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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Chinese Immigrants (p. 324)

From chapter "Assimilation"

In 1790, John Philpot Curran wrote, “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.” We’re probably more familiar with abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s version of this sentiment, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” which has been used to sell everything from increased military spending (already standing at 51.3 percent of the U.S. federal discretionary budget), to increased surveillance capabilities for the CIA and FBI, to a neat little hand-painted porcelain eagle night light I just saw in an ad (“perfect for den or office”) that’s available for only $15.95, plus $4.35 shipping and handling.

Nifty as this porcelain eagle may be, I think Curran and Phillips are wrong. In fact, eternal vigilance doesn’t sound much like freedom to me, but just another form of slavery. It would be more accurate to say that the price of slaveholding is eternal vigilance: Not only must you always be on the lookout for more avenues of exploitation, but you must also be on guard against slave rebellions, and must be especially vigilant against all those others you presume to be as devoid of humanity as you are. Real freedom, it seems to me, as opposed to a nominal freedom that masks its opposite, would surely lead to a sense of peace.

An editorial cartoon from 1880 illustrates this point perfectly, and stands in contrast to the hospitality that is the hallmark of indigenous peoples the world over, who perceive the world as a place of cooperation instead of cutthroat competition. The cartoon is a panel of four drawings. The first shows a ragged white man dragging a blunderbuss, standing next to an Indian. The caption: “1620, Plymouth Rock: A weary traveler begs a little footing.” The second shows a firm Uncle Sam pointing a rifle at an Indian: “1879, The ‘weary travelers’ Descendant: ‘There, you infernal redskin. I’ve driven you from the Atlantic to the Pacific, now git.’” The third is of a pigtailed Chinese man in a supplicant posture before a rough and strong frontiersman: “1879, Chinese Immigrant: ‘Mellican man, Lettee Chinaman Landee,—me washee, washee, and me workee cheapee.’” The final drawing shows a fat Chinese man holding a saber, and pointing at a skulking Uncle Sam: “1979: “Mellican man must git.” The caption for the whole cartoon reveals a total lack of irony: “Will History Repeat Itself? Eastward the Star of China takes its way!—Population of the United States, 40,000,000; of China 400,000,000.” No comment on white imperialism here.

The way this sentiment played out against Chinese immigrants is a story we’ve seen too often. First, the Chinese were demonized. The editor of a California newspaper claimed, “Every reason that exists against the toleration of free blacks in Illinois may be argued against that of the Chinese here.” Chinese women were viewed, as were black women, as were women in general, as lustful and a threat to manhood, and Chinese men were viewed, as were black men, as threats to white women and children. “No matter how good a Chinaman may be,” wrote Sarah E. Henshaw in Scribner’s Monthly, “ladies never leave their children with them, especially little girls.” Because, white men were told, Chinese immigrants competed for jobs, and drove wages down, white wives would be forced into prostitution, and compelled to sell their bodies to these selfsame Chinese, who were then likely to infect them with the “leprosy of the Chinese curse.” (The truth was that 85 percent of the Chinese women in San Francisco in 1860 were prostitutes, the vast majority of whom had been tricked—“Even if I just peeled potatoes there, he told my mother I would earn seven or eight dollars a day, and if I was willing to do any work at all I would earn lots of money”—kidnapped, or sold—the famous Polly Bemis (born Lalu Nathoy) was sold by her parents for two bags of seed to bandits, then shipped to America, where she was auctioned off to a Chinese saloon keeper in an Idaho mining camp—into a life where many were confined to cribs four by six feet, spending the days and nights of their short, disease-ridden lives servicing men at cut rates: “Lookee two bits, feeleefloor bits, doeesix bits.”) All of this demonization of the Chinese as destroyers of white morals, you may recall from history books, occurred well after whites—the United Kingdom—had used guns, warships, and economics to turn generations of Chinese nationals into opium addicts.

