AuthorTsai, Robert L.

THE CHINESE MUST GO: VIOLENCE, EXCLUSION, AND THE MAKING OF THE ALIEN IN AMERICA. By Beth Lew-Williams. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. 2018. Pp. 244. $24.95.


On the rainy morning of November 3, 1885, some 500 armed white men visited the home and business of every single Chinese person living in Tacoma, Washington. As the skies wept, the mob roused all 200 of them, including women, children, and the elderly, and marched them through the mud to the outskirts of town. Those who could afford a ticket were seen off on the next train. Those who could not make fare had to keep walking in the hope of seeking refuge in Portland, nearly 150 miles to the south. The next day, Chinese-owned businesses and homes were set on fire to ensure that the people driven out would not feel welcome to return.

In The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, historian Beth Lew-Williams (1) recounts this horrific episode (pp. 96-102), along with several others, in clear prose and with impressive insight. She offers a "transcalar history"--a deep dive into the Chinese experience in America on multiple levels at once: local, national, and international (p. 10). Lured to the United States by the gold rush, most Chinese migrants quickly learned that their hope for instant wealth was little more than a fleeting dream (p. 23). Most wound up having to take low-paying jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, and the service industry (p. 35). This sudden, increased integration along economic and spatial dimensions turned out not to be what the Chinese migrants or many white Americans expected or wanted, and a volatile mix of racism, economic jealousy, and cultural difference caused enormous political upheaval (pp. 35-39). Waves of nativist politics and organized terror ensued as white Americans resisted national policies that favored free migration, enforced notions of white supremacy, and demanded that the federal government settle "the Chinese Question" (pp. 40-43). Until Congress solved the problem, white citizens would do the job by displacing Chinese migrants from communities where they were not wanted. As they did so, they justified their actions through the higher law tradition. (2)

What happened in Tacoma wasn't a spontaneous or isolated occurrence. To the contrary, it was part of a series of Chinese removals that were intentional and systematic, organized not just by vigilantes acting alone but also by leading figures within each community (p. 115). Local residents worked with others in a network of loosely affiliated but intensely motivated social groups that operated up and down the West Coast (p. 118). Before the group of men executed a plan of expulsion in Tacoma, there were mass meetings led by Mayor Jacob Weisbach to discuss what to do about the Chinese (p. 122), who wore strange garb, adhered to odd customs, and could live on very little. (3) Local newspapers like the Tacoma Ledger whipped citizens into a frenzy, warning of "this gigantic invasion of chinamen ... captained by a few American mandarins." (4)

This method of social reordering through a brutal form of immigration localism (5) (today we would call it ethnic cleansing (6)) became portable, as one city after another emulated the strategy. Indeed, Tacoma's successful purge of its Chinese residents led others to dub it "the Tacoma method" and portray it as a "peaceful" solution (p. 124). Elsewhere, expulsions were preceded by beatings, shootings, murders, or lynchings. But whether lives were lost or not, social relationships were consistently disrupted, fear and anger were plentiful, and almost always Chinese property was dismantled, destroyed, or set ablaze as part of the ritual purification. Lew-Williams observes that from 1885-1886, 168 different communities in America expelled the Chinese (p. 1).

Lew-Williams's magisterial account of the injustices perpetrated against the Chinese is extremely generative on several fronts. The first is historical: she seeks to correct a national narrative that often leaves out the horrors instigated against the Chinese community while emphasizing emancipated slaves and native populations as the primary victims of racial violence (pp. 3-5). Her account of Chinese "resistance and flight in the face of white violence" successfully complicates that story (p. 95) and, along the way, deepens our understanding of American constitutional law's development. In Part I of this Review, I emphasize that anti-Chinese violence was extremely effective as a political tool. Perpetrators faced almost no legal repercussions, and unlike for freed persons, racial violence didn't lead to significant legislation that benefited the Chinese. Judicial rulings were mixed: the recognition of birthright citizenship was a high point, but rulings that endorsed exclusion as a national policy and recycled theories of cultural incompatibility proved damaging. Along a second trajectory, The Chinese Must Go raises troubling questions about America's tradition of popular sovereignty. In Part II, I assess this wave of anti-Chinese mobilization--from aggressive boycotts to lynchings to armed expulsions--which were justified by perpetrators and observers alike according to America's higher law tradition. Finally, in Part III, I use the local expulsions of Chinese migrants as a springboard to build a more complex portrait of inequality in America so that we might remedy it more effectively. I do so by sketching a typology of the different forms that inequality can take and explaining where racial purges fit among them. What we discover when we study inequality this way is how motivations, justifications, and consequences tend to cluster in new patterns.

