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Anti-Asian Sentiment in Early 20th Century America Essays

In the wake of the Civil War and the major improvements in the lives of African Americans during Reconstruction that followed, America saw its inequitable treatment of minorities shift from African Americans to Asian immigrants. To clarify, African Americans were still subject to much racial terrorism and many civil rights abuses, but they had recently gained major legislative victories with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment in 1868 that had helped to ensure their legal citizenship and equal rights in America.
During this same time period, Asian immigration to America had begun to increase. Due to the nativist feelings that still pervaded in post-Civil War America and concerns about the labor market brought about by this new era of great immigration to our nation, Asian immigrants soon found themselves in a similar yet very different situation from the racist environment that had afflicted African Americans for so many years.
Through an examination of the immigration policies and laws that applied to Asians during the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Asiatic Barred Zone Act, and Immigration Act of 1924, it is apparent that the American public and government were only continuing and reemphasizing previously present prejudices and deep-seated racism. Legislation during this period made Asian Americans into a racial scapegoat in the presence of improved conditions for African Americans as well as a below average domestic economic circumstances.
Specifically, the U. S. government put into place laws and policies that blanketed concerns about the effects of mass immigration on the domestic labor market with xenophobic rhetoric and skewed racial justifications. During the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Asian immigrants were subject to discriminatory, racist immigration policies in the United States of America.
Beginning with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and culminating with Congress’s overwhelming passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, Asians wishing to immigrate to America faced extremely stringent immigration restrictions that severely limited or even restricted outright the number of people that could enter America annually from each individual foreign population. These limitations were obviously devastating to the Asian population that desired to move to America.
However, the discrimination and racism through which Asian immigrants suffered was nothing new in America. In essence, the laws and policies put into effect during this period of Asian exclusion were more of a continuation and stratification of previously existing discriminatory policies. Immigration Legislation The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the initial guidelines for the naturalization process by limiting the privilege to “free white persons” of “good moral character. Using this standard as a starting point, the American government would continue to reaffirm the notion that only select races and cultures were fit to become U. S. citizens by putting into place several other legal biases in order to ensure a continued white majority in the country. The reason federal legislature was able to revise these laws as well as append new immigration policies to previously existing ones so arbitrarily was simply because it was constitutional.
The constitution plainly states that Congress has the ability to determine and enact a standard for naturalization as a citizen. The broad power of the federal government with regard to immigration then is derived from its ability to completely control the entire immigration and naturalization processes as it sees fit. Another piece of legislation that would become extremely important with regard to later immigration policies and laws was the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
Ratified in July 1868 during Reconstruction (along with the 13th and 15th amendments, the three are known as a group as the Reconstruction amendments), the 14th amendment was complex in its language and would have many long-term, unforeseen effects on the future of immigration and the concept of citizenship in America. Its primary legislative objective was to ensure that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 would remain intact and efficient. The Civil Rights Act had ensured that all people born in the United States would be guaranteed “full and equal benefit of all laws. However, the 14th amendment took this idea much further and stratified the act. Citizenship was reaffirmed for all people born or naturalized in the country, regardless of race; states were given much more limited power in addressing and amending these same laws of equality for all citizens; “life, liberty, and property” were guaranteed to all as a right with the “due process of law” as the basis; and no one could be denied “equal protection of the laws. ” The major implication of the amendment with regard to Asian immigration is that African Americans were now (supposedly) guaranteed all of the aforementioned rights of the 14th mendment, but the Asian immigrants that would arrive over the next few decades would not necessarily be able to have the same freedoms since they were not born or naturalized in the U. S. Indirectly, the 14th amendment would make it easier for the United States to employ its discriminatory practices against immigrants simply because it failed to account for them and only recognized citizens as privileged to the rights the amendment guaranteed. An Era of Migration The mid-19th century saw a tremendous influx of immigration to America from all over the world.
Europeans came mainly to find employment and new opportunities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The majority of Asian immigrants and the first Asians to arrive on U. S. shores were Chinese, and their primary motivations for emigration included inefficient government and poor economic and environmental circumstances, which included flooding, overpopulation, and crop failure. The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 and the subsequent Gold Rush also contributed greatly to the increasing Chinese American population, as the plan for many Chinese became to get rich quick in America and then return to their home country.