Next, Chinese immigrants were killed. They were hanged, burned alive, castrated, mutilated, branded, had their tongues cut out. They were scalped. Their homes were burned. The homes of those who employed them were burned. A Chinese laundryman was tied to a wagon wheel, and the buckboard was driven at high speeds until “the man’s head fell off and rolled across the streets like a tumbleweed,” revealing, if nothing else, that some things never change. On a single night in 1871 in Los Angeles, twenty Chinese men—not even accused of any crime—were hanged or burned alive. Four were crucified by being “spread eagled against the sides of ‘sagebrush schooners’ and executed with knife and gun.” In 1885, twenty-eight Chinese men were massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming: burned alive, mutilated. A half of a head would be found here, the bones of the lower half of someone else’s body would be found there. Of one person they found only the sole and heel of the left foot. A memorial written by survivors noted that the bodies were strewn on the ground to be eaten by dogs and hogs. “It was a sad and painful sight to see the son crying for the father,” the memorial said, “the brother for the brother, the uncle for the nephew, the friend for friend.” Even women who had previously taught English to the Chinese “stood by, shouting loudly and laughing, and clapping their hands.” The massacres were so commonplace that the editor of the Montanianwrote in 1873, “We don’t mind hearing of a Chinaman being killed now and then, but it’s been coming too thick of late. Don’t kill them unless they deserve it, but when they do, why kill ’em lots.” If only the Chinese threat could be removed, that same Senator Miller from California said, America could at last fulfill its destiny and become a land dotted with “the homes of a free, happy, people, resonant with the sweet voices of flaxen-haired children.”

One of the fables we live by is that some day the killing will stop. If only we rid ourselves of Chinese, white men will have jobs and white women will have virtue, and then we can stop killing. If only we rid ourselves of Indians, we will fulfill our Manifest Destiny, and then we can stop killing. If only we rid ourselves of Canaanites, we will live in the Promised Land, and then we can stop killing. If only we rid ourselves of Jews, we can build and maintain a Thousand Year Reich, and then we can stop killing. If only we stop the Soviet Union, we can stop the killing (remember the Peace Dividend that never materialized?). If only we can take out the worldwide terrorist network of bin Laden and others like him. If only. But the killing never stops. Always a new enemy to be hated is found.

Another of our fables is that a primary purpose of the judicial system is to work for justice. But that’s simply not true. Justice may be a secondary purpose, and one pursued at times with greater or lesser degrees of success, but the primary purpose is to justify the maintenance of the contract imposed upon society by those who make the rules, as Supreme Court justice John Marshall made clear in the case I’ve already mentioned. Nowhere perhaps was this stated more explicitly than in an 1854 California Supreme Court decision, regarding a case in which a white man assaulted a Chinese man, then killed another Chinese man who had come to the first victim’s defense. The Supreme Court acquitted the killer on the grounds that there were no white witnesses, and cited Section 394 of the California State Civil Practice Act: “No black, or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a white man.” That the person testifying against him was Chinese (and not black, “mulatto,” or Indian) did not matter, because the court held that the words, Indian, Negro, and mulatto are generic terms, and “must be taken as contradistinction from white,” and were therefore included in the prohibition from being witnesses against whites. Whites (and corporations) are persons. All others are not. Because the killing of a nonperson is generally not a crime, the murders of Chinese men or women became nonmurders, and were almost invariably not prosecuted.

Even though the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution declared that all citizens of the United States had certain inalienable rights (rights which were quickly and most importantly extended to corporations) Chinese immigrants were denied these rights by the simple measure of making certain that they could notbe come citizens. Thus, they had no rights. In addition, white women who married Chinese men lost their citizenship, and, thus, even, their nominal rights.

In 1879, California rewrote its constitution. Article XIX, Section 4, of the new constitution explicitly and categorically declared that “foreigners ineligible to become citizens of the United States”—by which they meant Chinese—were “dangerous to the well-being of the State.” Section 2 stated: “No corporation now existing or here after formed under the laws of this State, shall employ, directly or indirectly, any Chinese or Mongolian.” And Section 3: “No Chinese shall be employed on any State, county or municipal or other public work, except in punishment for crime.” And back to Section 4: “The legislature shall delegate all necessary power to the incorporated cities and towns of this State for the removal of Chinese….” This is the state constitution.

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. In 1892, it extended this ban, and required all Chinese still in the United States to register. In 1902, the ban was extended yet again, in 1904 the ban was made indefinite, and in 1924, the ban was widened to include nearly all Asians. Chinese exclusion acts were repealed in 1943 (allowing a token hundred Chinese to enter per year), but the doors to Chinese immigration were not in reality opened again until 1965.