Chinese Exclusion Act

Chinese Exclusion Act
Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1882, in response to the vociferous insistence of California’s anti-“coolie” clubs and Irish immigrant Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party of California, Congress passed the first law in U.S. history to ban explicitly the further immigration of a particular racial or ethnic group.

Known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the law reflected the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the century-old republic; the importance of racial identities in shaping local, state, and national politics; and the enduring legacy of racism in the wake of nearly 250 years of African slavery.

Chinese immigration to California turned from a trickle to a flood following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. The ensuing gold rush, which drew prospectors from across the country, caused California’s population to skyrocket, from 14,000 in 1848 to more than 220,000 four years later.

The vast majority of California’s new immigrants were men and included not only a diversity of Euro-Americans, many recent U.S. arrivals, but also Mexicans, African Americans, and Chinese.

At first California’s Caucasian population tended to look favorably on Chinese immigrants as diligent, thrifty, and hardworking. Overwhelmingly male, most Chinese immigrants were brought by labor contractors to work in the burgeoning railroad, construction, prospecting, and related industries.

By the 1870s, however, Euro-American anti-Chinese sentiment hardened, as Chinese women and children began arriving in large numbers and as competition for scarce resources combined with political opportunism and other factors to spark the formation of anti-coolie clubs in the state’s largest cities and towns. Violence against Chinese immigrants intensified, including lynchings, burnings, and rapes, while boycotts of Chinese-made goods became widespread.

In 1875, at the prompting of California congressman Horace Page, Congress passed a law barring the further immigration of Chinese women, ostensibly to protect the health of white men threatened by Chinese prostitutes. The clamor among whites for the exclusion of all Chinese immigrants mounted, spearheaded by Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party.

By the early 1880s some 100,000 persons of Chinese ancestry lived in the United States, the vast majority on the West Coast. Many prominent white citizens supported Kearney’s call for Chinese exclusion, including leading labor rights activist Henry George, who deemed the Chinese to be “unassimilable.”

Congress finally responded with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese immigration for 10 years while prohibiting persons of Chinese origin already in the country from becoming naturalized citizens.

Ten years later, in 1892, Congress renewed the ban, and in 1902 made the exclusion permanent. To America’s Chinese-descended population, the Exclusion Acts encapsulated the bitter realities of racial discrimination in their adopted homeland.

Officially stigmatized as second-class citizens, Chinese Americans would remain toward the bottom of the country’s economic, social, and racial hierarchy well into the 20th century, especially in the Pacific Coast region where most resided.

Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943 at the height of World War II, in part as a gesture of solidarity with Chinese Nationalist forces under assault by Japan. The 1943 law also permitted Chinese-descended permanent residents to apply for citizenship, though the civil rights of many Chinese Americans did not receive full federal affirmation until the civil rights laws of the mid-1960s.