Pacific Postcards

The Economics of Chinese Exclusion (Blake Kenner)

Among so many tragedies of Pacific history, the Chinese Exclusion Act is a stain on our country’s past that haunts us in the same light as Japanese internment and Native and African slavery. In name alone it is easy to paint them as a product of racism, an attempt by whites to maintain their ethnic majority in the United States, and Gordon Chang does just that in his Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective. Left out of this piece is the other side of Chinese Exclusion, a much more logical explanation, and a topic of political debate that still exists to this day. This other side is focused on the people and businesses of California who enjoyed the company of the Chinese, but found this the last way to stay afloat and provide for their families, even at the detriment of others. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a result of time evolution and failure of attempted economic exploitation, not fear of an impending racial divide. Not in pursuit of maintenance of white supremacy, but maintenance of an economy. A product of attempting “America First” economic policy with no moral obstacles in the way, we proved once again our willingness to throw entire groups of people under the bus with no heartfelt words, but it is important to see the other factors at play besides a blatant race war. As shown in Chang’s own writing along with a piece in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union from just a week after the passing of the act, positive sentiment towards the Chinese in decades preceding the Exclusion Act and the economic changes that coincided with their arrival prove a large if not majority factor in their existence that is very much left out of Chang’s concluding remarks. 

Like many situations we have studied, from beach modernization to the native fur trade, Americans are perfectly happy working with all walks of people until we have a reason to put them down for our own gain, and this situation is no different. The desire for economic and political success outweighed their moral contradiction with other races. In the beginning, the Chinese were welcomed with open arms culturally and celebrated by the people of California for their assistance in their economic prosperity. In a confidential 400 page study sent to Washington about the Chinese impact on California and its people, the author “saluted their presence in California in most enthusiastic terms” (Chang 31). They stayed to themselves in their own towns, provided labor for startups and small, white run gold mining operations. They boosted up the California economy while taking little in return. A prominent businessman and partner of Leland Stanford “suggested that California would be all the better if a half million more Chinese came over and entered the state in 1868” (Chang 31). This same idea is what came back to haunt them in the form of the Exclusion Act when that same economy took a turn for the worse. 

As his history approaches 1882, the year when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and put into law, Chang’s argument shifts from one focused on the positive economic impact of the Chinese to solely the negative social connotations that followed them as the job markets of California changed. Chang’s paper however does touch on a lot of important points around the scale of Chinese immigration into California, the reasons they came, and how they were treated. This side of the argument is important to recognize, because with “one hundred to two hundred Chinese were on every steamship arriving in San Francisco”, and many of them being indebted workers, the harsh treatment they faced and the tough jobs they were given speak to the relative importance that Americans placed on their well-being (Chang 38). There is no arguing that many Americans of this time were racist, barely on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation and still decades before another Asian race based disaster that came during World War II, but to attribute all actions taken in regards to Chinese at the time to this racism is leaving out important details that define the history of the time and disregard issues in policy that persist even to this day. An obvious change in attitudes just years after widespread acceptance leads much more to race being an easy lens to look back through or a partial excuse to push through policy than the actual race being an issue in the first place. The fact that this was an acceptable part of legislation in itself says and proves a lot about the racial ideologies of the time and how widespread, ingrained, and “normal” racism was. Just because this racism exists does not mean it is the only driving factor for any of the legislation based around it, and that is where Chang’s argument fails. 

