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The Chinese Exclusion Act in America

I knew a little about the treatment of the Chinese-Americans from a series of lectures given by a Harvard professor in the spring and from the history of public health class I took a few years ago at Muhlenberg. However, I didn’t learn anything about it in my high school history classes, which is really an outrage. It mainly happened all the way across the country, but that doesn’t negate the suffering and the lessons that can be learned from it. Also, our Eastern states participated in it by agreeing to it in the House of Representatives.

The outdated racist thinking driving the Chinese Exclusion Act soured China on the United States. Since we still haven’t really resolved this issue, and since we still throw racist slurs at Chinese, especially ones who are either very successful or, much more rarely, very unsuccessful, the Chinese undoubtedly still look at us as a racist nation.

Most importantly, our democracy not working to protect their American bretheren may well have set the Chinese on a path away from democracy, towards communism. That, as we know, has been a major stumbling block for Chinese-American relations for decades. (This to the point that President Nixon’s visit to China was hotly contested and front-page news.) Also, the Korean and Vietnam wars, with tens of thousands of American casualties, drove a further wedge between the East and the West. After all, the Chinese (and Soviets) spread communism to North Korea and Vietnam and helped the communist insurgents there in their fight against democracy. What isn’t commonly known (or thought of) by westerners is that the Chinese at least claimed that they were saving these countries from the yokes of western imperialism. Thus, in these wars, the United States’ attempt to promote democracy was portrayed by the Chinese as being just more western imperialism.

Despite this, like under the Qing empire, China continues to be a major trade partner of the United States. The big difference is why. In the 19th century, China offered the world lots of unique products, like silk and spices. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, China’s main contribution has been very underpaid workers (a product of Communism), thus allowing the West to buy Chinese products cheaper than their identical American products. This has proved to be a problem among the lower paid American laborers who used to make these products and are now unemployed. Noticeably, this is the same group of people who originally had the problem with the Chinese-American laborers “taking their jobs.” Like then, when these white American laborers limited the number of ships (or at least who and what they could carry) coming from China, they are now advocating for a high tariff on all Chinese-made products, for the sake of saving their jobs.

Knowledge of the Chinese Exclusion Act has changed my view of what Asian-Americans are like. I did think that Asian-Americans tended to be smarter than other races, but I didn’t know that that was the result of immigration restriction. I also knew that they had special schools (which a former friend of mine used to attend), in addition to regular schools. But, I didn’t know that that was because those Asians who do make it to America tend to be doctors and other scholars and therefore have a great respect for knowledge.

As in any case where diplomacy is involved, greater cultural understanding would be helpful. In this particular case, it would be wonderful to understand that Asian-Americans, just like white Americans, want to do the best they can to support their families and increase their financial and social standing. Like other immigrants, if they have family and/or friends in China, they send money home. Like other minorities, they tend to stick together, or at least know of other members in their communities, even if they are not friends with them. That’s a way of coping with having so many white people around and having racism aimed at them. The statistics showing that Asian-Americans tend to have higher salaries and lower rates of unemployment than whites aren’t helpful because they don’t point out that, for many of the decades when immigration was much more open to lower paid people, the Chinese weren’t allowed to come. Even 125 years on, these effects are still felt because the lower paid workers have been subjugated to a lottery since they’ve been allowed in.

Image courtesy of: Googe Images

Facts courtesy of: “The Chinese Exclusion Act”. Directed by Burns, Ric and Li-Shin Yu. Public Broadcasting Service, 2018

Molina, Natalia. “Chapter 1: Interlopers in the Land of Sunshine: Chinese Disease Carriers, Launderers, and Vegetable Peddlers”. In¬†Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939.¬†American Crossroads, 20. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006