racist policies in Congress.
After the Civil War, Southern plantation owners--who were worried that freed slaves would be "unmanageable"--considered substituting Chinese coolie labor for Black labor. Southern plantation owners visited California with this in mind. And during the 1870s, Chinese workers were imported to states like Louisiana and Mississippi and pitted against Black workers. A southern governor explained: "Undoubtedly the underlying motive for this effort to bring in Chinese laborers was to punish the negro for having abandoned the control of his old master, and to regulate the conditions of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him."
Eventually, plantation owners in the South stopped importing Chinese labor as the system of sharecropping became established. But Chinese laborers continued to be used in other parts of the world to replace Black slaves. From 1845 to 1877 a great movement of Chinese coolie labor from China was a direct consequence of the end of slavery in the British Empire. In colonies in the Caribbean and Latin America Chinese coolie labor was used to replace Black slave labor. Over 40,000 Chinese coolies were imported to Cuba alone--of whom it has been said that at least 80 percent were decoyed or kidnaped.
Driven Off the Land
By the beginning of the 1890s an economic depression hit the U.S. and Chinese immigrants were subjected to a whole new level of attack. There is a striking and ugly parallel between this period and the atmosphere of terror directed against Mexican and Latin American immigrants in California today.
The people who had built the railroads and levees were painted as a plague on society. White workers who were losing their jobs were told that the problem was Chinese immigrants. In 1893 the Los Angeles Times wrote: "White men and women who desire to earn a living have for some time been entering into quiet protest against vineyardists and packers employing Chinese in preference to whites." A wave of racist anti-Chinese riots broke out in the Central Valley. Takaki writes that "From Ukiah to the Napa Valley, to Fresno to Redlands, Chinese were beaten and shot by white workers and often loaded into trains and shipped out of town." These violent attacks on Chinese immigrants were concentrated in the Sacramento and San Joaquín River valleys, and especially where they join at the Delta (see map). Chinese immigrants bitterly remembered this violence and expulsion as the "driving out." While a handful of Chinese towns remained in the Delta, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants were driven from the land and forced into marginal survival. For the most part, they were denied any opportunity for work except menial jobs like washing clothes and cooking.
The levees built by Chinese immigrants created huge profits for capitalists and opened up some of the most fertile and productive land in the world. In return, these immigrants were denied the most basic rights. Their communities were burned. Dozens were murdered by racist mobs. And they were forced from the very land they had created from the Delta swamps. (source: Revolutionary Worker)