Laying Some History On You: ‘Yellow Peril,’ Anti-Coolie Sentiments, and Institutional Racism

In the 1800s, Chinese labourers began flocking to the Americas seeking work, many traveling on board dangerous ships and into even more dangerous situations. They made minimal pay, had few to no legal protections, and were a driving labour force in South America long before they started looking to California with the Gold Rush of the 1850s and the promise of wealth it had. Contract labourers or ‘coolies[1. Note for those not aware: In modern English this is a racial slur.]’ as they were known headed for California in the hopes of finding their fortunes, and encountered discrimination when they got there.

White agitators organised boycotts and took other measures to drive Chinese labourers out of their communities. They argued that contract labourers were undercutting them, making it harder for them to find work, and many people supported them:

In the 1870s, the Anti-Coolies Association and the Supreme Order of the Caucasians ran boycotts of Chinese businesses and laborers and caused riots in Chinatowns across the West. Many immigrants returned to China, while others fled to San Francisco, home to the largest Chinese community and Chinatown in the United States.

White labour unions did not want Chinese or other Asian labourers entering the market for reasons of racism, but they of course made it about finances. They warned that respected US citizens would have trouble finding work with all the discount labour around, since Chinese workers were willing to work for much less to support their families in China. And, of course, they raised the spectre of the ‘yellow peril,’ suggesting that the US was in danger from China and the influx of Chinese workers. Chinese labourers were labeled thieves and rapists, a threat to society, a danger in particular to white women.

In 1862, anti-contract labourer activists accomplished two rather significant legislative victories in California and Congress, respectively, both of which are sometimes known as ‘anti-Coolie laws.’ The first was a law in California that specifically targeted Chinese workers. In ‘An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition With Chinese Coolie Labor, and To Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California,’ legislators required Chinese workers to pay a $2.50 monthly tax to remain in California. Many made less than a dollar a day. The legislature’s move was designed to make it difficult for Chinese labourers to survive, and to send a clear message to people in China considering immigration; come to California, and you’ll have to pay for the privilege of living there.

On the national level, Congress passed ‘An Act to Prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels,’ targeting the people involved in the movement of Chinese labourers. It specified that US citizens could not be involved in the transportation of labourers and set fines for those caught doing it, but assured people that ‘voluntary emigrants’ would still be allowed into the United States, of course, as long as they carried a consular certificate. Vessels involved in the trade could be seized by the United States, which was authorized to take possession of their contents and use them or sell them at auction.

Both laws created a hostile culture for Chinese immigration, and were structured specifically to target Chinese, not labourers from other nations. The message sent to China was clear: The United States was interested in cheap labour, but wasn’t interested in granting Chinese immigrants full rights, and was unhappy with the amount of immigration occurring. So it was ready to fight, in the form of a series of laws designed to make it not only hard to get to the United States, but hard to work and survive, as well.

This is only a small sampling of laws designed to limit Chinese immigration and specifically attacking contract labourers. There is much to criticise about the historic use of contract labour, including the fact that some people were tricked into traveling to the United States, abused and treated like garbage by their ’employers,’ and forced to labour in harsh and dangerous conditions. Yet, these weren’t the issues politicians were worried by in the 1800s. The concern was not about how to protect Chinese workers, but specifically how to erase them from the landscape in the United States, replacing them with the white workers who agitated against them.

It is rhetoric that rings especially familiar now, as crackdowns on South and Central American immigrants are used by the government to squeeze people out of the workforce. Citizens are assured that no ‘legitimate’ immigrants will be harmed by such laws, but of course they are, as indeed are US citizens caught in the ripples of such laws. The same kind of tactics used in the 1800s against Asian immigrants can be seen now as the government attempts to cut off support, limit access to social circles, crack down on immigration, and drive people deeper and deeper underground.

The end result of these laws will probably be similar to that seen in the 1800s, when Chinese immigrants facing a shrinking number of occupations and safe environments clustered in highly insular and private communities where they struggled to make a living. The institutional racism that forbade them so many avenues of employment also played a role in how they interacted with the justice system, where they couldn’t even testify against whites, could be condemned on minimal evidence, and rarely received justice for crimes against their communities committed by white people.

These laws were specifically designed to protect white communities and their values, and it is chilling to see them reenacted over 100 years later in a nation that claims to have learned from the impact of anti-Chinese racism in the 1800s.