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Rolling in the dirt: The origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the politics of racism, 1870-1882

Andrew Gyory, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In 1870 a Massachusetts shoe manufacturer imported 75 Chinese workers to break a strike. This event ignited nationwide interest in Chinese immigration and ultimately led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law ever passed by the United States banning a group of people based solely on race or nationality. The origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act involve many factors, but the most important force behind the law was national politicians who, in an era of almost perfectly-balanced party strength, seized the issue in the quest for votes. Politicians appealed directly to voters' deep-seated racism. They manipulated the image of the Chinese immigrant--who often appeared positively and heroically in popular culture--and transformed it into something grotesque. The politics of racism brought success in the West where most Chinese immigrants had settled, but the campaign fell flat east of the Rocky Mountains. No groundswell of support for exclusion emerged in the East in the mid-1870s. In 1877, however, after the national railroad strike revealed the stark class divisions in American society, politicians shifted their tactics and presented Chinese exclusion as a way to help the workingman. They did this in spite of the fact that eastern workers had expressed virtually no interest in the issue. Workers had long opposed the importation of Chinese laborers but not their immigration. Workers carefully distinguished between the two--a distinction ignored by politicians and historians alike. To politicians, Chinese exclusion became a panacea for rising working-class discontent. By making the Chinese the scapegoat for the nation's industrial problems, politicians could avoid dealing with the genuine causes of the depression; they could also ignore more far-reaching solutions which would have required direct government intervention in the economy. Chinese exclusion served as class politics on the cheap. Such anti-Chinese politics served other functions as well. It helped wean Republicans away from the equal rights ideals of the Civil War and legitimized racism as national policy. A classic example of top-down politics, the Chinese Exclusion Act symbolically marked the end of Reconstruction and set a precedent for later anti-immigration legislation.

Subject Area

American history|Labor economics|Political science|Economic history

Recommended Citation

Gyory, Andrew, "Rolling in the dirt: The origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the politics of racism, 1870-1882" (1991). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9132860.