Chinese immigrants were subject to a difficult transition to life in America due to the prejudices and discrimination they faced upon arrival and for decades after. Arriving through the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island, Angel Island in California, many Chinese immigrants worked difficult, manual labor jobs and earned very little for doing so. Starting with the gold rush, there was a consistent upward trend in Asian immigration during the 1850s, with over 1,000 immigrants entering America during 1850 and more than 35,000 about 10 years later, most of whom were Chinese.
After enduring the brutal, lengthy immigration process at Angel Island, these new immigrants were faced with a harsh reality upon their arrival in California and settlement in their new home: undesirable, low-paying jobs and anti-Chinese sentiment awaited them instead of the great wages and universal opportunity that they had expected. The term “Yellow Peril” was eventually coined to describe the upsurge in Asian immigration during this time period, as American citizens believed that this mass immigration would damage their own wages and their standards of living.
In response to the growing paranoia that affected Americans, Congress would soon put several acts and laws into effect over the course of several years in order to limit the number of people entering America from various other countries and thus to quell the concerns of the American public. By the 1920s, when the push for new, stricter immigration restrictions was reaching a peak, quotas would be set on a country-by-country basis in addition to the general immigration quota that the government had already established.
All immigrants were initially subject to similar hardships and opposition upon starting their new lives here and to the same immigration restrictions, but Chinese and Japanese immigrants would eventually be singled out and have to face somewhat irrational and relatively severe measures in comparison to other (non-Asian) countries. These laws would come from the federal, state, and even local levels, and their sole purpose would be to limit the inflow of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The Beginning of Chinese Exclusion
In 1882, Congress passed the first ever law designed to literally forbid a specific group of immigrants from entering the country based solely on their race or color, the Chinese Exclusion Act. The passage of the act meant the complete outlaw of Chinese immigration. The act also explicitly denied the Chinese their right to citizenship and naturalization, with the basis for such a measure being that they were not free whites, the rule the Naturalization Act of 1790 had previously established.
Given the already tremendous number of Chinese immigrants in America from the preceding decades, the primary motivation for the law was simply to prevent the immigration of more Chinese looking for work. There were, however, several ways around the new policies, so the act essentially just prevented almost all legal immigration instead of completely barring it; certain Chinese such as diplomats and traders were still granted entry and others entered the country illegally.
The act was initially intended to be in effect for 10 years, and only those laborers with a certificate of residency were allowed to travel outside of and return to the U. S. Amendments were made to the act in 1884, and the already rigid provisions of the law were tightened by limiting travel even more and by clarifying that the policy applied to all Chinese, regardless of their country of origin. The act was renewed twice in 1892 and 1902 and then finally repealed in 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act.
In a piece written for the Indiana Law Journal, Kevin R. Johnson begins to explain how the rampant anti-Asian sentiment of the time connects to African Americans being newly free and longer subject to the harsh social conditions they faced before Reconstruction: “Congress passed the first wave of discriminatory immigration laws not long after the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars states from denying any person equal protection of law, and other Reconstruction Amendments went into effect.
With the harshest treatment generally reserved for African Americans formally declared unlawful, the nation transferred animosity to another… racial minority whose immigration status, combined with race, made such treatment more socially acceptable and legally defensible. This issue arose in the congressional debates over ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment when a member of Congress declared that Chinese persons could be treated less favorably than African Americans because ‘[the Chinese] are foreigners and the negro is a native. ” Aside from the obvious moral blunder of simply “transferring” discrimination from one group to another, Johnson also details the racism evident in America’s Chinese exclusion laws that were basically just revised versions of slave migration laws. Such laws even passed through Congress fairly easily due to the overwhelming support for them from both Southerners and Californians. Thus, America had made a transition from African Americans to the Chinese as the dominant receptor of racial discrimination.
Perhaps “transition” is an imprecise word, but in the end, the American people had definitely become more invested in exclusion of and mistreatment of Asian immigrants now that they realized the threat such immigrants posed to an already compressed workforce. In a sense the transition wasn’t really a transition, but rather, the American people adopting a template that had previously pertained to African Americans and applying it to Asian immigrants.
