American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump

Still from “The Unafraid.”

Since nativism is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, the left is obligated to understand its roots as well as the impact it is having on those who are its most visible victims. Two new documentaries will help us develop both the historical and personal dimensions of the great stain across the body politic that has existed almost since the beginning of what Robinson Jeffers called our “perishing republic”.

The Chinese Exclusion Act” premiered last month on PBS but is thankfully available now on-demand. Directed by Ric Burns, it is not filled with the sort of flag-waving liberalism found in his brother Ken’s work. It is a history of a racist immigration law that was passed in 1882 and remained on the books until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 when China became a key ally in the war against Japan. FDR knew full well how embarrassing such a racist law would appear in Asia, especially when Japan was pushing anti-colonial rhetoric as part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere. Using the standard Burns brothers documentary techniques the film paints a portrait of the real contribution Chinese labor made to economic development, all the while struggling to overcome white racism, including that of trade unions and political parties upholding the rights of the “working man”.

To be shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York on June 21st, “The Unafraid” derives its title from the chant of DACA students sitting in at a state college in Athens, Georgia: “We are undocumented; we are unafraid!” It tracks the struggle of four high school seniors brought to the USA from Mexico as young children to now overcome the obstacles they face in one of the country’s most viciously anti-immigrant states. They formed a local activist group called Freedom University that sought to end the punitive practice of forcing undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition fees even though they lived nearly their entire lives in Georgia. Coming from hard-pressed families barely scraping by, the non-resident tuition fees costing triple what residents paid stood in the way of getting a college degree.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act” is one of the most radical documentaries I have seen this year. Ric Burns recruited a number of Chinese-American scholars to piece together the story, all of whom obviously have a deep familiarity with the kind of analysis found in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Among them is Mae Ngai, a Columbia University historian whose dissertation adviser was Eric Foner and whose book “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America” sets the tone for her own remarks and all the others interviewed by Burns.

The revelations in “The Chinese Exclusion Act” are jaw-dropping. The story begins in 1840 when President Polk commissioned geographer Aaron Palmer to survey the West Coast, from California all the way to Alaska after the fashion of Lewis and Clark. Palmer reported back that the land was filled with natural resources waiting to be exploited but it had few people to exploit them. Obviously, Palmer did not consider native peoples part of the human race.

This led the USA to sign a treaty with China that provided for free trade and open borders, just the sort of thing that gets Trump frothing at the mouth. The earliest immigrants from China came to work during the gold rush and immediately ran into American-born miners who thought they had no right to make a living there. These earliest attempts at gold mining were like the kind you see in movies such as “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with Bogart and company dipping a pan into a stream. These methods were soon replaced by large-scale hydraulic drilling, an early version of fracking, that effectively ruined the earlier generation of miners. Facing a shortage of jobs, whites grew even more hostile to the Chinese.

Exploiting white bigotry in the same fashion as Trump, John Bigler was elected Governor of California in 1852 and began the same kind of nativist regime that included an imposition of an onerous $20 per month tax on all foreign born residents.

Liberal magazines like Harper’s Weekly, the forerunner to today’s monthly magazine, ran political cartoons by Thomas Nast depicting coolie laborers marching across the U.S. to steal jobs from white people:

Even more atrocious was another flagship of liberalism, The Nation Magazine, that held forth on August 1, 1867:

Apart from the question of its legality, the importation of coolies into the South is in every way to be deprecated. It appears, nevertheless, to have been begun in Louisiana, the supply being brought from Cuba. There are many decisive reasons against it, of which the first is that they are not needed, and if they were—if there was a veritable scarcity of labor in the State—far greater advantages would result from Europian or Northern immigration, which is only prevented by the instability of Southern society, the fault, as everybody knows, of the persistently rebellious. But in the next place, the coolies are chiefly desired not to supplement but supplant the negroes, of course by inferior wages and a larger measure of physical control—a twofold disaster to the laboring classes, and another proof of the contumacy of the South. Inevitably there will follow the same evil consequences that attend always the contact of a superior with an inferior civilization, seen already in our history in the case of the imported African and the native Indian. And, finally, the evil which is peculiar to the coolie trade—the total absence of women—will aggravate the licentiousness bequeathed by slavery, and make the Gulf States, in point of chastity, the middle term between Cuba on the one hand and Utah and California on the other. The last resort of the Jamaica planters, when their unjust laws had reduced the blacks to poverty without effecting their re-enslavement, was to introduce and employ Chinese apprentices.

As I learned from Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International: 1848-1876” over twenty years ago, even some revolutionaries supported Bigler’s nativism, including the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was Karl Marx’s hand-picked leader for the American section of the first socialist international. At a meeting of Sorge’s group in New York, a San Francisco comrade was applauded for his remarks: “The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.”

