The Anti-Asian Roots of Today’s Anti-Immigrant Politics

The Anti-Asian Roots of Today’s Anti-Immigrant Politics

The Anti-Asian Roots of Today’s Anti-Immigrant Politics

Long before Trump, politicians on the country’s West Coast mobilized a white working-class base through violent hate of Chinese and Japanese immigrants.


On Sunday, December 16, 1877, most likely after darkness set in, a man named Hing Kee was murdered in his bed in the lumber mill town of Port Madison in the Washington Territory. His assailant slit his throat and slashed his face and fingers “with some sharp instrument,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer surmised, “like an ax or a cleaver.” One blow was so forceful it hacked through his skull.

We know little else about Hing Kee: how old he was, what he had done that day, who his family was, and whether they grieved. There was no picture of him in the paper, just three single-paragraph reports, the longest of which was devoted to the mill’s rather revealing (and suspect) statement that neither Hing Kee nor any “Chinamen” had been in its employ in the past two years. Days after Hing Kee was murdered, the housing for Chinese laborers, where he had lived, was set ablaze, and the superintendent of the mill ordered its inhabitants to leave.

Given these clues, it would seem that Hing Kee’s murder was not random. It was but one assault in a nearly 100-year campaign of brutal anti-Asian violence and bigotry on the West Coast. In all likelihood, Hing Kee was murdered not because of anything he did but because of what he represented to white men in the Pacific Northwest—and, as the Princeton historian Beth Lew-Williams noted in her book The Chinese Must Go, the gory message it would send to others like him.

Anti-immigrant bias has long been exploited for political gain. In colonial America, “swarthy” German immigrants were the targets of animus from British settlers. Later, the distinctively vicious Know-Nothing or American Party, beat and shot German and Irish Catholic Americans—who were believed to be criminal and papist elements infiltrating the country—at polling places during elections. But it was the anti-Asian movement, along with the oppression of Indigenous and Black Americans, that helped unify previously fractured European immigrant groups, binding them together in a cross-class identity of whiteness and inventing the entirely new and racialized concept of the “illegal immigrant.”

Major events like the Chinese massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 are often presented as isolated instances. But they were just the peaks in a century-long pattern of organized white terror that presaged this past year’s cataclysm of anti-Asian menacing and violence as well as Donald Trump’s virulently anti-immigrant 2016 presidential campaign. While Asian exclusion was broadly popular, politicians and labor leaders employed it for the specific purpose of winning over working-class whites and elevating their status in the American racial hierarchy; in the process, they helped redefine white European settlers as “native” compared with invasive Asians, appropriating Indigenous Americans’ historical stature along with their land. And while this strategy was a distinctly regional one at first, ruthlessly operationalized in the West, its adherents were successful in forcing it into mainstream national politics.

The Western strategy, as I call it, was a distinct but reinforcing immigrant corollary to the Southern strategy (both the ethos of the post-Reconstruction South and, later, the explicit program of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon). It was crystallized in California, Washington, and Oregon as they entered statehood and as Jim Crow laws swept the South. If the Southern strategy pursued pure political power in its first iteration and later brought about party realignment by stoking white racial animus toward Black people, aided by propaganda of Black criminality and inferiority and abetted by policies of segregation, degradation, and voter suppression, the Western strategy achieved bipartisan agreement by whipping up resentment toward Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, aided by propaganda of foreign invaders who could never be assimilated and abetted by policies of race-based exclusion.

This tool kit of fear-mongering propaganda, threats of violent removal, and exclusionary policy prescriptions—readily mobilized against any unlucky chosen immigrant group as a way to drum up white votes—has endured. It was one that Trump cannily wielded for his inaugural run in 2015: The real-estate mogul had been fairly pro-immigrant until 2014, when his political advisors identified what would become a central campaign message after listening to what one described as “thousands of hours of talk radio” and finding that the Republican base was rabid about “illegal” immigration

Armed with this insight, Trump tapped into what the political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University has called a “reservoir” of relatively stable anti-immigrant sentiment that can be dormant or activated depending on the messaging. And the depths of that reservoir of anti-immigrant sentiment may very well have been carved out in the 19th-century West.

Drive all the Chinamen out of San Francisco!” declared the charismatic labor leader Denis Kearney before a rapt audience in 1877, the year Hing Kee was murdered. An immigrant himself, born in Ireland, Kearney gave a series of anti-Chinese speeches in the sand lots outside San Francisco’s City Hall, drawing crowds of up to a couple thousand. He established the Workingmen’s Party of California that year, which had its own Trumpian motto: “The Chinese must go!”

