Immigration and Racial Prejudice: The Chinese Exclusion Act


‘A Matter of Taste’ by Thomas Nast, 15 March, 1879

On the 15th of March 1879, Thomas Nast’s cartoon, A Matter of Taste, was published. In the cartoon, criticising the support of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Senator James G. Blaine, an active backer of the Act, is shown dining in ‘Kearney’s Senatorial Restaurant’ – a reference to Denis Kearney, the leader of a violent anti-Chinese movement in California. In the foreground of the picture, John Confucius – Nast’s variant of a stock caricature of a Chinese labourer commonly referred to as John Chinaman, poses a question, “How can Christians stomach such diet?”. The simplicity of the cartoon is striking, yet its message powerful. But such was the style of Thomas Nast, well known for his political cartoons and political convictions. He opposed slavery, racial segregation, and deplored the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. He was also among the few editorial artists who stood against the exclusion of the Chinese from America.

The first significant Chinese immigration to America fell between 1848 and 1855 during the California Gold Rush. Successively, such big construction projects as, for example, the First Transcontinental Railroad, attracted even more work force from across the Pacific. Initially, the Chinese were tolerated in the relatively new American nation, formed of immigrants itself. However, once gold became harder to find and the railroad was completed, the Chinese were forced to move into cities and merge with the White part of the population. And that is when the frictions and animosities began. “The Panic of 1873 provided evidence that mild hostility toward a foreign people could escalate into outright violence when an economy soured and people were in fear of losing their jobs. This violence only increased as orators like Denis (Dennis) Kearney and politician John Bigler aroused the emotions of unemployed White Americans who needed a villain toward whom they could direct their hostilities.” (John Seonnichsen, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).

71WuWMNh2CL._SL1360_Kearey, an Irish immigrant, began a fiery campaign against the Chinese. His radical speeches, each of which ended with a simple yet very clear statement, “The Chinese Must Go!”, not only attracted crowds, but spurred them to take action. In his 1878 speech, he said: “To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China – the greatest and oldest despotism in the world – for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth – the Chinese coolie – and imports him here to meet the free American in the labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and poor, sill further to degrade white labor. These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They lodge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.” (Seonnichsen).  

Another spokesperson for those in favour of the discrimination of the Chinese was Senator James G. Blaine. “Ought we to exclude them?” was his question on the 14th of February 1879, to which he replied: “The question lies in my mind thus: either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it.” (Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act). From these few words, Blaine appeared to be not only arrogant but also ignorant; his speeches were filled with strong racial prejudice. “In a widely reprinted letter to the New York Tribune…, he elaborated his position, calling Chinese immigration “vicious,” “odious,” “abominable,” “dangerous,” and “revolting… If as a nation we have the right to keep out infectious diseases,if we have the right to exclude the criminal classes from coming to us, we surely have the right to exclude9780807847398_p0_v1_s260x420 that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without plenteously sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death,” Leaving no doubt as to where he stood, the Maine Republican concluded, “I am opposed to the Chinese coming here; I am opposed to making them citizens; I am opposed to making them voters.”

In effect of these and similar actions, the Chinese Exclusion Act was introduced in 1882, proscribing, for the first time in American history, entry of an ethnic working group on the territory of the United States. The Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943, when China had become an ally of the United States against Japan in World War II. Ironically, the war based on major racial prejudice opened American borders to the Chinese immigrants.