February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
One splendid morning during a recent West Coast vacation, I was turning the pages of a San Francisco newspaper over my coffee when I came upon a headline that clouded my cheerful mood: GERMAN POLL FINDS SENTIMENT AGAINST FOREIGNERS RUNS DEEP . According to the story below it, one-quarter of a group of Germans polled in a survey agreed entirely or partly with the slogan “Germany for the Germans,” which right-wing extremists had been chanting during several weeks of rampages against foreign refugees. Included in the atrocities were the rock-throwing attacks on refugee shelters and the torching of foreigners’ homes. “Shades of the 1930s,” I thought with the automatic shudder that any possible neo-Nazi activity sends through me—in Germany or anywhere else.
Then I thought a bit longer. Something tickled my memory, and it flashed a new message: “Shades of the 1870s too. And not in Europe but in San Francisco, California!” I remembered that San Francisco had been seized, in 1877, by a violent spasm of antiforeign, specifically anti-Chinese, feeling that broke into murderous riots against innocents of the “wrong” ancestry. The fever started among working-class whites, but before it ran its full course, it infected the governments of both California and the United States, with long-lasting results.
Please understand that I have no intention of drawing farfetched comparisons, or of calling Americans of the 1870s neo-Nazis—quite the contrary. Nor do I aim to exonerate the 1990s neo-Nazis by trite reminders that they are not the first, last, or only haters to sully history’s pages with brutality. Still, one of the best things about good history is its power to reduce national arrogance and to promote reflection and caution. So this story needs telling.
Xenophobia wasn’t new in the United States a century and a quarter ago. A strong nativist movement before the Civil War had been responsible for discrimination and occasional violence against foreign-born Catholics. In the 1850s the Protestant crusade went political in the shape of the American (or “Know-Nothing”) party and scored some short-term gains. But California’s nativism in 1877 was especially sharp after four years of a bitter depression that had begun in 1873. (Economic pain will do that every time; the 1992 wave of German antiforeignism is strongest in formerly Communist East Germany, where unemployment is high and living standards low.)
America in 1877 was hurting all over, but as is often the case, the situation was special in California, particularly in San Francisco. It was less than thirty years since the gold rush had filled the city with brazen fortune seekers. The giddiness of their expectations was now offset by brutal reality, and most of them were facing the fact that they would spend their lives in a postboom economy. Gold and silver production was down, and unemployment now hovered around 20 percent. Where land had been plentiful, the best acreage was being concentrated into great estates.
Where San Francisco grocers had made fortunes selling infrequent shiploads of coveted goods, they now faced tough competition in a national market created by the newly completed transcontinental railroad line. And that same railroad, once hailed as the salvation of California, had become a monster monopoly that was charged with gouging the state’s shippers and buying exemption from the law by bribing and lobbying.
The Big Four who built and owned the Southern Pacific Railroad—Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford—typified the widening social chasm. Basically storekeepers who had struck it rich by their timely investment in the rails, they and other new millionaires built, on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, gingerbread mansions tended by liveried servants. Thus the social cast of San Francisco included a restless down-at-the-heels population, a class of power-flaunting neoaristocrats, a supervillain in the shape of a railroad monopoly—and, finally, a set of scapegoats in the Chinese.
There were between twelve thousand and twenty-two thousand of them in the city, all recent immigrants and visibly, achingly different in their Manchu pigtails and their “bizarre” customs. They had been run out of the mining camps by discriminatory state laws and vigilante violence and settled in the cities to cook and wash for the Anglo-Saxons. Then the Big Four had discovered that they made wonderful railroad-construction workers—patient, diligent, and, above all, vulnerable and therefore cheap. Crocker imported thousands of them. So did other employers through wholesale contracts with Chinese labor agents. The Chinese composed perhaps only 15 percent of the San Francisco labor force, but they were blamed and hated by apparently every unemployed or underemployed white San Franciscan.