Kearney wasn’t unique in using anti-Chinese fervor to whip up a crowd for political ends. There were “anti-coolie clubs” in every ward of San Francisco, and farther afield too, that advocated for protecting “free white labor” from the “degrading and debasing influence” of Chinese labor. In the 1880s, the firebrand organizer Daniel Cronin, of the Knights of Labor, called the Chinese question “useful for agitation and education.”

More than 130 years later, Trump would put that kind of rhetoric to similarly effective use, this time primarily against migrants from Mexico and Central America. “If it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving,” he told The New York Times. “I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

Like Trump, who employed migrants in his hotels while condemning them as an invasive threat, some in the 1800s pivoted between decrying Chinese laborers and profiting from them. California’s Republican governor Leland Stanford railed against the “dregs” of Asia’s “numberless millions” in his 1862 inaugural address but later, as the president of the Central Pacific Railroad, praised Chinese labor as essential to completing the national railways. California’s various political parties—Democrats, Republicans, Populists, Socialists, and so forth—were united in their anti-Chinese platforms.

Chinese immigrants had begun arriving in the United States in the mid-19th century. They were among the approximately 100,000 mostly male immigrants in 1849 who chased the gold rush to boom-times California. By 1870, they had established themselves as 25 percent of the labor base in California (at the time, only 40 percent of the state’s residents were U.S.-born). White immigrants never fully accepted their Chinese counterparts, excluding them from the conception of the working class early on. Chinese workers were derided as “heathen coolies,” a stereotype of slavish and non-Christian laborers. Like new immigrant groups before them, they took the unwanted jobs, working in the low-yield diggings abandoned by white miners or at placer and hard-rock mine encampments. There they were confined to narrowly prescribed occupations, taking on the lowly duties often considered women’s work, like cooking and washing—what the historian Alexander Saxton called in Indispensable Enemy a “pattern of mingled acceptance and exclusion.” It’s a description that may sound familiar to Asian American workers today.

As white laborers abandoned the Central Pacific Railroad for new mining prospects in the mid-1860s, construction managers were forced to recruit Chinese workers, who were previously derided as too weak. As a result, 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese—accounting for almost 90 percent of the industry’s workforce—took on the uncommonly dangerous work of blasting through miles of solid granite and tunneling through mountains, often getting buried alive in avalanches. They finished the line seven years earlier than Congress had expected, but when skilled Chinese workers were released into a contracting economy and started making gains in desirable industries like cigar making, a white backlash swiftly ensued.

Manufacturers occasionally brought in Chinese workers to break strikes, but when Chinese workers did strike for higher wages and improved conditions, they were not welcomed into the white labor movement, unlike the Irish, who had also once been accused of lowering wages. In 1876, the Workingmen’s Party of California crowed, “Treason is better than to labor beside a Chinese slave.”

Dehumanizing Chinese immigrants as simultaneously servile, vicious, effeminate, and filthy, white laborers in the West constructed an identity of working-class masculinity—noble, brave, and strapping—as well as of Christian rectitude and godliness. This vilification also helped elevate the status of Irish and German immigrants, and later other “inferior” Europeans, under the unifying identity of non-Chinese. In a 1902 pamphlet advocating Chinese exclusion, Samuel Gompers, the British immigrant president of the American Federation of Labor, positioned the struggle as “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism: Which Will Survive?”

Hatred of the Chinese worker as an unassimilable and existential threat was fueled by white politicians, labor groups, and popular media. Newspapers produced editorials and dubious news reports portraying Chinese immigrants as an invasive swarm; cartoons caricatured them as a deviant and criminal menace; and books like Last Days of the Republic (1880) by Pierton W. Dooner depicted them as the death of a “free white republic.” Anti-Asian propaganda sold—and it sold well.

This environment of contempt also engendered violence. Five months before Hing Kee was hacked to death in Port Madison, white workers waged a three-day pogrom in San Francisco’s Chinatown, beating Chinese immigrants, murdering four, and burning down 20 laundromats. More than a century later, in 2020, political propaganda, like the Republican catchphrases “China virus” and “kung flu,” reignited old tropes of plague and treachery, and along with them came acts of violence.

One of the most pivotal events was the Tacoma massacre of 1885, in which city leaders proposed a deadline for the Chinese to leave the city, and a screaming mob that included business and civic leaders and police officers descended on the Chinese community, dragging people from their homes by their hair, forcing them to board trains, and razing their homes and businesses. This premeditated expulsion became known as the “Tacoma method” and helped normalize the strategy of terror against Asians. Vigilantes planted bombs, shot into work-camp tents, burned down residences, and posed for a picture next to a lynching.

