Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Never leave your children with them, especially little girls": Chinese Workers and Racism in the Late 19th Century West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below if a description of the racism and violence faced by Chinese workers in the late 19th century West.

Perhaps no group inspired greater nativist panic within the Anglo community in the West than Chinese immigrants. Dangerous railroad construction depended heavily on low-wage Chinese workers, buffeted on one side by the resentment of Anglo workers and on the other side by the exploitation of bosses who kept their wages low with the threat of deportation. Between 1850 and 1880, the Chinese population in the United States grew from 7,520 to 105,465, a 15-fold increase. By the 1870s, the Chinese represented 8.6 percent of the total population of California, and 25 percent of California workers were born in China.

Only 5 percent of Chinese immigrants were women. Railroad companies at times purchased Chinese women who were used as prostitutes servicing the male workers. Chinese labor built the particularly difficult Sierra Nevada portion of the first transcontinental line, a project that resulted in thousands of workers’ deaths. Toward the end of the 19th century, Chinese men worked not only in railroad construction, but also as domestic servants, in textile and shoe manufacturing, and in cigar factories.

Companies hiring the Chinese happily played a game of divide and conquer with Anglo workers and their Asian peers. The press published stories accusing Chinese men of forcing white women into prostitution and cheating white customers at Chinese-owned businesses. Workers simmered with anger at the use of Chinese immigrants as replacement workers, which allowed employers to stymie white-run unions’ demands for higher wages. Adding fuel to the anti-Chinese fire, popular magazines and newspapers printed stories accusing Chinese men of being sexual predators. “No matter how good a Chinaman may be, ladies never leave your children with them, especially little girls,” Scribner’s Monthly warned. Not surprisingly in this atmosphere, violence against the Chinese became pandemic in California and other Western states.

Whites savagely beat Chinese residents in Eureka, Truckee, and other California towns. In 1871 in Los Angeles, Anglo mobs murdered twenty-one Chinese immigrants, while in 1885 whites in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killed twenty-eight and wounded fifteen in a Chinese neighborhood. White workers battled to end Chinese immigration to the United States. Cigars made by whites in California bore a “union label” signifying that no Chinese worker had been involved in the manufacture of the product. In San Francisco, the home of the nation’s largest Chinese population, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney formed the Workingman’s Party in 1878, its platform proclaiming, “Treason is better than to labor beside a Chinese slave.” In spite of worker unrest, crews completed five transcontinental rail lines between 1869 and 1893.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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