LABOR OPPOSITION TO CHINESE IMMIGRATION

American Federation of Labor (AFL)

The AFL and other labor groups were at the forefront of ending Chinese immigrant labor into the country (which led to the Exclusion Act of 1882).  In this document form an AFL brochure published in 1902, the AFL seeks to justify why Chinese labor needs to continue being barred from entering the United States. 

Questions to Consider

In what way is this a racist document?
What class concerns does this document put forward?
Was there an alternative to exclusion that the AFL could have followed?  Why do you think it chose not to take it?

[The] ability [of Chinese] to subsist and thrive under conditions which would mean starvation and suicide to the cheapest laborer of Europe secures to them an advantage which baffles the statesman and economist to overcome, how much less the chances of the laborers pitted in competition against them.

For many years it was impossible to get white persons to do the menial labor usually performed by Chinese.  It was Chinaman's labor, and not fit for white.  In the agricultural districts a species of tramp has been created, known as the blanket man.  White agricultural laborers seldom find permanent employment; the Chinese are preferred.  During harvest time the white man is forced to wander from ranch to ranch and find employment here and there for short periods of time, with the privilege of sleeping in the barns or haystacks.  He is looked upon as a vagabond, unfit to associate with his employer or to eat from the same table with him.  The negro slave of the South was housed and fed, but the white trash of California is placed beneath the Chinese.

The white domestic servant was expected to live in the room originally built for John [this is a 19th century term used to refer to Chinese - Ed.], generally situated in the cellar and void of all comforts; frequently unpainted or papered, containing a bedstead and a chair; anything was good enough for John, and the white girl had to be satisfied as well.  Is it any wonder that self-respecting girls refused to take service under those conditions?  And what is true of agricultural laborers and domestics equally applies to the trades in which Chinese were largely employed.  Absolute servility was expected from those who took the place of the Chinaman, and it will take years to obliterate those traces of inferiority and re-establish the proper relations of employer and employee....

American labor should not be exposed to the destructive competition of aliens who do not, will not, and cannot take up the burdens of American citizenship, whose presences is an economic blight and a patriotic danger.  It has been urged that the Chinese are unskilled and that they create wealth in field, mine, and forest, which ultimately rebounds to the benefit of the white skilled workingman.  The Chinese are skilled, and are capable of almost any skilled employment.  They have invaded the cigar, shoe, broom, chemical, clothing, fruit canning, match making, woolen manufacturing industries, and have displaced more than 4,000 white men in these several employments in the city of San Francisco.  As common laborers they have throughout California displaced tens of thousands of men.  But this country is not concerned, even in a coldly economic sense, with the production of wealth.  The United State has now a greater per capita of working energy than any other land.  If it is stimulated by a non-assimilative and non-consuming race, there is grave danger of over-production and stagnation.  The home market should grow with the population.  But the Chinese, living on the most meager food, having no families to support, inured to deprivation, and hoarding their wages for use in their native land, whither they invariably return, cannot in any sense be regarded as consumers.  Their earnings do not circulate, nor are they reinvested - contrary to those economic laws which make for the prosperity of nations....

It was estimated by the Commissioner of Labor that there were a million idle men in the United States in 1886.  Certainly the 76,000 Chinese in California at that time stood for 76,000 white men waiting for employment....If the United States increases in population at the rate of 12 per cent per decade, it will have nearly 230,000 of people in one hundred years.  Our inventive genius and the constant improvements being made in machinery will greatly increase our per capita productive capacity.  If it be our only aim to increase our wealth so as to hold our own in the markets of the world, are we not, without the aid of Chinese coolies, capable of doing it, and at the same time preserve the character of our population and insure the perpetuity of our institutions?  It is not wealth at any cost that sound public policy requires, but that the country be developed with equal pace and with a desirable population, which stands not only for industry, but for citizenship....

[T]his is not alone a race, labor and political question.  It is one which involves our civilization and interests the people of the world.  The benefactors, scholars, soldiers, and statesmen - the patriots and martyrs of mankind - have builded [sic] our modern fabric firmly upon the foundation of religion, law, science, and art.  It has been rescued from barbarism and protected against the incursions of barbarians.  Civilization in Europe has been frequently attacked and imperiled by the barbaric hordes of Asia....But a peaceful invasion is more dangerous than a warlike attack.  We can meet and defend ourselves against an open foe, but an insidious foe, under our generous laws, would be in possession of the citadel before we were aware.  The free immigration of Chiense would be, for all purposes, an invasion of Asiatic barbarians.