Until the late 1800s, borders between the United States and its neighbors were porous: Passports were not required for entry, and there was no federal border patrol. Immigration was largely left up to the states. In California, the legislature spent much of its energy concocting ways to exclude and profit off the Chinese. Chinese miners paid the bulk of a “foreign miners” tax, a major source of state revenue, which carved out exceptions for white immigrants; Chinese children were segregated in the public schools; and “inferior” Chinese, along with Indigenous and Black Americans, were barred from testifying in court cases involving white people by a statute that California adapted from the Southern slave codes.

Some policies were thinly veiled in their aims, while others were cartoonishly explicit, like the 1862 Anti-Coolie Act, which announced its purpose as “to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition With Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese Into the State of California.” In 1876, a Joint Special Committee of the California State Senate produced the 165-page “Address to the People of the United States Upon the Evils of Chinese Immigration.”

While immigration remained outside strict federal control, Congress was defining citizenship, using race as a qualification. The Naturalization Act of 1790 accorded citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person”; it was amended in 1870, during Reconstruction, to include anyone of African descent. The first two major federal laws restricting immigration, the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were aimed at the Chinese alone, birthing the legal and social concept of the illegal immigrant.

The Exclusion Act also helped transform the United States into “the first gatekeeping nation,” as the historian Erika Lee argues in America for Americans, restricting immigration as a national security threat and launching a surveillance system to track a group of targeted immigrants. It required all Chinese laborers who wished to travel abroad to apply for and present “certificates of registration,” with information proving their residency, presaging later “show me your papers” laws. No other immigrants were required to do so. Chinese Americans fought back, hiring lawyers and resisting discriminatory ordinances, but the act wouldn’t be repealed for 61 years, when another immigrant group—the Japanese—was forced into the role of enemy alien.

Like the Chinese issue in the seventies, [anti-Japanese agitation] has been part of the stock in trade of every California politician for the last two decades,” wrote then–Nation editor Carey McWilliams in the 1935 article “Once Again the ‘Yellow Peril.’” US Senator James D. Phelan, for instance, ran for reelection in 1920 urging voters to save their state from “oriental aggression,” under the slogan “Keep California White.” Phelan’s campaign poster highlighted dubious statistics about the amount of land owned by Japanese immigrants and their supposed high birth rates. Earl Warren, later chief justice of the Supreme Court, carved a smooth career path for himself from California attorney general to governor while arguing in 1943 against civil liberties for Japanese Americans (“We don’t propose to have the Japs back in California”). The few politicians who dared to appeal to American ideals in defense of the rights of Asian immigrants were swiftly punished by the ubiquitous anti-Asian groups.

Japanese immigrants started coming to the mainland United States, often through Hawaii, in the late 1800s, with organized violence following them; a white mob that called itself the Industrial Army drove Japanese farm laborers from the Vaca Valley in the 1890s. Many Japanese immigrants came from farming communities, and since Japan had advanced cultivation at the time, they were particularly proficient at it. They would acquire cheap, unwanted land and make it profitable with superior knowledge of soil, fertilizers, irrigation, and land reclamation. (They also worked in the California fishing industry, revolutionizing it with deep-sea fishing, using gasoline-driven vessels, and developing new types of nets.)

Japanese American farmers typically chose quick-growth crops that required little capital investment, and they built efficient farm operations. In 1940, shortly before America’s entry into World War II, according to Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the average value of a California farm was $37.94 per acre, while that of a Japanese farm was $279.96.

Success begat white jealousy. White farmers complained that the Japanese, who had been relegated to inferior plots, were snatching up all the good land. Employers groused, as McWilliams once put it, of “the saucy, debonair Jap, who would like to do all his work in a starched white shirt with cuffs and collar accompaniments,” and one newspaper complained that the Japanese “have no scruples in striking for higher wages.” The uppity Jap, once vilified for supposedly lowering labor standards, apparently didn’t know his place. This white angst dovetailed with domestic anxiety about the rise of Japan as a global power. American attitudes toward a country’s stature have often materialized as negative projections on immigrant populations.

The perceived threat to the status of white men—and to a white republic—was met early on by widespread activism. In May 1905, delegates from 67 labor, fraternal, and political organizations gathered to form the Japanese-Korean Exclusion League (later called the Asiatic Exclusion League). Within three years, it boasted more than 100,000 members from 238 affiliated groups, primarily labor unions; many of its leaders, unsurprisingly, were European immigrants, including Norway-born Andrew Furuseth, of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, and Ireland-born Patrick H. McCarthy, general president of the Building Trades Council of San Francisco.

