The Anti-Asian Roots of Today’s Anti-Immigrant Politics

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On Sunday, December 16, 1877, most likely after darkness set in, a man named Hing Kee was murdered in his bed in the lumber mill town of Port Madison in the Washington Territory. His assailant slit his throat and slashed his face and fingers “with some sharp instrument,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer surmised, “like an ax or a cleaver.” One blow was so forceful it hacked through his skull.

We know little else about Hing Kee: how old he was, what he had done that day, who his family was, and whether they grieved. There was no picture of him in the paper, just three single-paragraph reports, the longest of which was devoted to the mill’s rather revealing (and suspect) statement that neither Hing Kee nor any “Chinamen” had been in its employ in the past two years. Days after Hing Kee was murdered, the housing for Chinese laborers, where he had lived, was set ablaze, and the superintendent of the mill ordered its inhabitants to leave.

Given these clues, it would seem that Hing Kee’s murder was not random. It was but one assault in a nearly 100-year campaign of brutal anti-Asian violence and bigotry on the West Coast. In all likelihood, Hing Kee was murdered not because of anything he did but because of what he represented to white men in the Pacific Northwest—and, as the Princeton historian Beth Lew-Williams noted in her book The Chinese Must Go, the gory message it would send to others like him.

Anti-immigrant bias has long been exploited for political gain. In colonial America, “swarthy” German immigrants were the targets of animus from British settlers. Later, the distinctively vicious Know-Nothing or American Party, beat and shot German and Irish Catholic Americans—who were believed to be criminal and papist elements infiltrating the country—at polling places during elections. But it was the anti-Asian movement, along with the oppression of Indigenous and Black Americans, that helped unify previously fractured European immigrant groups, binding them together in a cross-class identity of whiteness and inventing the entirely new and racialized concept of the “illegal immigrant.”

Major events like the Chinese massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 are often presented as isolated instances. But they were just the peaks in a century-long pattern of organized white terror that presaged this past year’s cataclysm of anti-Asian menacing and violence as well as Donald Trump’s virulently anti-immigrant 2016 presidential campaign. While Asian exclusion was broadly popular, politicians and labor leaders employed it for the specific purpose of winning over working-class whites and elevating their status in the American racial hierarchy; in the process, they helped redefine white European settlers as “native” compared with invasive Asians, appropriating Indigenous Americans’ historical stature along with their land. And while this strategy was a distinctly regional one at first, ruthlessly operationalized in the West, its adherents were successful in forcing it into mainstream national politics.