Laying Some History On You: The Anti-Chinese Riot of 1877

Through the 1870s, the United States was gripped by a severe economic depression that led to shortages, high unemployment, and particularly hard times for the working classes across the country. In 1877, strikers rioted in numerous cities across the United States, and the Workingmen’s Party of the United States pledged to hold a solidarity rally in downtown San Francisco on 23 July, occupying sand lots adjacent to City Hall. Thousands showed up for the event, which had become the subject of rumours in the days leading up to the actual rally; people suggested the attendees might riot, attack Chinese businesses, and set fire to the docks to protest the importation of Chinese labour.

While the rally may have started out quietly, a growing group of attendees began voicing anti-Chinese sentiments, which began whipping the crowd to a head. A breakaway march charged Chinese laundries, destroying a large number and taking the lives of four residents with them.

To Chinatown! Was now the cry, and off they ran up Leavenworth street, several hundred of them yelling like soldiers of Satan. On the south side of Tyler street, above Leavenworth, stood some Chinese laundries; there the rabble bombarded, smashing doors and windows with bricks and stones. Thence they were driven by the police, but only to attack the unfortunate Asiatics in other quarters. (source)

They also successfully set fire to part of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company docks, and it took a combined force of police and resident volunteers to bring the riots to a halt after two days. The event drew the attention of a labourer, Denis Kearney, who went on to lead the party and continue its aggressively anti-Chinese legacies. Fond of saying ‘the Chinese must go,’ he became an important force for labour organising, and set the tone in San Francisco. A tone that was distinctly hostile to Chinese workers, and spread to other regions of the United States as economic woes continued and racist activists began pushing for whites-only policies.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, Chinese residents were left with over $100,000 (in 1877 dollars) in damage to clean up, including broken windows, burned buildings, and looted stores. Limited to Chinatown for rebuilding and cultivating their business interests, many struggled to recover from the riots. Meanwhile, Chinese labourers hiring out for so-called ‘coolie wages,’ the reduced sums paid by wealthy employers to Chinese staff, were under constant threat from white workers who blamed them for the depression, wage inequality, and high unemployment.

The riot also had long-term policy implications. It fanned the national flames of anti-Chinese sentiment and set the stage for the Chinese Exclusion Act, creating a foundation of hostile immigration and social policy rooted in California’s ferocious anti-Chinese attitudes. The state’s racist policymakers and agitators had managed to shape national opinions with some well-targeted propaganda and creative lobbying, and it took almost a century to break down the last of the laws on the books intended to exclude and limit people of Chinese descent from living, working, and settling in the United States.

While the laws may have been removed from the books, the attitudes lingered, and continue to do so. The same rhetoric used against Chinese workers can be seen in conversations about Latino immigrants, who have been forced into their own closely-packed settlements by racist policy and a creative assortment of circumstances. People may not be strictly forbidden from settling outside specific enclaves like they were in the 1800s, but they’re effectively limited by practices like redlining, racist municipal ordinances, and community positioning that makes it clear Latino residents are not welcome.

That rhetoric played a critical role in the treatment of Japanese residents of the United States in the Second World War; Germans were notably not targeted for roundup and internment, because they hadn’t been subject to a century’s worth of racist immigration legislation and policy intended to underscore us and them dividing lines. Politicians cited fears about revolts or mixed allegiances when defending the internment of the Japanese population and white citizens happily accepted that because they’d been steeped in racist policy.

San Francisco’s Chinatown still exists, as a colourful tourist attraction rather than the only place Chinese residents are allowed to live. The history behind it stands as a reminder, though. 1877’s riot was not the only time the lives, property, and security of Chinese residents in San Francisco were destroyed by an angry mob deliberately engineered and manipulated into attacking the Chinese community.

Residents of the United States like to claim they are living in a ‘post-racial’ society where racism doesn’t exist, and thus things like this don’t happen; people don’t blame racial minorities for ‘taking all the jobs,’ for example, or lead attacks on nonwhite communities. Yet they do, and riots like this are not outside the realm of possibility in a country where people are frustrated with the economy, angry, and looking for someone to take it out on.

Latino immigration to the United States has been slowing down, in no small part because there’s so much less to come to the United States for, but fear also plays a significant role. Being Latino in the United States is growing extremely dangerous, and it’s not worth the risk for some prospective immigrants who fear for their lives and those of their families. Racism could erupt again in the hot summer months with equally explosive consequences as in 1877, because the United States has yet to deal with its racial legacies.

Image: Toy Vendor, Chinatown, Arnold Genthe, Flickr