The surge in violence against Asian-Americans is a reminder that America’s present reality reflects its exclusionary past.
Gum Shan. Gold Mountain. That was what the people in Guangdong Province called the faraway land where the native population had red hair and blue eyes, and it was rumored that gold nuggets could be plucked from the ground. According to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle, a merchant visiting from Canton, the provincial capital—likely soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter Creek, in 1848—wrote to a friend back home about the riches that he had found in the mountains of California. The friend told others and set off across the Pacific Ocean himself. Whether from the merchant’s letter, or from ships arriving in Hong Kong, news of California’s gold rush swept through southern China. Men began scraping together funds, often using their family’s land as collateral for loans, and crowding aboard vessels that took as long as three months to reach America. They eventually arrived in the thousands. Some came in search of gold; others were attracted by the lucrative wages that they could earn working for the railroad companies laying down tracks to join the Eastern and Western halves of the United States; still others worked in factories making cigars, slippers, and woollens, or found other opportunities in the American West. They were mostly peasants, often travelling in large groups from the same village. They wore the traditional male hair style of the Qing dynasty, shaved pate in the front and a braid down to the waist in the back. They were escaping a homeland beset by violent rebellions and economic privation. They came seeking the vast, open spaces of the American frontier—where, they believed, freedom and opportunity awaited.
As the Chinese presence grew, however, it began to stir the anxieties of white Americans. Violence, often shocking in its brutality, followed. America, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was engaged in an epic struggle over race. The Civil War, by the latest estimates, left three-quarters of a million dead. In the turbulent years of Reconstruction that followed, at least two thousand Black people were lynched. Largely forgotten in this defining period of American history, however, is the virulent racism that Chinese immigrants endured on the other side of the country. According to “The Chinese Must Go” (2018), a detailed examination by Beth Lew-Williams, a professor of history at Princeton, in the mid eighteen-eighties, during probably the peak of vigilantism, at least a hundred and sixty-eight communities forced their Chinese residents to leave. In one particularly horrific episode, in 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, in the Wyoming Territory, massacred at least twenty-eight Chinese miners and drove out several hundred others.
Today, there are more than twenty-two million people of Asian descent in the United States, and Asians are projected to be the largest immigrant group in the nation by 2055. Asian-Americans have been stereotyped as the model minority, yet no other ethnic or racial group experiences greater income inequality––or perhaps feels more invisible. Then came the Presidency of Donald Trump, his racist sneers about “kung flu” and the “China virus,” and the wave of anti-Asian attacks that has swept the country.
The attacks have produced a remarkable outpouring of emotion and energy from the Asian-American community and beyond. But it is unclear what will become of the fervor once the sense of emergency dissipates. Asian-Americans do not fit easily into the narrative of race in America. Evaluating gradations of victimhood, and where a persistent sense of otherness ends and structural barriers begin, is complicated. But the surge in violence against Asian-Americans is a reminder that America’s present reality reflects its exclusionary past. That reminder turns the work of making legible a history that has long been overlooked into a search for a more inclusive future.
The vast majority of Chinese in America in the nineteenth century arrived in San Francisco, which had been a settlement of several hundred people before the gold rush, but ballooned into a chaotic metropolis of nearly three hundred and fifty thousand by the end of the century. In “Ghosts of Gold Mountain” (2019), Gordon H. Chang, a history professor at Stanford University, writes that, at least initially, many were generally welcoming toward the Chinese. “They are among the most industrious, quiet, patient people among us,” the Daily Alta California, the state’s leading newspaper, said in 1852. “Perhaps the citizens of no nation except the Germans, are more quiet and valuable.” Railroad officials were pleased by their work ethic. The Chinese “prove nearly equal to white men, in the amount of labor they perform, and are far more reliable,” one executive wrote.
