The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A History of Class War Against Asian Immigrant Workers

Mar 29, 2021

The March 16 shootings in the Atlanta area that left eight people dead are part of a surge of anti-Asian violence, particularly against women, in the United States over the past year. Six of the dead were women of Asian descent. This violence recalls a long history of episodic violence against Asians in the U.S., going back to the late 1800s, especially during periods of capitalist crisis and wars.

First Chinese Immigrants: Working in the Mines, Building Railroads

Asian immigrants first came to the U.S. in 1848. After the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded nearly half its territory to the U.S., including the state of California. None of this territory was very populated. So, U.S. businesses went abroad looking for labor, just as they had on the East Coast decades earlier.

This time, U.S. businesses looked to the vast population pools of Asia to recruit their workforce. Starting at the end of the 1840s, Chinese were brought to the U.S. under “coolie contracts” that were little different than the indentured contracts of colonial times on the East Coast. Most of them were farmers, artisans, craftsmen, or political exiles. With their passage arranged by labor contractors, most of them were also moved directly into labor camps. They first worked in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush, with most employed in the mines or serving as merchants of clothing and equipment for miners.

After the mines were played out and gold fever ebbed, Chinese workers were brought in to work on the railroad. In 1860, the Chinese made up 10% of California’s population, but they constituted almost 25% of its labor force. From 1865 to 1869, as many as 20,000 Chinese laborers worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, which ran from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah, where it was united with the Union Pacific Railroad, marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Those workers accounted for as much as 90% of the Central Pacific workforce. They took on the hardest and most dangerous tasks, but were paid 30% less than their white co-workers—the whites received higher pay and board, the Chinese lower pay and no board.

The Chinese workers organized fights to defend their interests against the company. On June 24, 1867, the entire Chinese workforce stopped work, demanding pay parity with white workers. The standoff lasted eight days, broken by a cutoff of goods and food by the company. The company refused to negotiate. But eventually, it quietly raised the Chinese workers’ pay, though not to parity.

After the railroad’s completion, many Chinese workers moved into San Francisco and other cities, coming to dominate certain industries such as cigar-making. The Chinese also began to buy land in California, developing agriculture in the arid conditions of the Western part of the continent.

Stoking Racial Divisions

In California, Chinese immigrants were pitted against other workers for jobs. Many army veterans from both North and South had been encouraged to “go West” at the end of the Civil War. They were joined by former slaves. Arriving in California, they discovered there was no gold and few offers of work. Some of these migrants fell prey to the propaganda of demagogues who organized attacks on the Chinese. In February 1867, a mob attacked groups of Chinese laborers in San Francisco and set fire to their housing. Among the worst attacks occurred in October 1871 in Los Angeles. In what became known as the “Chinese Massacre,” 21 Chinese, or more than 10% of the city’s Chinese population, were killed by a mob of ex-soldiers and Californians of different backgrounds.

Those who benefitted from driving the Chinese out were the large landowners, Anglo and Hispanic, who took over the agricultural holdings the Chinese had been able to develop.

In 1873, a major depression broke out in the U.S. To defend its profits, the capitalist class went on the offensive against the working class, imposing enormous wage and job cuts. Railroad and industrial employers stoked racial divisions by laying off white workers and replacing them with Chinese workers at lower pay. In 1875, Congress then followed these attacks up by passing the Page Act that specified that to enter the U.S., Chinese women had to prove that they were not prostitutes. Such a lurid humiliation stopped most women from seeking to enter the U.S.

In 1876, the federal government officially ended the Reconstruction Period in the South, marking the rise of Jim Crow attacks against former black slaves and their poor white allies. This racist violence then washed back across the country to California in the form of racist attacks against people of Chinese descent. The Californians in Congress supported the Jim Crow laws imposed on the Southern black population, while the Southern plantation owners supported laws barring immigration from China. Out of this tide of reaction, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. It also barred Chinese non-citizens from U.S. citizenship and Chinese workers from working on government projects.

