By Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow
July 3, 2015
James D. Phelan, U.S. senator and San FranciscoWith major retailers dropping the sale of the Confederate flag in the wake of the church massacre in Charleston, S.C., attention now will turn to the South Carolina Legislature. The legislators have voted to debate whether to stop flying the Confederate banner over the Capitol grounds, but not whether actually to remove it. That vote is scheduled for Monday. As people in the Bay Area prepare to throw more stones at the South’s whitewashing of its history of slavery and racial intolerance, it’s important to remember the injustices perpetrated against Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.
In 1877, under the rabid leadership of Denis Kearney, the San Francisco-based Workingmen’s Party ignited a protracted xenophobic campaign against the growing Chinese population in the West, with white mobs burning and plundering Chinese communities from Seattle to San Diego.
San Francisco’s contribution to this mayhem can be found on a series of public panels on the city’s Embarcadero. One account reads, “In 1877, an angry mob of unemployed laborers set fire to the Pacific Mail docks in an act of aggression toward the Chinese.” In a second night of violence, 20 Chinese-owned laundries were destroyed and four Chinese killed. The same panel attributes the passage by Congress of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act — the only immigration law in U.S. history targeting a specific race or ethnic group — to San Francisco political leadership. (The law was repealed in 1943 and replaced with a quota on Chinese immigration of 105 a year — since revised.)
Among those leaders was James D. Phelan, for whom the boulevard transecting City College of San Francisco is named. Phelan, who served as mayor in 1897 and later in the state Assembly, was a vehement opponent of Chinese immigration. In 1901, Phelan argued for extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act, writing: “Self-protection yields to no higher law. Therefore it is supreme. The Chinese, by putting a vastly inferior civilization in competition with our own, tend to destroy the population on whom the perpetuity of free government depends.”
We don’t expect that San Francisco will rename Phelan Avenue anytime soon. But when the calls go out for the South to answer for its history, San Franciscans should be aware of its own glass walls. We offer a sampling of the anti-Chinese laws and court decisions which had the sole purpose of curtailing the freedom of one race. Laws themselves, you see, can be hate crimes
Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow are the authors of “Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.” (6th edition, Nine Mile Press). This article appeared in the July 3 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Some Anti-Chinese laws
1852: Foreign Miners Tax designed to exclude Mexicans from California’s gold fields revived to apply to Chinese miners (California Legislature).
1854: Prohibition of Negroes and Indians from testifying in court either for or against whites made applicable to Chinese (California Supreme Court).
1892: Chinese Exclusion Act extended for 10 years. Chinese laborers already in the U.S. required to carry certificates of residence.
1906: Antimiscegenation law extended to Chinese (California Legislature).
1913: Alien Land Act, prohibiting persons ineligible for citizenship from owning land (California Legislature). Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and five other states adopted similar laws. Declared unconstitutional in 1952.