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above: Workingmen’s Party rally at the sand lots near the old City Hall in San Francisco in 1877 (Library of Congress)

Sins of Omission

The Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1882 congress took steps to control Chinese immigration with the passage of “An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese.” The act later became known misleadingly as the Chinese Exclusion Act. In high schools and colleges it’s taught that the act was simply another example of American racism. 

The real story is more complex, requiring (among other things) some understanding of the economic impact of Chinese laborers on the wages of American workingmen in California in the mid-19th century. That level of scholarship is evidently too much for educators today. 

The first Chinese arrived with the Gold Rush in 1849 and continued to pour into California throughout the 1850s and ’60s. From the start they were set apart not only by their racial and cultural characteristics, but also by their goals. The Chinese did not seek permanent residency and Americanization like other immigrants. Instead, they wanted only to sojourn in California, earn money, and return to China.

Chinese emigration was a consequence of overpopulation, famine, and political chaos in China, especially in the Pearl River Delta region, which includes the cities of Canton and Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of young men sought opportunity overseas. Hong Kong was the port of departure.

Immigration to California followed a pattern established more than a half century earlier, when three types of Chinese emigrants...

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