Among the most daunting of modern trials is deciding which domestic minority has suffered more racial abuse from white “Anglo-Saxon” supremacy. In genocidal terms, by guns, germs or territorial conquest, native populations (dismissed as “savages”) have endured inestimable miseries. Though indigenous tribes, plus Southwest Mexican-Americans were virtually enslaved from the Spanish era onwards, the forceful imprisonment of African slaves represented a holocaust across human history, a dire moment in the capitalistic mania for dirt cheap labor. Irony alert: “Angles” and Saxons were not British, not Protestant (nor Christian)—but mixed-breed pagan invaders from Denmark and Germany. So impure Teutonic blood boosted the vaunted English empire.
How many Africans died when captured, or from miserable shipping conditions, or after arrival is beyond speculation. Such fatalities weren’t even important enough to record. Ditto, infant mortality or murder of black slaves by cruel or unhinged owners immune from punishment. Though less than the 90 million native Americans felled by European diseases, a multitude of ill-treated, medically-neglected African-American slaves died prematurely, whether worked to death or done in by irate masters.
In terms of official perfidy against innocent U.S. citizens, WWII Japanese internment serves as the worst, mass violation of citizen rights. A few Germans and Italians were detained, but nothing close to the 120,000 loyal Japanese Americans jailed and stripped of wealth (despite thousands of soldier sons battling Japan). And yet, in duration and intensity, and absent wars or tensions with America, the Chinese are a special case, facing historic federal exclusion, nasty discrimination, murdering rampages by racist white workers, and expulsion from West Coast cities after living in peace for decades.
Due to anti-Asian xenophobia, the severe 1870’s depression, and vicious scapegoating by ruthless candidates and labor leaders, the Chinese for the next 70 years were vilified as barbarians, the “Yellow Peril” deemed unfit for naturalization. Even before 1882, when the first U.S. racial/ethnic immigration stop sign (Chinese Exclusion Act) became law, nativist governments in San Francisco and the California statehouse punished the Chinese with targeted, discrimination laws – so transparently unjust many were quickly, judicially squashed.
Makers of the monumental railroad
Taking on the most dangerous work, 12,000 Chinese workers were imported to construct the most important 19th century infrastructure, the Transcontinental Railroad (finished by 1869). Horrendous, decade-long famines and civil wars drove worldwide Chinese emigration – and the railroad tycoons with a labor shortage paid the Chinese 2/3s the white workers’ wages. Thus once Pearl River Valley farmers mastered dynamite, blasting tunnels through Sierra granite and losing hundreds of fellow Chinese in the process. Then, they cleared swamps, built canals, ditches and widespread infrastructure projects across the West. Despite these monumental contributions to U.S . prosperity, scores of jobless, frightened white workers demonized the “foreign” Chinese, already on par economically with former slaves or native peoples, as deserving expulsion.
Worse still, because hard-working, dutiful Chinese were cast as job stealers (misleadingly, like Hispanics today)—and judged resistant to assimilation, they could not own land, or give court testimony, or inter-marry until well into the middle of the 20th century. The devastating Chinese Exclusion Act (extended and worsened over time) operated until 1943 when FDR had to dump it to support allied Chinese military against Japan. Immigration barriers remained in place until 1965 when decent numbers of Asian immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan finally entered and could apply for naturalization.
In short, the Trump scapegoating of China as the sole culprit in spreading Covid-19 was merely the latest of a horrid legacy of anti-Asian race-baiting. Ironically, until Trump, the Chinese had for years graduated from barbarian outsiders to a well-mannered, “model minority”—an example for others to follow. Had Trump not denigrated an innocent Chinese population, there’d be no scourge of violence today against American citizens. No doubt, some victims have Asian forebears who arrived long before the first “Drumpfs” from Germany – with so onerous and foreign-sounding name they needed early “cancel” culture. Yet, since both Trump and Drumpf rhyme with “dump,” “rump,” and “chump,” we have a great teaching moment. Simply changing your name means nothing unless offspring manage to “assimilate” the best, core America values – and the incalculable payoffs from being a nation of immigrants.
Birthright citizenship born
Because the age-old Chinese culture was neither Christian, white, nor western, Chinese Americans suffered this self-fulfilling prophesy: when nativists concluded in advance some tribe is unfit, the bigoted make huge roadblocks that impede that group’s assimilation. That infamy traumatized this minority between 1870 and 1965. Were it not for an 1884 legal precedent awarding birthright citizenship to California’s native-born, honoring the 14th Amendment, minority travelers returning to the States faced being locked out and detained. Only an 1898 Supreme Court decision established national birthright citizen (Wong case).
That’s especially important to me as I am finishing a manuscript on California-born Look Tin Eli, whose return to San Francisco from China at 14 years-old instigated that very 1884 state breakthrough. Writing the first biography of a significant, unsung San Francisco Chinese American leader alerted me to the plight of Asian immigrants, abusive anti-Asian hostility, and how often this alleged “melting pot” excluded, deported and detained Asians. From Gold Rush days on, the Chinese faced rampaging mobs, resulting in murders, community destruction and expulsion across western towns over the next 70 years.
So Trump was ploughing old ground when needlessly inflaming white, nativist know-nothings against Asian Americans—none of whom propelled coronavirus more than the deranged, Pandemic-in-chief. Causing tens of thousands of unnecessary Covid deaths, insurrections against the federal government, and violence against Asians, no historic figure matches Trump’s reckless disregard for the best modern Yankee principles, statutes and openness to diversity. White supremacy has an ignoble origin, initiated with the founding: in 1790, Congress restricted citizenship only to “free, white persons” and their immediate families.
Just as Trump ignited antagonism against Muslim Americans, as if terrorist Fifth columnists, his predatory assault against the Chinese cements his dubious charm as most overtly racist, intolerant, and treacherous president. Apparently, only extremism brings to consciousness the glaring contradictions of the “shining beacon on the hill.” Thus does Trump’s criminal, racialized instigation offer a pivotal lesson, reminding the non-extremist majority that irrational attacks on immigrants make America much less great. No guarantees on that daunting enlightenment for even well-meaning Americans need blunt 2X4s to shake up complacency and elect strong counterweights to anti-immigrant perfidy by the anxious, insecure white base.