About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.
Chinese Exclusion Act
Passed by Congress in May of 1882 and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration into the United States for 10 years and barred Chinese that were already in the country from becoming citizens. The act was renewed in 1892 and later made permanent in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943 during World War II.
The Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration into the United States for 10 years and barred Chinese that were already in the country from becoming citizens.
The act was said to have been passed as a way to protect the “American worker” from Chinese laborers who were thought to be taking jobs through their willingness to work for lower wages. However, there were distinct racial and cultural prejudices that influenced the controversial legislation.
Rise of the Chinese Laborer
While immigration to the United States was not a new concept, the period following the Civil War resulted in unprecedented levels of immigrants flowing into the United States and especially to the western states and territories.
A combination of factors contributed to the influx of people from all over the world including the Chinese, which eventually led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Two major factors that contributed to the increase of Chinese laborers in America revolved around the economic growth of the 2nd Industrial Revolution and the need for cheaper labor to support it.
Two major factors that contributed to the increase of Chinese laborers in America revolved around the economic growth of the 2nd Industrial Revolution and the need for cheaper labor to support it.
Two of the biggest industries that contributed to the growth of the Chinese population along the West Coast were the mining and railroad industries.
Labor for Mining
First, the growth of the mining industry. The discovery of gold near San Francisco in 1849 brought many people to the western states in the hopes of striking it rich, especially from China and other parts of Asia. Yet, the peak of the mining industry boom didn’t reach its full economic prowess until the 1860’s as the entire western part of the United States started to become settled by migrants.
This boom was relatively short lived as it died out by 1900 when workers became disenchanted with the hard and dangerous circumstances of mining life, scarcity of profits from mining which resulted in them to seek the relative safety and predictability of wages in factory jobs (granted, steady wages and conditions in factories had their own challenges).
During the mining boom, due to the scarcity of laborers, wages were artificially high. Employers recruited those that they could pay less than white workers, namely Chinese immigrants.
During the mining boom, an increasing number of laborers were needed to meet the labor demand. Thus, requiring employers to seek out a paid labor force. Due to the scarcity of laborers, wages were artificially high and as a result employers recruited those that they could pay less than white workers, namely Chinese immigrants.
Labor for Railroads
Second, the transportation revolution. As the railroad companies continued to expand into the West, the nation’s dream of a transcontinental railroad started to become a reality. Connecting the East and West via rail was instrumental in opening up new western markets to east coast based companies. Massive amounts of cheap and available labor were needed in order to complete the project.
For railroads, the Chinese laborer was perfect for the job.
Once again, the Chinese laborer was perfect for the job. Willing to work for low wages and under intense pressure and conditions. At the height of construction of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese laborers made up 90 percent of the labor force of the Central Pacific and responsible for the majority of the construction of the western part of the railway. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1849 with East and West railways meeting in Promontory Point, Utah and forever connecting the two coasts via rail.
At the height of construction of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese laborers made up 90 percent of the labor force.
Immigration Provokes a Nativist Response
Chinese immigrants were not welcomed with open arms by the majority of white America. Sure, the business owners loved them enough because they could pay them less than white workers for more dangerous work, but this is what directly led to some of the negative attitudes towards the Chinese laborer.
Between 1850-1870, the vast majority of all Chinese immigrants were young single men brought in to work in the gold and silver mines and to help construct the railroad lines.
Between 1850-1870, the vast majority of all Chinese immigrants were young single men brought in to work in the gold and silver mines and to help construct the railroad lines. Nearly all of these immigrants would reside in California having emigrated through Angel Island at the San Francisco port of entry.
As Chinese immigrants flooded into the country, California legislators began to pass laws restricting access to public services including public education, banned the immigration of Chinese women, and business licenses. Court battles began to set parameters to how Chinese and other immigrants were to be treated in the coming decades.
Court battles began to set parameters to how Chinese and other immigrants were to be treated in the coming decades.
In 1885, the California Supreme Court, in Tape v Hartley, ordered the city of San Francisco, where many Chinese eventually settled following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to admit Chinese students to public schools. City officials responded by passing laws authorizing segregated educational facilities and built a school for Chinese students that was woefully underfunded compared to white schools.
The discrimination did not end there though. Chinese businesses were denied business licenses and access to city resources. Chinese citizens were looked down upon as second class citizens and the children of immigrants born in the country were denied citizenship.
However, a Supreme Court victory came in 1898 as the court decided in the case of United States v Wong Kim Ark, that the Fourteenth Amendment did in fact award citizenship to the children of Chinese immigrants born on American soil.
United States v Wong Kim Ark, that the Fourteenth Amendment did in fact award citizenship to the children of Chinese immigrants born on American soil.
Legal battles and government discrimination were not the only challenges faced by Chinese leading up to and after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a wave of economic depression swept the nation in the late 1870s, Chinese immigrants became the target of anger by the majority white population within the major cities.
In October of 1871 in Los Angeles California, a massacre of 15-20 Chinese by lynching and mutilation occurred by a white mob after the shooting death of a white man. In July of 1877 in San Francisco, a two-day riot broke out against the Chinese population as they were blamed for rising levels of the cities unemployment. Chinese businesses and homes were targeted and destroyed by these mobs while fear and intimidation became common weapons of whites looking to instill and keep racial and social superiority.
Chinese Exclusion Act is Repealed
Not to be confused or compared with Japanese internment during World War II, discrimination towards the Chinese began to ease due to the United States war treaty with China during World War II. The American alliance with China directly influenced their social and legal status in America which ultimately led to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.
The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. was done in an effort to help solidify relations with China in the fight against imperialist Japan in the Pacific.
This was done in an effort to help solidify relations with China in the fight against imperialist Japan in the Pacific. At first the repeal was more symbolic in nature as a quota system remained in place limiting Chinese immigration to the United States.
However, a greater number of Chinese women were allowed into the nation. These women had previously been excluded from entering the country for a variety of reasons. Further, with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, permanent residents of Chinese descent were allowed to become citizens.
While the government politically changed its position in regards towards Chinese living in the United States, social and economic discrimination did not disappear.
While the government politically changed its position in regards towards Chinese living in the United States, social and economic discrimination did not disappear. Yet, it did decline due to propaganda efforts by the government which drew distinctions between the Chinese and war enemy Japanese, many in the Chinese community taking jobs in war plants and other needed areas of the economy, and Chinese joining the US military to aid in the fight against Japan. These actions and efforts by the US Government and the Chinese living in the United States helped to alter public opinions about a group of people who had long been persecuted throughout society.
The legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act is one that is steeped in blatant prejudice and racism towards a group of immigrants/people that was veiled in the idea of protectionism for the American labor force. American labor demanded much higher wages for the jobs, which would make many of the projects uneconomical; if the projects had to use American labor, the projects would not have been completed as quickly or in such a large scale.
This group of immigrants had been exploited by railroad and mining companies throughout the late 19thcentury and unfortunately it was not until their contributions throughout World War II that the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed.
Along with the Chinese, many immigrant groups faced discrimination, hardship, and prejudice throughout the 2ndIndustrial Revolution and whose lack of legal protection or social and economic options allowed industrialist to take advantage of them for their labor. While the 2ndIndustrial Revolution allowed many in the United States to rise to prominence, legislative acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act were systematically devastating to others.