Labor leaders like Denis Kearney and H. L. Knight of California’s Workingmen’s Party often resorted to popular racist arguments to justify the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. In an 1878 address, Kearney and Knight described the Chinese as a race of “cheap working slaves” who undercut American living standards and thus should be banished from America’s shores. A few American labor leaders, mostly in the radical and socialist wing of the movement, were more sympathetic. In this 1878 editorial in the Labor Standard attacking demands for Chinese workers to be deported, Irish-born socialist Joseph McDonnell reminded readers that the arrival of virtually every ethnic group in America had been met with the same “intolerant, silly and shameful cry” of “Go home!” Though voices like McDonnell’s were exceptional, they serve as reminders that some late nineteenth-century white Americans were able to pierce the veil of prejudice that men like Kearney and Knight erected against Asian immigrants.
The Chinese Must Go
The cry that the “Chinese must go” is both narrow and unjust. It represents no broad or universal principle. It is merely a repetition of the cry that was raised years ago by native Americans against the immigration of Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans and others from European nations. It now ill becomes those, or the descendants of those, against whom this cry was raised in past years, to raise a similar tocsin against a class of foreigners who have been degraded by ages of oppression.
The “Know Nothing” movement had its REAL origin in the dread of native workmen that they would be undersold in the labor market by the cheap labor of Great Britain, Germany and other European countries. The American workingmen were accustomed to wear better clothes, live in better habitations, eat better food, and consequently, received better wages than the workingmen of Europe. For these reasons they dreaded the immigration of Europeans, whose habits were not so independent, and whose style of living was so inferior, because they saw clearly that the new comers would be satisfied with a rate of wages that would provide them with the class of living they had been accustomed to.
The feeling at the bottom of the “Know Nothing” movement IN ITS EARLY DAYS was certainly a general one against low wages, and if it had raised the cry:
No low wages
No cheap labor!
instead of sounding the intolerant, silly, and shameful cry against Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans and all other “foreigners,” it would have accomplished incalculable good. As it was it fell into the hands of infamous, scheming politicians, who pandered to the worst prejudices of the masses by raising a cry against men of various religious faiths and foreign nationalities. This policy suited them; it raised them to prominence and office and allowed what they IN THEIR HEARTS desired, the onward march of low wages.
In our day we must commit no such blunders. We have certainly a right to protect and use every available means against the capitalistic combinations through which thousands of poor and ill-fed beings are imported to this country from China, Italy and elsewhere, but we have no right to raise a cry against any class of human beings because of their nationality. The workingmen of England have given us an example in this respect which we would do well to follow. Instead of raising a cry throughout all England against the American Chinese who have been brought over there to cut down wages, the workingmen have distinctly stated that they welcome workingmen from all nations, and that their warfare is only against the system of low wages and all who support it.
Let us do in a like manner. Let us organize and raise our voices against low wages and long hours. Let us use our organized power against the capitalistic combinations which carry on a slave trade between this country and China and elsewhere, by importing thousands for the purpose of reducing wages in America. Let our first stand be against those rich and intelligent thieves who strive to perpetuate and establish a system of overwork and starvation pay. And then against all those, whether they be Chinese or American, Irish or English, French or German, Spanish or Italian who refuse to co-operate with us for their good and ours, and that of the whole human family.
We must not forget that in Pennsylvania, and other States, where there are no Chinese, there is absolutely a worse state of affairs than exists even in China, and furthermore that America is now doing unto England, what China has been doing unto America.
We favor every effort against the conspiracy of the rich to import cheap labor from Europe and Asia, but we warn the workingmen that no action but International Labor action, and no cry but that of high wages and short hours will lead us into the promised land of peace, plenty and happiness.
Source: Unsigned editorial, “The Chinese Must Go,” Labor Standard (New York), 30 June 1878.