Their racist discrimination had simply expanded to another group, while African Americans had begun (albeit very, very gradually) to gain more social power and standing. Hazel McFerson explains how this change was possible in her book Blacks and Asians: “Thus, racial traditions are dynamic, although only in the very long term, and can undergo evolution or involution as the result of a number of factors, including changes in a group’s political power or socio-economic interests. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan confirmed this change in attitudes in 1896 in his dissent for the case of Plessy v. Ferguson when he noted that African Americans were still able to be active politically despite segregation but that Chinese immigrants were not, since they were “a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 Prior to the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, or Immigration Act of 1917, which severely limited already stringent Asian immigration regulations and will be discussed later in this paper, the other major piece of legislation with relation to Asian exclusion was the Gentlemen’s Agreement between America and Japan, an informal agreement by which America would continue to tighten up its immigration frontiers.
Though the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement had some differences and were fundamentally different, they were similar in intention and contributed great impacts to the Asian immigrant population in America. A result of growing tensions between Japan and America as powers in the Pacific, the agreement was never officially ratified by Congress and stated that Japan would not allow any further emigration to America. The immediate cause of such an agreement was the treatment of Japanese Americans in California in the early 20th century.
The San Francisco Board of Education had announced the introduction of racially segregated schools for children of Japanese descent. Once news of such a harsh measure reached the media in Japan, an intervention was necessary on the part of the government in order to quell tensions between the country and the incensed government of Japan, which was concerned with maintaining their reputation abroad and their status as a world power.
Therefore, the agreement came about as a compromise between the two sides: Japan would agree to stop granting visas to applicants wishing to emigrate to America, effectively ending new Japanese immigration and simultaneously satisfying Japan’s desire to not have their people subjugated and America’s desire to limit immigration and the influx of new laborers. Japanese Americans already living here would be left alone, and students would be allowed to attend non-segregated, “white” public schools. This particular predicament was indirectly a byproduct of Chinese exclusion nd the larger themes at work. There was an extremely small Japanese population in America before Chinese exclusion, and from 1899 to 1903, more than 60,000 Japanese immigrants entered California, mostly due to the labor shortage in the region left by the Chinese void. There were menial, unskilled jobs available to the Japanese where Americans were unwilling to take the positions. Japanese workers were also more drawn to agricultural jobs and working and living in rural environments, making them even more attractive options to employers.
However, anti-Japanese sentiment would increase sharply as their numbers also rose and Japan’s status in the world grew. They faced similar prejudices and slanders to the Chinese, but their stereotype was more grounded in them being a sly and antagonistic people, where the Chinese were viewed as more tolerable as an inferior, subdued people. Japanese Americans were soon viewed as enemies just as Chinese Americans had been just a couple decades prior.
In an essay entitled “The Gentlemen’s Agreement: How It Has Functioned,” Japanese professor Kiyo Sue Inui postulates that the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a godsend for legislators in San Francisco, who could now justify Japanese segregation because of the number of schools that were destroyed in the earthquake. The white authority figures in the city and region had been looking for an excuse to enact such a measure for quite some time and the earthquake provided the perfect opportunity.
There were growing concerns that the Japanese (in their stereotypically perceived aggressive way of doing things) would soon overtake the white population in California. Legislators and leaders used statistically accurate but misleading figures to promote the agreement and justify their reasons for needing to exclude the Japanese from immigration. Inui refutes the several statistics one at a time and attributes the anti-Japanese sentiment to a common theme in history: “traditional fear of the minority by the majority. However, despite the discriminatory sentiments behind the agreement, Inui claims that it “served its purpose” by appeasing “two proud peoples of the Pacific for nearly two decades. ” It actually kept Japan and America both content by eliminating the need for actual (and likely inevitable) discriminatory policy from the United States by covering it up with an informal agreement, the details of which were somewhat unclear and secret to the public.
Japan would not submit to the discriminatory, racist practices of America like the Chinese before them, so the agreement was able to salvage their pride and avoid any friction with America by satisfying the U. S. ’s simple wish of restricted Japanese immigration. To a certain extent, as Inui seems to conclude as well, Japan should be commended for their actions with regard to the agreement for their efforts to promote and maintain democracy and harmony.