Since Governor Bigler was a Democrat, it was no surprise that his views clashed with President Lincoln’s and—even more so—the radical Republicans who were free trade absolutists. Lincoln sent former Massachusetts congressman Anson Burlingame to China in order to promote friendship and commerce, especially of the sort envisioned by President Polk. For Lincoln, globalization was a Republican ideal long before the WTO. This included the free movement of labor as well as that of commodities. When Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, his vision was to connect the two coasts and facilitate trade with China.

Chinese “coolies”, a term that originally meant indentured laborer, were key to building the Pacific side of the railroad tracks even though they were left out of the photograph when the joining of the two railroad tracks was celebrated. Once the work was done, they went back to the West coast or other cities and towns on the way to start small businesses or look for work, expecting to live like other American citizens. At the time, passports, visas, green cards, etc. were not required. If you got off the boat and didn’t accidentally fall in the water, you became a full-fledged American citizen.

When Reconstruction came to an end in 1876, it was not just freed slaves who suffered the consequences. This counter-revolutionary betrayal by the Republican Party was prompted by working-class unrest in both Europe and the USA, including the Paris Commune that gave the bourgeoisie nightmares everywhere. As part of the reactionary climate, nativism increased to the point that the first Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted in 1882, with some congressmen voting no. One was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine – Abraham Lincoln’s first Vice-President–who said, “I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.”

This legislation had two effects. It put Chinese-Americans into the same status as DACA children today, even though “documents” did not exist at the time. This act was unconstitutional since it singled out a nationality for persecution. Passed as part of the revolutionary democratic momentum of the northern victory in 1865, the 14th Amendment identified all residents as American citizens. This was enough to convince Chinese-Americans to file over 10,000 suits against the racist legislation even though the Supreme Court ruled against them.

This nativist abomination also encouraged the same kind of lynch mob mentality that afflicted Black people in the South. All across the west coast, the Chinese became the victims of racist violence up to and including massive pogroms that left dozens dead on occasion. In 1885, whites expelled every last Chinese person out of Tacoma. A mob made up of prominent businessmen, police, and political leaders marched Chinese residents to a railroad station and forced them to board a train to Portland. They then burned down every Chinese home and business.

Clearly, Donald Trump would give his benediction to the same kind of racist violence if it were not for the long period of liberal reforms that benefited both Blacks and immigrants. In the 1950s, JFK  published “A Nation of Immigrants”, a work that advocated immigration reform. This was a gesture that had international public opinion in mind. Just like the civil rights movement was accelerated by liberal concerns about America’s image abroad, so was immigration reform. It is only because of the shrinking economic pie that we see cop killings and Trump’s vicious nativist policies on the rise, just as Germany saw anti-Semitism’s growth in the 1930s.

In a word association test, “Athens, Georgia” would summon up for most people R.E.M., a band that symbolized the good vibrations of a college town that like most stressed diversity and tolerance. For the Mexican families who came there, this was not the calling card. Instead, it was the availability of steady employment, even if it consisted of cleaning public lavatories as Lili, one of the four subjects of the film, did alongside her mother.

The lives of Mexican undocumented workers in Georgia is a living hell, even though it is in a higher circle than what they left behind. The auto mechanic father of the DACA-qualified Alejandro explains that he never considered going to the U.S. until NAFTA kicked in. Not only did it ruin farmers, it also had a rippling effect on small businesses such as his auto repair shop that went under. For such people, driving a car—a necessity in Athens—is a major risk since they cannot get a license. We see another Dreamer’s mother coming out of jail after getting stopped by the cops who use racial profiling without worrying about its legality.

Of the four subjects, just one makes it to college outside of Georgia and only through the graces of a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky that was founded by an abolitionist in 1855. It was racially integrated and incorporated the values that were repudiated by the two capitalist parties in 1876. Even though Alejandro, is happy to be there, he sometimes feels out of place since there is nobody to speak Spanish with. He is clearly made uncomfortable by the objectification endured in a sociology class (his major) that hashes over income levels with Latino immigrants at the lowest level.

I urge you to see both films since they are so relevant to the American crisis today as well as being first-rate examples of documentary film-making that arguably functions as a political vanguard today in a country sorely in need of a true vanguard.

With some on the left being seduced by nationalist populism, including Jeremy Corbyn who announced that he was open to immigration restrictions, it is important for the radical movement to come to terms with what our obligations are as those hoping to unite workers in the struggle against capitalism.

On October 4, 2010, I wrote an article for the now-defunct Swans magazine on the history of the passport system that was part of a special issue on immigration.  I cited V.I. Lenin on immigration, even though I do not make a habit of invoking his authority since on many questions he was wrong. But on this he was right.

In a 1913 article titled, Lenin wrote:

Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.

Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, 1913


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.