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This is the fourth installment in a special seven-part series "A Brief History of Nativism: Anti-Immigrant Bigotry in the American Past”, providing an overview of these major movements, as well as the accompanying shifts in American immigration policy and their consequences. 

A Brief History of Nativism: Part IV – Chinese Exclusion and Nativism as Usual

In the post-Reconstruction period, organized nativism appeared first in the far West, targeting Asian laborers. Anti-immigrant organizers singled out Chinese immigrants for violence and legalized discrimination, claiming that white wage-earners could never compete with “coolies” willing to live in squalor. In the late 1870s a group calling itself the Workingmen’s Party led the campaign for a new California constitution banning Chinese from employment, segregating them into Chinatowns, and preventing them from entering the state.

As James Crawford noted in Cycles of Nativism in U.S. History,  one delegate to the California constitutional convention summed up the prevailing racist mood: “This State should be a State for white men…We want no other race here.”

Under pressure from California and other Western states, in Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It completely banned Chinese immigration for ten years—and that provision was made permanent in 1902. Continued agitation against Asian immigrants led to President Theodore Roosevelt’s negotiation of the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan in 1907 which effectively, if unofficially, prevented Japanese citizens from migrating to the United States.

The 1880s witnessed the reemergence of Know-Nothing-style anti-immigrant demagoguery, as “new” immigrants from eastern and southern Europe—primarily Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russian Jews—began to arrive. Increasingly the nativists drew upon the new biological sciences that would come be known respectively as genetics and eugenics to bolster their case. They argued that the “new immigrants” lacked the innate intelligence and capacity for self-governance possessed by northern Europeans.

At least partially in response to this new and deeply flawed science, the exclusion of “non-desirables”—whether sorted by national origin or more individual characteristics—became an important item on the nativist agenda in the 1880s. In 1882, for example, Congress passed a law that targeted paupers and forbade the entry of convicts, lunatics, idiots and others likely to become public charges—categories that were rhetorically interchangeable with Jews and southern and eastern Europeans. Congress also adopted another nativist agenda item, the Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887, which prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States. Registration and literacy tests for voters, specifically designed to exclude even naturalized immigrants from voting, also became common.

The late nineteenth century was also known for what is euphemistically referred to as labor unrest. American workers were locked in an often intractable struggle with their employers. Many industries were continually rocked by strikes, lockouts, and violent confrontation between labor and business. While workers pressed for fairer wages and better working conditions, it became politically fashionable to characterize worker unrest as driven by foreign radicals set on undermining American capitalism.

Many believed that new immigrants brought European radicalism with them to America. The role immigrants played in the communist, socialist, and anarchist movements also helped convince many Americans that unless the country restricted immigration, radicals from abroad might soon dominate the United States. Groups like the American Protective Association organized “secret societies” dedicated to eradicating “foreign despotism.”

The establishment responded with a campaign to “Americanize” Eastern and Southern European immigrants, seeking to change their cultural traits, civic values, and especially their language. The U.S. government’s Bureau of Americanization encouraged employers to make English classes compulsory for their foreign-born workers. Most states banned schooling in other tongues; some even prohibited the study of foreign languages in the elementary grades.

Prior installments are available here:

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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