California had revised its constitution in 1879 to limit landownership to people of the “white race or of African descent.” The state passed the Alien Land Act in 1913, forbidding “aliens ineligible for citizenship”—essentially targeting Asian immigrants without naming them—from purchasing agricultural land, and at least 14 states adopted similar laws. But Japanese Americans circumvented the laws—ruled unconstitutional in 1952—by buying land in their children’s names.

The California legislature was relentless in its harassment of Japanese immigrants, attempting to segregate Japanese schoolchildren, strike Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) from voting lists, chase them from industries like fishing, and require an ever more elaborate system of registration to navigate. Like the anti-Chinese activists before them, anti-Japanese activists were successful in promoting these regional policies to the federal level: The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively banned Japanese immigration while dramatically limiting immigration from eastern and southern Europe. (The Immigration Restriction League, formed by academics, lawyers, and other elites in 1894, pushed scientific racism distinguishing classes of inferior whites, like Jews, whom eugenicist and IRL cofounder Prescott Hall disparaged as “an Asiatic race.”)

Japanese immigration, which peaked in 1907, was sharply curtailed by several earlier laws restricting Asians to less than 3 percent of the immigration to the United States. Nevertheless, popular media hyped a Japanese invasion. In 1920, the same year Phelan ran his “Keep California White” campaign, eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard published The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy, which warned that the “brown and yellow peoples of Asia” would subjugate white lands and swamp whole populations and advocated restricting non-white immigration. The San Francisco Chronicle, among other newspapers, featured incendiary and outlandish articles, such as a 1905 series with headlines like “Brown Men Are Made Citizens Illegally” and captions like “Japanese a Menace to American Women.”

As with the Chinese immigrants before them, California’s Japanese Americans became the subject of preposterous conspiracy theories: that they used human feces on their crops; that they operated opium rings; and later that their tuna-fishing boats were spy ships. In 1906, police documented nearly 300 attacks by marauding white mobs on Japanese Americans in San Francisco alone. They did nothing to help.

It was in this climate—shaped by 90 years of vicious propaganda and normalized violence—that Executive Order 9066, directing the incarceration of Japanese Americans without charges, was issued on February 19, 1942. The internment is often blamed on wartime hysteria following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. This is a half-truth, at best. At the time, a public opinion poll carried out by the Office of Facts and Figures in the Office for Emergency Management found that 46 percent of Americans considered Germans the most dangerous immigrant group, versus only 35 percent for the Japanese. But German residents were never interned en masse, nor were Italians—keeping with a pattern that allowed bigotry against white groups to die out while institutionalizing and promoting it against Asians.

On the mainland, 120,000 Japanese Americans, of whom two-thirds were US-born, were swiftly rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. But the 158,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii, the actual location of the attack, were largely left alone. If there had been a military necessity arising out of a threat of sabotage, then Hawaii, where more than one-third of the population was of Japanese descent, would certainly have been more vulnerable than California, where less than 2 percent of the population was of Japanese descent. The difference was that Hawaii was more diverse and racially tolerant than the West Coast, where anti-Asian agitation had been a dominant force in politics for almost a century.

As the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association put it in the Saturday Evening Post:

We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man. They came into this valley to work, and they started to take over…. If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.

The politics behind the internment was no secret. Two days before Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order, Attorney General Francis Biddle sent him a memo, writing: “A great many of the West Coast people distrust the Japanese, various special interests would welcome their removal from good farm land and the elimination of their competition….” In 1940, Roosevelt had ordered an investigation into the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The resulting Munson Report was delivered to him one month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it concluded that Japanese Americans were loyal and posed little threat: “There is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the Coast.”

Even after Pearl Harbor, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI agreed that Japan did not rely on Japanese Americans for sabotage. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as the Justice Department, did not think there was a case to justify mass forced removal for security reasons. The military governor of Hawaii, Gen. Delos Emmons, also argued against the War Department’s push for removal. Taking a different view entirely was Gen. John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command, who wrote his own report on the danger posed by Japanese Americans, riddled with easily disprovable conspiracy theories. “A Jap’s a Jap,” he remarked. “It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”

After Roosevelt signed the executive order, vulturous white citizens quickly circled the homes of Japanese Americans to offer them insultingly low prices for the goods they could not take with them. The camps themselves were inhospitable. Japanese Americans were forced to sleep in horse stalls at Santa Anita, a race track turned temporary detention facility. Others were sent to areas with harsh conditions: punishingly high or low temperatures, dust storms blowing through shoddily built frames, or mosquito-ridden swamps.