On July 23, 1877, the trigger on violence was pulled by news from the East. Between July 14 and 26 striking rail workers had clashed with militia in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago, and Martinsburg, West Virginia. At least seventy people had been murdered in the tumult. A meeting in support of the strikers was called in an empty downtown sandlot in San Francisco by sympathizers associated with the ten-year-old Marxist International Association of Workingmen. The crowd shouted its approval of anticapitalist resolutions. Then, inevitably, someone cried, “On to Chinatown,” and the mob boiled out to look for victims. Twenty laundries were burned that night. On the next, there was an attack on a woolen mill employing many Chinese workers. At that the city fathers, alarmed about threats to property, formed a Committee of Safety and called out the militia. On the third night the rioters attacked the docks of the Pacific Steamship Company and set fire to a lumberyard. Police charged their ranks; four rioters were killed and fourteen wounded. That was the end of the collective violence.
But not of the anti-Chinese revolt. Two months later the crowd found a leader in a thirty-year-old Irish-born small businessman named Denis Kearney. Self-made and self-educated, Kearney was the guiding spirit in creating a new organization, the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC). Night after night he held forth to sandlot crowds in speeches full of political brimstone, like his pronouncement that “the dignity of labor must be sustained, even if we have to kill every wretch that opposes it.” He frightened the city fathers enough to have him arrested in November, but since his threats were always vaguely conditional rather than immediate, he was acquitted. Actually, he mainly urged his audiences to vote for delegates to a forthcoming state constitutional convention that he hoped would empower “the people” by tightly regulating corporations and their lobbyists and subsidies. But his most powerful attention-getter was a demand for an end to the immigration and hiring of Chinese. “We intend to try and vote the Chinamen out, to frighten him out, and if this won’t do, to kill him out…. The heathen slaves must leave this coast.” He boiled it down to a sledgehammer four-word cry: “The Chinese must go!”
Kearney touched on worker anxieties with his hints of a scheme by the rich to bring feudalism to the United States through the replacement of American workingmen with “coolies” who would neither expect nor receive a living wage or democratic rights.
He enjoyed fleeting political success. The Workingmen’s Party of California won many local and state offices in 1878 and named fifty-two delegates to the convention, which did include some of their proposals in the new Constitution of 1879. But the antibusiness strictures were gradually eviscerated by the courts and by lack of implementation, and the WPC faded away, though Kearney himself lived on until 1907. Kearney’s legislative influence was brief, but the evil that he did to the Chinese lived after him.
That was because “The Chinese must go” had more than local impact. It struck powerful echoes in a time of social Darwinist racism. The Chinese were almost universally disdained by the “advanced” Americans. The newspaper baron James Gordon Bennett discouraged their immigration with the comment that only “on the Caucasian element can we hope to build up such an empire as the world has never seen.” Other opinion makers, lumping all classes and conditions of Chinese together, labeled them “ignorant of civilized life” or “listless, stagnant [and] unprogressive.” In the popular image they were criminals, gamblers, prostitutes, and opium smokers. In Far Western towns Chinese storekeepers were often beaten and robbed by drunken miners and cowboys, or at a minimum tormented by teen-age hoodlums. And in 1885 twenty-eight Chinese were massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Therefore, legal exclusion was easily enacted. California in 1880 virtually shut the door on the importation and use of Chinese labor. The Congress of the United States followed suit with the Exclusion Act of 1882, barring all Chinese immigration for ten years. Renewed and renewed, the exclusion policy remained in force until World War II, when it began to be modified gradually until it was finally dropped, after eighty-six years, in a 1968 overhaul of immigration legislation.
It would be possible and pleasant to conclude this column on an upbeat note. Anti-Asian prejudice in the United States is only a glimmer of its former self, and the Chinese are even considered a “model minority,” held up for others’ emulation. That is certainly a credit to American pluralism. But the virus of xenophobia is never really extinguished in any multiethnic body politic. It merely becomes temporarily inactive. And as for racism —enough said. Human beings have an inextinguishable capacity to be cruel to one another, particularly in groups. It takes constant self-reminders of how bad things can get to keep alive the energy to make them better.