However, the agreement is still strong evidence of the racist tendencies of America during this era and laid a stronger foundation (in conjunction with the Chinese Exclusion Act) for the passage of the strictest immigration policies that would follow in the next two decades. The Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 The Asiatic Barred Zone Act (also known more generally as the Immigration Act of 1917) would be the next piece of major immigration legislation in America. Its passage would add a long list of “undesirables” to U. S. immigration restriction and exclusion.
The most important provisions of the law were one prohibiting entry to the country to anyone over the age of 16 who was illiterate and another establishing an “Asiatic Barred Zone. ” In other words, the act had created a set of boundaries for Eastern Asian countries and Pacific islands, and from within these boundaries, immigration to America was completely restricted. Previously, only China had been subject to such a measure (a complete ban of immigration from a country), but now, the rest of the Eastern world was subject to the same exclusionary measures from the United States, with little justification for the Asiatic Barred Zone.
Speaking In 1910, after the first attempt at adding a literacy test to the immigration process had been vetoed by President Grover Cleveland years earlier, Henry Cabot Lodge commented on the need for such a literacy test in a new immigration act: “There is a growing and constantly active demand for more restrictive legislation. This demand rests on two grounds, both equally important. One is the effect upon the quality of our citizenship caused by the rapid introduction of this vast and practically unrestricted immigration, and the other, the effect of this immigration upon rates of wages and the standard of living among our working people. Lodge’s reasoning demonstrates the two major concerns/schools of thought behind the fight for a new immigration act. For one, there was an inherent nativism and racism that accompanied nearly all discussion of immigration and its legislation. Secondly, he echoes yet again the economic concern that, too, accompanied the heated environment surrounding immigration at the time. It seems to be that the racism and discrimination that have become so characteristic of the immigration legislation from this period were sort of a “catch-all” language for people to follow.
Since it was much more difficult to justify the immigration acts of the era with economic concerns, Americans turned to xenophobia as a way of making things simpler for them. A racial hierarchy provided an easily identifiable and explainable way of justifying the policies that were being put into place by Congress. In a sense, race came to define policy-making during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were economic concerns that jobs would be stolen by the allegedly inferior peoples from foreign countries, but the fact of the matter is that these concerns received very little attention or discussion.
They would always be addressed as part of the reasoning for immigration decisions, but race and an American superiority would always remain the dominant talking point and major source of the rhetoric behind such laws. During this time, the concept of citizenship also seems to have been compromised. Despite the laws put into place in order to help smooth out the naturalization process/question of citizenship such as the 14th amendment, the idea of being a citizen of the United States seems to matter very little during the time period examined in this paper.
Citizenship had become such an arbitrary thing; it was almost as though the government had been making decisions on whims, simply changing immigration laws and their definitions of terms such as “citizen,” “equal,” etc. both illogically and without much justification. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 would exacerbate the situation by introducing even more restrictive measures. The Immigration Act of 1924/Conclusion
Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, after it’s two primary legislative architects, Walter Johnson and David Reed, the Immigration Act of 1924 set an immigration quota for all foreign nations at 2% of whatever that country’s American population was during the 1890 census. This restriction would place the annual immigration ceiling at about 150,000 total people. The act focused on excluding Europeans from migration more so than ever before, but naturally, it also reinforced the provisions of previous anti-Asian policies.
The repeated attempts by American legislators to exclude and restrict Asians from immigrating to America is a clear sign of the xenophobia and prevailing fear of Asians in America. A racial scapegoat was needed while African Americans were receiving opportunities to improve their lives and social standing, although with gradual steps. Asian immigrants represented a fear of the foreign and unknown to Americans, and previously existing racial stigmas showed themselves in the actual manifestation of racist tendencies and laws.
More importantly, the influx of Asian immigration to America represented a threat to the labor force of America, which was already compressed and in a state of endangerment. Discrimination against Asian immigrants through racist policies and laws in post-Reconstruction America was then the appearance of a racial frontier that America was already accustomed to as a way of justifying a superiority complex and preserving its own domestic concerns regarding labor and the simple unknown.

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