The California state constitution added to these racist provisions. No Chinese person could testify in a California court against a white defendant. Municipalities were given the power for “the removal of Chinese” to outside their borders, and authority was given the Legislature to enact laws barring the entry of Chinese immigrants into the state. (It wasn’t until 1943 that Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and then only partially, while the anti-Chinese provisions in the state constitution were only repealed in 1952.)

Japanese Immigration, Unions and Strikes

Chinese immigration was then followed by immigration from Japan and other Asian areas. All told, over a quarter of a million people made their way to the American West in the half century running up to about 1900.

The capitalist class and government officials continued to impose virulent racial divisions, continually scapegoating immigrant workers. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt reached what became known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement with the Japanese government, which agreed not to issue new passports for laborers intending to travel to the U.S. By that time, about 40,000 Japanese, the vast majority young men, were living in California.

Most of these immigrants had been unemployed or landless agricultural workers and farmers in Japan. They intended and often did bring back brides from their homeland when they had enough money to settle down.

A significant number of Japanese immigrants opened small businesses serving the Japanese community. Some set up truck farms that provided western cities with specialized fruits and vegetables. But most worked for wages on the railroads, in agriculture and in service work in hotels and private homes.

And some of these workers took part in the labor struggles of the day. They helped build the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which sought to unite all workers into one big union. And they participated in some big strikes. For example, in Oxnard, California, 1,200 Mexican and Japanese farm laborers organized the Japanese-Mexican Association and won a hard-fought strike in 1903 against sugar beet growers.

Of course, the capitalist class fought to drive a wedge between different parts of the working class. Japanese immigrants faced the same kinds of racist policies in California as the Chinese immigrants in earlier periods. In 1907, the city of San Francisco banned Japanese students from its public schools. The state of California passed the Alien Land Law, which barred long-term leases to Japanese tenants and sales to Japanese nationals. These anti-Japanese laws had the support of politicians across the partisan spectrum, including Governor Hiram Johnson, one of the most important “progressives.”

Inside U.S. Concentration Camps

The coming of war with Japan during World War II brought the anti-Japanese witch hunt to a head. California attorney general, Earl Warren, who would go on to become a liberal chief justice of the Supreme Court, pushed to have all people of Japanese descent, citizens and non-citizens alike, put in “internment” camps until the war was over. Of course, the term “internment,” commonly used to describe the program, was a way for the government to sugarcoat what was actually happening—the mass incarceration in concentration camps of people merely because of their ancestry. By the fall of 1942, over 110,000 Japanese were forced to abandon their jobs, businesses and homes for a life in one of ten concentration camps throughout the West.

A sizeable number of people in the camps soon began to resist and revolt against this injustice, as well as against the suffocating conditions inside the camps. In 1943, more than one of every four Japanese males born in this country refused to pledge loyalty to the United States. Only 1,200 detainees accepted a government offer to leave the camps with their families and enlist in the armed forces. A larger number of uncooperative Japanese-Americans, over 18,000 in all, were relocated to a camp at Tule Lake, California, where conditions were even more brutal. Riots and collective acts of resistance resulted.

In December 1944, most inmates were finally allowed to leave the relocation camps, though 5,000 were still barred from returning to the West Coast. Over 8,000 chose to return to Japan, an extremely difficult choice since Japan had been totally destroyed during the war. For the most part, those who returned to their West Coast homes discovered that their jobs and property had been taken by others. Legal action and public protest over the course of decades eventually induced the U.S. government to offer the surviving Japanese-Americans modest financial restitution and a formal apology, which finally came in 1989.

End to Racial Divisions?

The situation today shows that there is no end to the racial divisions inside this society. This is not due to the fact that people have different backgrounds and cultures. That was and is the American working class—and one of the marks of its strength. Instead, these divisions come out of the functioning of capitalism itself, the need to deprive big parts of the working class of most or all of its rights in order for the capitalists to always increase their profits.

The only way to end these divisions once and for all is for the working class to unite together to take the power from the capitalist class in order to run society in the interests of all.