The same hard working and low demanding attitudes that won the Chinese praise from middle class Californians and large employers alike during a period of sharp economic growth with gold and railroads is what brought them down as those literal and figurative gold mines dried up. The gold rush and unprecedented scale of the transcontinental railroad fostered a need for an endless supply of cheap labor throughout the mid 1800s, and a large part of that came through Chinese immigration. An influx of cheap labor is great when there is a constant supply of new jobs available to take advantage of it, but as those projects are completed, what is left is a workforce too large and a demand too small, and that is what happened in the 1870s. As the labor market came to a crossroads, different narratives arose on who to blame and how to fix it. The Sacramento Daily Record-Union talks about the side of Chang and other newspapers in California, those pushing a narrative that “those who employ Chinese are in some way peculiarly depraved, and amenable to popular censure”. This attempt to stew a hatred for Chinese so great that employers wouldn’t hire them failed, proof in itself that the importance of economics and its success outweighed any racist ideas held against Chinese at the time. The author of the piece sees the power of the market and what we have to do to succeed in it, telling how “The human race instinctively prefers to buy in the cheapest market. To do so is not a sign of depravity. It is a sign of what we call common sense.” This reality meant that the people of California could not continue to work at the jobs and pay they once did, putting them, their families, and their futures in a tough position. The Daily Record-Union recognizes the reasoning behind the tough moral decision that the voters had to make, saying that “the truth is that so long as the Chinese are among us they will be employed, because it is in the direct interest of those who want work done to employ them.” Their willingness to take lower wages for the same work would always net them the job over the natives of California who now find themselves unemployed because of it. Without help from their legislators, the majority of Californians, the non-Chinese, would continue to face unemployment, so they decided to take action in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The relative importance of race and economics as a foundation for the Chinese Exclusion Act is easy to see when you look past the racist rhetoric put forward by the few and look to the many people in California who just wanted to feed their families. After the railroads were complete, Chang credited the sudden rush for Chinese Exclusion with their ability to travel instead of their sudden unemployment, citing a Chicago periodical that warned, “Chinamen will begin to swarm through the Rocky Mountains like devouring locusts and spread out over the country this side.” (Chang 40). The change that occurred following the completion of the railroad was one of an increased supply of cheaper labor that displaced white workers who had previously held those jobs. The Chinese were in California in the first place because they valued their cheap labor and ability to help with large projects of the time more than they could have possibly hated their race, otherwise they wouldn’t have been welcomed by the hundreds of thousands. Is it more likely that this public sentiment suddenly changed and there was a dawn of white supremacy, or is it more likely that this workforce wasn’t in their best economic interest anymore? Chang’s reasoning is more vile, citing the creation of the acts rooted in the idea that “The Chinese were deemed to be a dangerous threat to white supremacy, and they had to be excluded to protect the nation” (Chang 41). The Daily Record-Union doesn’t dispute a public desire for exclusion, instead it just gives a proper reason for it: “That is why we are justified in demanding the exclusion of the Chinese. In a nominally free country, where no man has the least right to abuse his neighbor or to threaten him for employing whatever labor element he chooses, it is impossible to prevent the Chinese from interfering with white labor so long as they are suffered to come here.” Employers would not refrain from employing the Chinese, so the only way to fix this “problem” was to eliminate the group of workers causing it. Painting this as a race issue puts a sad mark on this part of our history, especially as it is far from the truth, “if we want to present a logical appearance to the rest of the world we had better once for all abandon the absurd and despicable attempt to make capital against one another by pretending that there is something wicked and malignant in employing Chinese” (Daily Record-Union). This same issue of outsourcing to cheap labor at the detriment of American workers has persisted until today. A hot topic of political debate is using tariffs to achieve the same effect that the Chinese Exclusion Acts set out to achieve: keeping American industries run by American workers. 

In the eyes of Californian employers, economics took precedence over a personal hatred for a race, and that key detail of American values is not present enough in Chang’s paper. It is important to acknowledge that race was still a large motivation behind this bill, but not in the sense that Chinese were lesser people. There had to be a choice made in who would stay and prosper in Pacific America; the people of California and the rest of America didn’t choose themselves over the Chinese as whites, they chose themselves as Americans. 


Works Cited

Gordon H. Chang, "Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective," in The Chinese and the Iron Road (2019), pp. 27–41. 

“The Employment of Chinese.” The Daily Record-Union, 13 May 1882. 

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