All three lines of inquiry are worth pursuing if we wish to make progress on inequality today. We need to better understand our past, we need to figure out exactly how political and legal traditions have justified both cruelty and liberation, and we need to adjust our existing toolbox for attacking the various forms that inequality takes.


    Lew-Williams's remarkable work sheds light on how Americans reconsidered their fundamental values to justify mass expulsions. Those questions are back on the national stage, after voters catapulted Donald Trump to the Oval Office on the strength of rhetoric that demonized Hispanic migrants and plans to block Muslim travelers and refugees from coming to the United States. (7) Exclusion was the preferred patois of Trump and his most ardent supporters.

    Of course, it's not just Trump who's engaged in this debate. Many Americans have good-faith questions about the right amount of immigration for American prosperity and security. Even so, roundups of undesirables, the separation of loved ones, and population purges again occupy a major part of this conversation. On such matters, the political and legal responses to the so-called Chinese question during the nineteenth century yielded plentiful material for both sides of today's immigration debate to work with. Those who favor unfettered migration and a cosmopolitan vision of community lament the Chinese Restriction and Exclusion Acts, (8) along with other techniques historically deployed to deter unwanted populations. By contrast, proponents of tough immigration restrictions and theories of cultural integrity find these older ideas, strategies, and laws worth dusting off--tidied up if possible--and reused.

    More recently, in July 2019, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax generated headlines at a convention on conservative nationalism when she made the case for an immigration policy based on a theory of "cultural-distance nationalism." (9) To Wax, who ridiculed the prevailing liberal-pluralist ideology that a person from anywhere can easily assimilate to American culture, it made perfect sense to limit migration from those countries whose traditions seem distant from those of the United States, even if it meant "in effect ... taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites." (10) Elsewhere, she has written: "[W]e must ensure that bad habits from the Third World--lack of respect for law, rampant corruption and kleptocracy, despotism, weak markets, insecure property rights, lassitude, lack of enterprise, tribalism, superstition, distrust, rampant violence, misogyny, and unreason--are not allowed to infect and undermine the First." (11) To Wax's detractors, this approach smacked of older, racist approaches to migrants and is at odds with the mid-1960s political settlement that emphasizes civil rights, along with immigration and naturalization policy that doesn't presume cultural incompatibility between nonwhite migrants and America's civic tradition.

    While Lew-Williams is not the first to do so, (12) she powerfully illustrates that arguments that migrants pose a threat of moral contagion and political domination go way back. Specifically, she observes that "Chinese exclusion and the modern American alien emerge[d]" at the same time (p. 236). Seen in this light, Wax's proposal to save America's Western character through demographic controls that differentiate among countries of origin, Samuel Huntington's vision of clashing civilizations, (13) and even the Trump-Miller-Bannon view of "American carnage" wrought by foreign powers (14) all can be traced to the ideological ferment of Chinese exclusion. That rhetoric has certainly been updated to incorporate Hispanic and Muslim migrants, but its basic structure has largely survived intact--and so have the associated policies.

    The curious thing about the Chinese is that, unlike the four million slaves who suddenly gained citizenship rights after the Civil War and rose to political power in a number of communities, they didn't pose any serious electoral threat before the repression began because they weren't allowed to vote (p. 228). Chinese...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT