Spurred by the anti-Chinese hysteria of the California-based Workingman’s Party, white mobs burned and plundered Chinese communities throughout the West in a chapter of American history as shameful as any – the “Driving Out.” Residents of Seattle’s Chinatown were herded onto steamships in 1866 and shipped to San Francisco. On October 24, 1871 a mob of 500 whites massacred 19 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles. In 1877 in San Francisco, gangs of Irish laborers set fire to the Pacific Mail docks where Chinese landed in the New World, then destroyed 20 Chinese-owned laundries and killed four Chinese.
California politicians did their part. In 1879, Article II, Section I of the California Constitution was amended to read that “No native of China, no idiot, insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime … shall ever exercise the privileges of an elector in this state.” Three years later, spurred by California Congressmen Thomas J. Geary and Horace Page, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The fact that this anti-immigrant hysteria took place in what today is regarded a bastion of multicultural diversity makes this all the more remarkable.
As a result of this legal – and extra-legal – activity, the Chinese population in the U.S. fell from a high of 132,300 in 1882 to just over 60,000 in 1920. Yet politicians never stopped demonizing the Chinese. San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan convened the Chinese Exclusion Convention in 1901, bringing together political leaders from across the West to deliver Chinese-bashing rhetoric and argue, successfully, for renewal of the Exclusion Act. This was no fringe group. In addition to serving as Mayor of San Francisco, Phelan was U.S. Senator from California (1915-1921) and leader of the California Democratic Party from the late 1890s through the 1920s.
“This is a white man’s country,” Phelan greeted the white, almost exclusively male conventioneers. “We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.” The San Francisco Call newspaper declared the convention a resounding success. “Only one theme was discussed, only one idea advanced,” the paper’s November 23, 1901 edition reported, “namely the danger of a Mongolian invasion in the event of the refusal of Congress to re-enact the exclusion law.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1942, largely to placate our ally China in the fight to defeat Imperial Japan. James Phelan did not enjoy the same political longevity. Running for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1920, Phelan distributed posters with the headline “Save Our State from Oriental Aggression” and delivered anti-Asian diatribes the length and breadth of the state. “Keep California White, Re-elect James D. Phelan,” his campaign urged, foreshadowing the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric of certain contemporary candidates. Phelan lost his campaign for re-election, however. And were he alive today he’d probably lose his mind. The current Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, is Chinese-American. And non-Hispanic whites are now a minority in California.