White workers, however, began to see the Chinese as competition––first for gold and, later, for scarce jobs. Many perceived the Chinese to be a heathen race, unassimilable and alien to the American way of life. In April, 1852, with the numbers of arriving Chinese growing, Governor John Bigler urged the California state legislature “to check this tide of Asiatic immigration.” Bigler, a Democrat who had been elected the state’s third governor the previous year, explicitly differentiated “Asiatics” from white European immigrants. He argued that the Chinese, unlike their Western counterparts, had not come seeking America as the “asylum for the oppressed of all nations” but only to “acquire a certain amount of the precious metals, and then return to their native country.” The legislature enacted a series of measures to drive out the “Mongolian and Asiatic races,” including by imposing a fifty-dollar fee on every arriving immigrant who was ineligible to become a citizen. (At the time, naturalization procedures were governed by a 1790 law that restricted citizenship to “free white persons.”)
In 1853, the Daily Alta published an editorial on the question of whether the Chinese should be permitted to become citizens. It conceded that “many of them it is true are nearly as white as Europeans.” But, it claimed, “they are not white persons in the sense of the law.” The article characterized Chinese Americans as “morally a far worse class to have among us than the negro” and described their disposition as “cunning and deceitful.” Even though the Chinese had certain redeeming qualities of “craft, industry, and economy,” it said, “they are not of that kind that Americans can ever associate or sympathize with.” It concluded, “They are not of our people and never will be.”
In remote mining communities, where vigilante justice often prevailed, white miners drove the Chinese off their claims. In 1859, miners gathered at a general store in northern California’s Shasta County and voted to expel the Chinese. In “Driven Out” (2007), a comprehensive account of anti-Chinese violence, Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of English and Asian studies at the University of Delaware, writes that an armed mob of two hundred white miners charged through an encampment of Chinese at the mouth of Rock Creek who had refused to leave. They captured about seventy-five Chinese miners and marched them through the town of Shasta, where people pelted them with stones. The county’s young sheriff, Clay Stockton, and his deputies, managed to disperse the mob and free the captives. But, in the following days, gangs of white miners rampaged through Chinese camps in the surrounding towns, as Stockton and his men struggled to bring the violence under control. The skirmishes came to be called the Shasta Wars. Eventually, the governor dispatched an emergency shipment of a hundred and thirteen rifles, by steamer, and a posse of men assembled by Stockton was able to restore order. The rioters were put on trial, but were quickly acquitted. “Quiet once more reigns in the Republic of Shasta,” an article in the local newspaper, the Placer Herald, said. “May the fierce alarums of war never more call her faithful sons to arms!”
On October 24, 1871, racial tensions exploded in Los Angeles’s Chinatown on a narrow street lined with shops and residences, called Calle de los Negros, or Negro Alley. Many details are murky, but the journalist Iris Chang writes in “The Chinese in America” (2003) that a white police officer, investigating the sound of gunfire, was shot; a white man who rushed to help was killed. An angry mob of several hundred men gathered. “American blood had been shed,” one later recalled. “There was, too, that sense of shock that Chinese had dared fire on whites, and kill with recklessness outside their own color set. We all moved in, shouting in anger and as some noticed, in delight at all the excitement.” The street was ransacked and looted, and there were shouts of “Hang them! Hang them!” By night’s end, roughly twenty Chinese were dead, most of them hanged, their bodies left dangling in the moonlight; one of them was a fourteen-year-old boy. The incident remains one of the worst instances of a mass lynching in American history.
A prolonged economic slump in the mid-eighteen-seventies fanned white resentment. Factories on the East Coast shuttered, and unemployed workers migrated West searching for work. The completion of the transcontinental railroad also left many laborers in need of jobs. An Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney, who ran a business in San Francisco hauling dry goods, began to deliver fiery speeches in a vacant sandlot near city hall. Kearney’s audience eventually grew to thousands of embittered workers. Much of his ire was directed at “railroad robbers,” “lecherous bondholders,” and “political thieves,” but he reserved his worst vitriol for “the Chinaman.” He ended his speeches with the acclamation “The Chinese must go!” In 1877, thousands of frustrated laborers in California formed the Workingmen’s Party of California, and elected Kearney its president. “California must be all American or all Chinese,” Kearney said. “We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so.”
In central California, white workers began burning down Chinese homes. In San Francisco, members of an anti-Chinese club disrupted an evening labor meeting in front of city hall and clamored for them to denounce the Chinese. A crowd marched to Chinatown and set buildings ablaze and shot people in the streets; days of looting and assaults followed. It took several thousand volunteers, armed with pick handles, and backed by police and federal troops and gunboats offshore, to bring the riots under control after three days, by which time four people were dead and fourteen wounded.
By 1880, the Chinese population in the country exceeded a hundred and five thousand. On February 28, 1882, Senator John Franklin Miller, a Republican from California, introduced a bill to bar Chinese laborers from entering the United States. “We ask of you to secure to us American Anglo-Saxon civilization without contamination or adulteration with any other,” Miller said. “China for the Chinese! California for Americans and those who will become Americans!” Southern Democrats were united in their opposition to Chinese immigration, as were Republicans in Western states. It would fall to a band of New England Republicans, all with histories of fighting for equal rights, to defend the Chinese. A day after Miller’s speech, Senator George Frisbie Hoar, of Massachusetts, accused supporters of the bill of being motivated by “the old race prejudice which has so often played its hateful and bloody part in history.” Hoar, who had been active in the abolitionist movement, compared the plight of the Chinese to that of enslaved Black Americans: “What argument can be urged against the Chinese which was not heard against the negro within living memory?” Despite Hoar’s entreaties, the bill passed Congress easily. On May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law what later became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. It banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years, and prohibited Chinese immigrants already here from becoming citizens. The law was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1904. It marked the first time in U.S. history that a federal law restricted a group from entering the country on the basis of race. By 1924, the United States had taken steps to shut down nearly all immigration from Asia and to enact a quota system that severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
After the initial passage of the Exclusion Act, efforts to drive out the Chinese intensified. On November 3, 1885, at 9:30 a.m., whistles sounded across the city of Tacoma, Washington. White vigilantes had set a deadline of November 1st for the city’s several hundred Chinese residents to leave. A mob of men, bearing pistols and clubs, marched through the streets, rounding up the large contingent who remained. “My wife refused to go and some of the white persons dragged her out of the house,” a merchant later testified. “From the excitement, the fright and the losses we sustained through the riot she lost her reason, and has ever since been hopelessly insane.” In a driving rain, vigilantes on horseback herded about two hundred Chinese on a muddy march to the train station. According to Pfaelzer’s recounting in “Driven Out,” only some in the group had enough money to pay the fare for a passenger train to the neighboring town of Portland, about a hundred and forty miles away; others clambered into boxcars aboard a passing freight train; and still others simply started walking and could be seen for days along the tracks. Up and down the West Coast, the “Tacoma Method” became a model for ridding communities of the Chinese.
Still, the Chinese clung to their place in America. Some turned to the court system for help. In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a man in his early twenties named Wong Kim Ark, who was born in San Francisco and was denied reëntry to the country after visiting family in China; the decision in that case secured the right of birthright citizenship for nonwhites, under the Fourteenth Amendment. America’s doors, however, would be largely closed to Chinese immigration until 1943, when the exclusion acts were finally repealed. It was not a wartime stirring of the American conscience that led to the change but a shift in geopolitics: China had joined the United States in its fight against Japan. Even then, only a tiny number of Chinese immigrants were allowed in. The quota system enacted in 1924 that favored arrivals from Northern and Western Europe was not fully lifted until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which prioritized immigrants with specialized skills along with relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Its advocates insisted that the changes would not have much effect on the nation’s ethnic makeup. In fact, they unleashed a tide of immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and set in motion a demographic transformation of the country that is still unfolding today.
About a quarter of immigrants to the United States since 1965 have been Asian, and that number is only expected to rise. I owe my American story to the opening of America’s gates. Both of my parents emigrated from Taiwan for graduate school. My twin brother and I were born in Pittsburgh, where my father had begun working as an electrical engineer. Our story is one of upward mobility. What does it mean, then, that our existence in America still often feels conditional? Once we begin to understand what anti-Asian racism has looked like throughout American history, the contradictions start to become less perplexing.
Michael Luo is the editor of newyorker.com.