The State of California issued a statement apologizing to Chinese Americans last week for racially biased laws against them during California’s history. California was a key player in the exploitation of Chinese workers and the implementation of both state and national laws designed to uphold that exploitation. These included laws that institutionalized indenture, denied rights to family re-unification and/or excluded female immigration for the purpose of both isolating male labor and exploiting existing female labor through sex work, denied rights to testify in court against white people or marry them, and concentrated Chinese workers in low skilled and low wage labor by barring them from office employment. California’s tax system also targeted immigrants while ensuring an undue burden on Chinese immigrants; taxes like the mining tax for foreign born workers targeted an area where Chinese immigrant labor was concentrated and the vendor tax designed to drive out Chinese vegetable vendors. They also passed the poll tax which was later declared unconstitutional. The legacy of this exploitation not only meant the ongoing indenture and flagrant abuse of Chinese workers but made urban centers and California the hub for the trafficking in Chinese women and children.
On the national level, the State of California was one of the strongest lobbyists for the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act is one of the only publicly stated laws to exclude immigrants on the basis of racial identity or country of origin. Other laws have set up quota systems that were hoped to be favorable to white immigrants, and clearly narratives of immigration have always been part of a racial discourse of exclusion. This Act, and its unofficial implementation well in advance of its passing, meant several Chinese immigrants in California were held in checkpoint like prisons without adequate care and bathroom and dining facilities. Invasive and humiliating eugenicist inspired “health examinations” were also carried out in these facilities. Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans were also forced to register and carry special identification that was used by some to track and target them for violence. California also moved to block return of 3200 Chinese Americans who had returned to China during the Boxer Rebellion to protect their families and participate in democraticization but then attempted to return to California where they had set up homes and businesses.
One of the ways California was able to keep Chinese immigrants in line was through violent policing. Chinese Americans were marched forcibly from their homes, herded into railcars and shipped to unpopulated rural areas or simply to the state line. In one attack on Chinese immigrants known as the “Chinese Massacre of 1871,” 18 Chinese immigrants were killed in a single night over labor issues. Often violent conflicts were started by trade unionists who claimed that Chinese Americans were intentionally lowering the living wage and threatening N. Americans [read white] livelihood. The poster to the right was put up the same year that half of LA’s Chinatown was intentionally burned to the ground, causing irreparable damage and injuring and/or killing several Chinese people and their children. These actions illustrate how police non-white bodies, ie racism, hurts everyone. Instead of the unions banding together against State exploitation of Chinese American workers that was in fact the cause of lowered wages and white worker displacement, they targeted Chinese communities assuming, wrongly, that they were simply “dirty” and had “lower standards of living” that made them think shoddy working conditions and low pay were ok. Racism also made them target Asian American businesses when it was the dominant businesses that had set up conditions bad for all workers and often Asian businesses that allowed Asian Americans to escape some of those conditions (they still had to pay high rents, work in squalar b/c of property restrictions, and were often paying neighborhood bullies and police “protection money” that did not always protect them). Racism against the Chinese and Chinese Americans also hurt all Californians by making it impossible for Chinese immigrants to testify in court. The decision to exclude their testimony directly benefited a white man convicted of murder on the basis of a Chinese immigrant’s testimony. This decision encouraged criminals to set up shop in Chinatown and made it that much more unsafe for both Chinese immigrants and women working in the informal economy in this area but also anyone who criminals assaulted or killed infront of Chinese immigrant witnesses who could not help defend them in court.
While some have argued that apologies for racism have no meaning because they neither redress the past nor shift the present, their symbolic value can be critical in re-thinking narratives of race and racism and acting against present day oppressions. Had California’s apology garnered more attention, it might remind members of this nation that the kind of racial profiling and intentional criminalizing of immigration currently going on, has dire consequences for the nation and its people. Immigration arguments and ICE policies are not in fact new and Chinese-Americans had a long history of fighting against them through boycotts, marches, and networks to prevent forced deportation and/or the burning down of their shops. The lessons we could learn both from laws and how they were fought would be invaluable to the current immigration rights movement. Or as we say in history: history matters. If you don’t learn it, you are destined to repeat it.
- Chinese Americans at New Year’s parade/unattributed
- Anti-Asian union flier/unattributed
- Cynthia Tom and Lai Wah @ her amazing exhibit on Chinese Women Immigrants/ Tom