On the shores of Commencement Bay in Tacoma is a little park. Its official name is the Chinese Reconciliation Park. It was opened in 2010 to acknowledge the expulsion, in November 1885, of all 800 Chinese residents from Tacoma.
The context of this action was the racist anti-Oriental hysteria in the western U.S. that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 resulting in the ban on any immigration from China. However the anti-immigrant hatred didn’t stop with that Act. In fact it only fanned the wave of violent assaults on Chinese workers. In Sept. 1885, a mob of white miners in Rock Springs Wyoming murdered 28 of their Chinese coworkers and forced the rest of the residents of Rock Springs’ Chinatown to flee into the surrounding hills. There were dozens of these violent assaults from California to Idaho.
Most of these attacks were ‘spontaneous’ acts fueled by liquor and the violent standards of the ‘Wild West’. In Tacoma it was different. Here the Mayor held public meetings where public officials planned out how to ‘peacefully’ expel 800 of his citizens. A Committee of 15 drew up the plan, which later became known as’ the Tacoma Method’. It involved a public campaign for white businesses to fire any Oriental workers, for notices to be posted informing the Chinese residents they must leave by Nov. 1st. and for squads of armed men to go from door to door delivering the message ‘Chinese must go’ personally. By the deadline all but 200 people had fled. On Nov 3, a force of 1,000 armed vigilantes, including the Mayor and Chief of Police, broke down doors and dragged out those remaining and marched them to a train station. There they were put on trains out of town. The next day all of Chinatown was burned to the ground. Three people died from exposure and a number were beaten but the Committee of 15 insisted their actions were peaceful. As in Rock Springs, no one was ever convicted.
In Canada the racism toward the Chinese immigrants was just as bad but we acted later and we were a little less violent. A head tax on all Chinese immigrants was initiated in 1885. By 1903 it had gone up from $50 to $500. In 1923 all immigration from China was banned. In Vancouver a demonstration organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League on Sept 8th 1907 turned into an attack on both Chinatown and Little Tokyo. Fortunately no one was killed but the terror felt by the residents was very real.
Views of white superiority were widely held. Agnes C. Laut, a respected journalist was sent to BC in 1912 by the editors of Saturday Night magazine for “A Study of British Columbia’s Labor and Oriental Problems.’ She begins “Theoretically the Asiatic should have the same liberty to come and go with us as we have with him. Theoretically also the colored man should be as clean and upright and free-and-equal as the white man but practically – in an anguish that has caused the South blood and tears-practically he isn’t. Your theory does not work out. Neither does it with the Asiatic.”
Reading about this period one is struck by the number of writers, whether by context or by apology or in some cases citing “justification”, who state that their racism was due to hard times, by competition for scarce jobs or for the ‘fact’ Asian immigrants would work for less. Also most disturbing was how complicit early unions, especially the Knights of Labour, were in rousing racist attitudes and organizing working groups like the Asiatic Exclusion League. Even here in Cumberland white miners sought to keep Chinese and Japanese workers out of the coal mines.
When closely examined, many of these rationales are, just that, rationales. Immigrants from Asia faced discrimination and violence from the time they first stepped off the boat, whether in good times or bad. We are talking of the period from 1850’s to 1920’s. While the economy went through periods of boom and bust the one constant in that period was racism toward Asians. Depressions and recessions may have exacerbated tensions in certain places or times, however too many workers were too willing to jettison the idea of solidarity. As for Asians’ willingness to work for lower wages it is actual fact that the racism and unwillingness of white workers and some early union leaders to include them in unions allowed the employers to exploit them.
That was 100 years ago. We are told racism is dead or at least driven from polite society. In Canada we have made substantial progress though we have considerable way to go in our relationships with the First Nations people.
However the whole Drumpf farce in the US is troubling because it echoes so much of the racism of our past and because so many of his supporters appear to be the same white working class as the people of Rock Springs and Tacoma of 1885. Their racism is excused by the fact many of them have suffered and continued to suffer in an incredibly unequal and dysfunctional society that has been created by the very billionaires like Donald Drumpf. Instead of seeking common ground with blacks and Latinos who have suffered far longer and far worse, they seek out scapegoats in ‘the Other’ whether it be Mexican or Muslim immigrants.
One of the encouraging aspects is that no longer are unions aiding and abetting this racism. Unions have learned the lessons about ‘divide and rule’. In fact unions are one of the leading forces against racism and many have affirmative action within the union structures and negotiate clauses on how to combat racism on the work floor.
The AFL-CIO and almost all their affiliated unions are also working to defeat Drumpf. They agree with Drumpf’s seeming rejection of recent trade deals and the outsourcing of jobs but the unions know who to go after for those decisions and it is not Mexicans, Muslims or Asiatic immigrants.
For a good overview of Chinese immigration to North America pick up a copy of ‘Escape to Gold Mountain’ by David H. T. Wong at the Cumberland Museum.