Chinese Exclusion, and the Dangerous Islamophobia of Donald Trump

In the late 19th and early 20th century, racist fears of an impending Yellow Peril swept America and other Western nations, as often representatively depicted by the classic “Mongolian Octopus” political cartoon first published in an Australian newspaper in 1886. Today, the same xenophobia once again rears its ugly head in the form of Islamophobia, yet many of the same racist stereotypes remain. But what if it is those who are whipping up the race-baiting hysteria who pose the real threat? (Photo credit: Modified from “Mongolian Octopus”, Wikimedia)

Yesterday, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump announced his most extremist position to-date. Coincident with the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour which led to unprecedented mass imprisonment of thousands of American citizens based on race, Trump’s presidential campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. In a press statement that is thin on specifics as to what exactly Trump means by this suggested policy, he says:

“[I]t is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.

In later interviews, Trump has failed to make it clear whether he plans to restrict travel for all Muslims, including foreign visitors and tourists, or if his plan focuses on immigration. Trump has not specified how his proposal would impact Muslim American citizens who leave the United States with the intent to re-enter their country of citizenship. He has also not elaborated on how he would implement his policy — a religious litmus test for freedom of movement — except to have border agents interrogate all incoming travelers with regard to their religious affiliation and to turn away all who self-identify as Muslim.

It is also worth noting that Islam is the world’s second largest religious group, and one quarter of the world’s Muslims are South and Southeast Asian. A ban on all Muslim travel would have significant impact on the AAPI community, including (among others) Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, Indonesian-, and Malaysian American people.

Sadly, the Asian American community is already all too painfully familiar with this kind of identity-based policy of national exclusion. In 1882, the federal government passed its first immigration law banning the travel of members of an entire race of people based solely on our shared identity. We called it the Chinese Exclusion Act.

To understand this country’s history of anti-Asian exclusion, we must first recognize one important fact: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act did not happen over-night.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of decades of progressively vitriolic anti-Asian xenophobia that became popularized with the arrival of the first Chinese migrant labourers in 1848. Chinese immigrants were already barred from naturalizing by the 1790 Naturalization Act that denied citizenship to any non-White immigrants. Insidious stereotypes of Chinese immigrants compounded existing intolerance, and soon America’s small Chinese population and its other Asian immigrants were deemed an existential  threat to the economic security, physical health, sexuality, and morality of White Americans.

Couched in the language of national security, politicians and agitators such as Denis Kearney of the Workingmen’s Party of California popularized a new, ardently racist anti-Asian rhetoric. Kearney delivered several racist speeches to packed halls, wherein he portrayed Chinese immigrants as a preeminent danger to White working-class Americans. In an 1878 speech, he said:

To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.

These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.

…The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper. Will he get a place for his oldest boy? He can not. His girl? Why, the Chinaman is in her place too! Every door is closed. He can only go to crime or suicide, his wife and daughter to prostitution, and his boys to hoodlumism and the penitentiary.

…California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so.

Kearney supported the full expulsion of Chinese immigrants — whom he is quoted as calling “leprous, rat-eating Chinese slaves” — with his oft-repeated motto: “the Chinese must go”. Some historians have further documented that Kearney might have even joked that a solution to America’s Chinese population might be found with “a little judicious hanging”.

Although, Kearney was dismissed by his contemporaries as “a demagogue of a common type, noisy and confident, but with neither political foresight nor constructive talent” his campaign of anti-Chinese hysteria was wildly popular among West Coast voters, facilitating the passage of a litany of targeted laws designed to oppress the state’s Chinese residents. The rising tide of Sinophobia propelled the passage of the Page Act of 1875 which essentially prohibited immigration of Chinese women under the racist presumption that we were all prostitutes. Over the same period of time, Asians were victims of mass lynchings and other forms of violent crimes. The country went on to pass more wide-reaching exclusion laws including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Alien Exclusion Act which effectively halted all Asian immigration based solely on race, ostensibly for America’s protection.

If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it should. 108 years after Denis Kearney’s death, his dangerously inflammatory race-baiting has found a new mouthpiece in Donald Trump, only this time it is Muslim Americans who must bear the brunt of the racism. Sinophobia has given way to Islamophobia, but make no mistake: the fear-mongering xenophobia that lies at the heart of this mass hysteria is the same. This morning, Trump even suggested that he might have supported Japanese American incarceration.

Like Kearney, Trump has built a platform of White identity politics around the villanization of the Other (including Muslims and Mexicans). And like Kearney, Trump employs a charged rhetoric that has become increasingly associated with unabashed mob violence committed by supporters.

Donald Trump’s latest proposal to institute a religious litmus test on travel across America’s borders is as absurd as it is (most likely) unconstitutional. However, just as Denis Kearney’s power lay with his capacity to capture newspaper headlines while delivering race-baiting speeches to a full house of rapt audience members, Donald Trump should terrify us not because he has once again advanced a ridiculously intolerant, patently uninformed, and obviously racist idea. Instead, we should be fearful that Donald Trump routinely delivers these intolerant pronouncements to the sound of enthusiastic applause.

I want desperately to see Donald Trump as some sort of long-form performance art or in-joke, but I can’t. Asian Americans have seen this kind of racist rhetoric before, and we have paid the price for it in our blood.

Trump may be a national joke, but we can’t afford to be lulled into dismissing his uninformed racism, xenophobia, nativism and misogyny as funny. Over a century ago, Kearney’s support of a ban on Asian immigrants was only the first step in this nation’s journey towards the widespread, institutionalized oppression of America’s Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian populations. Trump’s ban on Muslim travel will only follow that same road-map, and America can ill afford to allow this racist history to repeat itself.


Read More: Muslims are to Trump as the Chinese were to President Arthur in 1882 (Washington Post)

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