Sowing the Seeds of Chinese Exclusion as the Reconstruction Congress Debates Civil Rights Inclusion
50 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2020
Date Written: September 16, 2020
During Reconstruction, Congress amended the Constitution to fundamentally reorder the legal and social status of African Americans. Congress faced the challenge of determining how Chinese people would fit in to the emerging constitutional structure. This article draws on a method of digitizing the Congressional Globe to more broadly explore the arguments about Chinese rights and privileges during Reconstruction. Unlike African-Americans, Chinese were part of an international system of trade and diplomacy; treatment of other people of color was understood as a purely domestic question. In addition, while a core feature of Reconstruction was ending the enslavement of African-Americans and overruling Dred Scott by making Africans Americans born in the U.S. citizens and granting them eligibility for naturalization, for Chinese, Congress chose to leave in place racial restrictions on naturalization, which had existed since 1790. This rendered them perpetual foreigners in America. With regard to labor rights, by abolishing slavery, Congress intended to raise up the freedmen, giving African Americans a chance to work on equal terms with other citizens. In the main, Congress continued to treat the Chinese people as constitutive of the so-called “Chinese question,” a nominalization that ascribed to them features of caste, from which there was little possibility of upward mobility. Congress recognized that some Chinese workers in the U.S. who were building railroads or working in mines might be subject to labor exploitation from bosses and from jobbers, sometimes white and sometimes Chinese. However, rather than intervene to liberate Chinese laborers through laws that would free them from involuntary servitude, and give them fair terms on which to compete, Congress eventually moved in another direction: excluding the Chinese altogether in 1882.
Keywords: Reconstruction, Constitutional Amendments, Chinese Exclusion Acts, caste, anti-Chinese discrimination, immigration, legal history
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