Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82

Article excerpt


By Najia Aarim-Heriot (University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2003, 291 pp., cloth, $39.95).

What factors led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act? Najia Aarim-Heriot's thought-provoking, well-argued study focuses upon American racial attitudes and practices, influenced by other aspects such as the driving force in the discriminatory federal legislation against the Chinese. By studying national newspapers and magazines, court cases, political parties, and congressional debates, she examines changing political attitudes regarding immigration in general, labor unions, class, nativism, and the fear of Chinese immigrants as potential citizens and voters. More importantly, she links nineteenth-century questions of African American slavery, civil rights, and labor issues with the plight of the Chinese immigrants. An understanding of the national scene is directly linked to developments in California. "In the minds of California legislators ... the Chinese and Negro questions were closely connected." (p. 39)

The "Chinese problem" was not simply a "western" controversy but a national one that had its origins in debates over what constituted the American (white) identity. Restrictions placed on African Americans concerning/relating to immigration, testimony rights, education, and miscegenation were extended to the Chinese through the early 1860s. With the end of the Civil War, congressional leaders had to deal with questions of race, especially during the debates over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Racial animosity toward all non-whites, especially toward the Chinese, who had grown in number in California and other western states by 1870, emerged as a dominant theme. Citizenship and suffrage granted to African Americans were denied to the Chinese, marking the emergence of non-white racial double standards. This paved the way for the reconsideration of the status of African Americans and the "Asianization" of the "Negro question." (p. 155)

The anti-Chinese movement intensified between 1874 and 1880. Although the Workingmen's Party of California and other anti-Chinese organizations multiplied in number and influence, racial prejudice, not economics, was the driving force for/behind hostility. …