The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America.
Contemporary disputes over American immigration and refugee policy make frequent reference to the foreign-born in our midst as aliens--legal aliens, illegal aliens, aliens with documents, or undocumented aliens. In fact, the concept of the alien was in no small measure a product of the exclusionary legislation aimed at the Chinese in the late nineteenth century. These laws were championed by white Americans who believed the Chinese to be unassimilable and also a threat to the economic well-being of the native-born. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 failed to remove Chinese from American communities, native-born whites resorted to violence to force Chinese already in the United States to depart. The message was "All the Chinese, you must go, Everyone," and this command was often accompanied by brute force. Between 1885 and 1886, over 168 communities in various western states and territories forcefully ousted Chinese residents, a sorry chapter of American nativism largely neglected until this fine study by Beth Lew-Williams, an Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.
While early scholars of nativism, such as John Higham, ignored the Chinese experience, later ones have focused primarily on California and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. By contrast, Lew-Williams' treatment begins with the massacre of Chinese miners in the Wyoming territory in 1885 that was followed by repeated acts of violence against the Chinese and further legislation to sharpen the distinction between citizens and aliens.
Anti-Chinese brutality was not widespread in the 1850s, when the first arrivals panned for gold, labored in mines, or laid railroad track. However, unrest born of racism and job competition escalated as immigration increased. Feeling that they had been abandoned by their government, some whites joined vigilante-led mobs to force Chinese from their homes. Well-meaning middle-class Americans regretted the violence, but they, too, wanted the Chinese to be removed.
Using copious examples, Lew-Williams documents how some nativists petitioned Congress to slam shut the gates ever more tightly with legislation, while others in city after city launched violent campaigns to oust the Chinese. She also explains how in acquired territories such as Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawai'i, Chinese exclusion became a dimension of U.S. policy outside its borders, even as it was already an entrenched dimension of domestic ethnic relations.
Lew-Williams avoids turning her volume into a catalog of lynchings and mob violence, focusing instead on the complex politics of individual communities such as Tacoma, Washington. Here, when the Chinese resisted vigilante efforts to expel them from their homes, they were helped by non-Chinese residents. However, most Tacomans still remained antagonistic against the Chinese. Men blatantly equated their rejection of the Chinese with manliness. Female nativists also expressed opposition to the Chinese in gendered terms, often as an extension of their domesticity. They "adorned banquet halls and cooked for anti-Chinese rallies." One Tacoma woman decorated a cake with candied letters that spelled out "The Chinese Must Go." Seattle housewives supported an anti-Chinese boycott by shunning Chinese laundries and washing their clothes at home.
Unlike the Irish on the East Coast who were sufficiently numerous to respond to violence in kind, the Chinese population in the West was too small to counter violence with violence. Likewise, court challenges to nativist legislation were largely ineffectual. It was not until 1943, when China and the U.S. were allied against Japan, that Chinese immigrants were able to press for fairer treatment and to gain access to citizenship.
By expanding her narrative beyond California and then on to territorial possessions abroad, Beth Lew-Williams has made a significant contribution to understanding how American nativists embodied their hatred for the Chinese in actions as well as in racist diatribes. Her volume deserves a place on the bookshelf of every scholar who deals with nativism generally and with the Chinese experience in America in particular.
Alan M. Kraut
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|Title Annotation:||THE AMERICAS|
|Author:||Kraut, Alan M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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