Even so, one of the most persistent rumors about the internees was that they were living in “luxurious ease”—feasting on butter and coffee, causing meat shortages, as well consuming an implausible “five gallons of whiskey per person,” according to one false press report. In fact, the food allowance was 45 cents per person per day. When a Presbyterian group started a collection for Christmas gifts for the children in the camps, angry white citizens wrote letters to newspapers, one suggesting that every person contributing should “have his or her name published so that all loyal Americans may know who these Jap sympathizers are.” The complaint of “coddling” imprisoned Japanese Americans was a frequent obsession among white citizens. This kind of paranoid resentment is echoed today by those who believe that “illegal” immigrants are taking benefits unavailable to them.

The cost of catering to the insatiable resentment of West Coast whites was high. In addition to degrading the ideals of due process and individual freedom, the American government took a once self-sufficient population and wasted $80 million building relocation centers for it, as well as paying for travel, food, and staffing—and, more than 40 years later, reparations. Despite their promises, white agricultural groups failed to replace the output of Japanese American farmers, who had been set to produce 30 to 40 percent of California’s truck crops (vegetables and fruits) in 1942, causing chaos in the agricultural markets. Food shortages were so severe that the federal government encouraged citizens to plant “victory gardens,” and some states worked with the War Relocation Authority for a seasonal release program so that Japanese Americans, apparently not so dangerous after all, could harvest their crops. “If it had not been for Japanese labor,” reported the Desert News, “much of the best crop in Utah and Idaho would have had to be plowed up.” For its part, California refused to use the internees as agricultural labor, instead pressuring the federal government to import 30,000 Mexican nationals.

By May 1944, Secretary of State Henry Stimson argued to Roosevelt and his cabinet that the internment no longer had a military justification—as if it ever did. Like Trump and so many other politicians keyed in on frothing anti-immigrant white voters, Roosevelt made a political calculation: He refused to release the Japanese Americans until after the presidential election that November.

Today many leftists believe there is a simple solution to the Trump phenomenon. Some point to Franklin Roosevelt, who they claim won elections entirely on the popularity of his ultra-progressive policy platform and contend that if only contemporary Democrats adopted a more worker-oriented agenda—nothing more—they could persuade enough non-college-educated whites to flip back to the party. In his most recent book, The People, No, Thomas Frank, the patron saint of the race-dismissive white left, writes, “Populism, rightly understood, is what allowed Roosevelt to win four presidential elections…; it is what gave Democrats such a solid majority in the House of Representatives.” Likewise, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Marxist economist Richard D. Wolff, and others have darkly warned that the failure to enact progressive economic policies will “create another Trump.”

But to draw parallels between today’s politics and Roosevelt’s successes, claiming that New Deal–style policies will simply wash away racial animus, is negligent; it fails to contend with the “Mexicans,” so to speak, of the era—the Japanese immigrant farmers and their antecedents, Chinese migrant laborers—and the way white politicians, labor groups, and media entities collaborated to, in today’s parlance, “build that wall.” Early West Coast labor leaders certainly never believed that their policies were motivating enough to move voters on their own, instead relying on anti-Asian vitriol to bond adherents into a white-identity movement.

As the United States emerges from one of the greatest employment crises in a century, Roosevelt’s progressive economic platform is salient once again, and for good reason. Today, the need to enact ambitious economic programs is compelling on its own merits. To justify these programs with the specious argument that taking care of white Americans’ material interests will miraculously displace a well-tended reservoir of anti-immigrant sentiment is borne out neither in contemporary political science data nor in history.

After all, nine years after the enactment of the New Deal, Japanese Americans found no such relief from California’s white mob and their powerful representatives. Much as we wish it otherwise, it was the New Dealer Roosevelt who was far more effective than Trump in enacting an extremist program of race-based exclusion to cater to white animus.

The effort to disappear Asians from the American imagination, including among our working-class heroes, has been an effective project. The Chinese laborers who built nearly 700 miles of transcontinental railroad were excluded from the photo commemorating its completion; Japanese Americans were erased from the pantheon of US agriculture. A true multiracial working-class movement owes more than that to the memory of the country’s great Asian laborers: miners and construction workers, railroad laborers and cigar makers, cooks and house servants, farmers and fishermen. At a minimum, it owes logger Hing Kee and others like him, as well as the countless Asian laborers who agitated for better working conditions, the dignity of the truth.

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