Jonathan P. Baird: The untold story of anti-Chinese racism in America

For the Monitor
Published: 1/24/2022 6:31:23 AM
Modified: 1/24/2022 6:30:06 AM

On New Year’s Eve, Yao Pan Ma, a 62-year-old Chinese-American man, died. Eight months earlier, in April 2021, he had been collecting cans on the street in New York City to try and pay rent money.

Ma was a kitchen worker and a cook and he had lost his job when the city went into pandemic lockdown. Out of the blue, a man approached Ma from behind, struck him in the back and knocked him down. He then stomped Ma, kicking him repeatedly in the head.

Ma was grievously injured and went into a deep coma. Over months, his health deteriorated and he finally succumbed to the beating. Ma was the latest victim of the pandemic scapegoating and hate crimes that became epidemic in 2020 and 2021. Asian-American violence erupted around the United States. Between March 2020 and February 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative supporting Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, reported nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S.

The pandemic hate crimes are not an isolated event in Chinese-American history. They are only the most recent episode of a much longer-term experience. Maybe of any racial group in America, the Chinese experience is least well understood. The history of racism and xenophobia directed against the Chinese is staggering and has generally been left out of the history books.

Going back to the mid-nineteenth century, hostility toward the Chinese pervaded America, not just the west coast. Newspapers across the country inveighed against allowing Chinese into America but there was a demand for labor in the west and, in particular, for railroad workers. There was tremendous excitement about the introduction of coast to coast railroad.

In their book To Serve the Devil, Paul Jacobs, Saul Landau and Eve Pell write, “The transcontinental railroads were desperate for workers willing to endure the terrible hardship, the burning desert sun, freezing mountain snows, landslides, back-breaking hours with pick and shovel, and the isolation from cities, for months at a time. And all this for low wages. Few white workers were willing to take on these jobs, and, in desperation, the railroad builders turned to the Chinese.”

At the same time, the Chinese workers were needed for their labor, they were also the objects of a national phobia. Americans imagined a horde of poor, diseased, filthy, illiterate coolies pouring off boats. There was a popular belief that Chinese people were criminals, dirty and carried diseases.

In that era, white supremacy was an extremely powerful force. Many white people believed that their first duty was to maintain America’s racial purity. Chinese did not speak the same language or adopt white manners or customs. Beating Chinese was considered a form of amusement and offenses committed against Chinese were not considered important nor were they generally prosecuted.

Neither Congress nor state legislatures protected the Chinese. On the contrary, they passed much anti-Chinese legislation. In 1858, California passed a law prohibiting Chinese and Mongolian immigration to the state. Congress followed with a law in 1862 forbidding U.S. ships from transporting coolies. In 1870, Congress approved a Naturalization Act barring Chinese from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

This was followed by the Page Act in 1875 which barred Asian women who were suspected of prostitution. The Page Act was a template for the more influential 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which established the right to regulate foreigners into the country, including their exclusion and deportation.

In 1892, the Geary Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act and required all Chinese residents in the U.S. to carry a resident permit at all times. Failure to carry the permit was punishable by deportation or a year at hard labor.

The historian Erika Lee, in her book America for Americans, shows the pathbreaking significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law categorized the Chinese as the ultimate example of the dangerous, degraded alien.

Lee wrote, “No other group had been officially singled out for immigration exclusion or banned from naturalized citizenship based on their race and national origin before. Moreover, the only other immigrants to be similarly banned from the country in 1882 were convicts, lunatics, idiots and any people considered to be public charges.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act exempted professional and elite classes from exclusion. It specifically barred Chinese laborers. The Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt repealed the act because China was then our ally against the Japanese.

Courts, both state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, failed to protect the Chinese. In 1854, the California Supreme Court held that Chinese people could not testify in court. In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial of allowing Chinese to become naturalized citizens and later, in 1889, it upheld the Chinese Exclusion Act itself.

In the late 19th century, xenophobia directed against the Chinese was out of control and resulted in many atrocities committed against Chinese people. A bad economy in the 1870s particularly led to anti-Chinese hysteria that Chinese labor would take scarce jobs.

When the Chinese did not voluntarily leave the country, xenophobes resorted to violence and removal, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. In 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyo., a mob murdered 28 Chinese people and burned hundreds out of their homes. Only federal troops prevented the mass murder of Chinese people in Seattle in November 1885.

Also, in 1885, Tacoma, Wash., witnessed a pogrom. Tacoma’s Chinatown was burned to the ground. City leaders marched the Chinese population of Tacoma through pouring rain to a railroad station located miles outside the city. They forced the Chinese into boxcars with their goods and shipped them to Portland. A similar scenario played out in Seattle. In February, 1886, the entire Chinese population in Seattle was forced out of the city.

Lynchings and incidents of organized mass brutality were not unusual. Anti-Chinese vigilantes had no fear of punishment.

Into the 20th century, the American tradition of welcoming immigrants was not extended to the Chinese. The ‘Yellow Peril’ racist ideology infected too many minds. Books like Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, reflected the popular racist and anti-Chinese attitude.

Chinatowns that sprouted around America were more a product of racial segregation and redlining than of any desire to self-segregate.

Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” In the case of Chinese-American history, the victims did not get that opportunity. This past remains whitewashed and not accessible to mass audiences.

The events I cited have been written out but not entirely. When former President Trump talked about the “China virus,” he connected to the 19th-century belief that the Chinese carried germs and diseases. The legacy of xenophobia and racism remains very alive.

It should be clear by now that there is a narrative war going on about American history. I think all the efforts like opposing critical race theory and divisive concepts legislation are really about opposition to truth-telling about our ugly racial history. They demonstrate a lack of intellectual integrity.

Whether about Chinese-American, African-American or Native American history, we need to increase the consciousness of wrongdoing. We seem addicted to fairy tale history. If we are ever going to move past racism in America, we first have to face it honestly. That has not happened with Chinese-American history.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)




Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy