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Changing Attitudes: Is Racial Discrimination a Distraction? A Comparative Analysis Between First and Third Wave Mainland Chinese Immigrants

Written for an academic paper.

During the mid 19th century, floods of immigrants came into the U.S seeking a better life and a chance to achieve the “American Dream” - a belief that included “the individual opportunity to rise” (Winger 55). Among those immigrants (for clarity, this paper uses the term “immigrants” to refer to non-US citizens who immigrated to the U.S within the time periods mentioned in this paper) were thousands of unskilled, lower class Mainland Chinese men who, in the year of 1852 alone, came to California in numbers “between 18,000 and 20,000” (Smith 203). Nonetheless, shortly after their arrival, these men soon found themselves to be some of the most hated immigrants in America; a view shared amongst both Americans (this paper uses the term “American” to refer to individuals who were born and raised in the the respective time periods mentioned, excluding Native Americans) as well as other immigrants. Thus, the Chinese were treated with both disgust and fear, and were targeted for a multitude of reasons, in particular their “devilish” ways, such as opium smoking, gambling, and alleged violence that prompted them to be called “cruel murderers” (Kil 669). However, more than a century later, beginning in the 1990’s, third wave Mainland Chinese immigrants were perceived in a strikingly different manner. The media now classifies modern Chinese American families as a “model minority”, showcasing such Chinese as being respectful people that value education, family, and heritage (Wu 2; Liu 14). Though it may appear that the primary cause for the differing perspectives towards the two different waves of Chinese immigrants is a change in racial attitudes towards Asian Americans, it is actually the underlying economic situation that prompted the transition. The “American Dream” is a capitalist dream whereby instead of social issues coming before economic issues, it is rather the opposite. Racial attitudes did indeed transform over time, but it is veritably because the Chinese are now deemed a favorable component to America’s economy (Wu 1). No longer are they unskilled workers “who competed for low wage jobs” in the mid 1800’s (Gyory 15). Thus, although factors fueled by racism toward immigrants throughout American history have been emphasized by many scholars, the majority of persons are actually distracted by such justification of the racial and multicultural divides when the primary deciding factor is economics - specifically, what economically benefits the American people and the American government.

Although there was a common hatred of poor immigrants due to their relatively low socioeconomic status, different cultures, and simply because they were not American, the Chinese were a group that was singled out from all the others (Ou 486). They were viewed not only pejoratively, but extremely pejoratively; for the Chinese were not only foreign but especially foreign. Throughout history, native born Americans have typically been hostile to outsiders, but the Chinese were a different race than the Italians, Irish, Poles, etc (Ou 487). Americans were often motivated by fear, which in turn disguised itself as racism and prejudice (Ou 485). For example, the Irish practiced a different religion, but they were not foreign looking or foreign dressed (Ou 483). European immigrants had ideological, biological and cultural parallels to Americans in the 19th century, rendering them inexotic, or in other words - not too different.

        Moreover, difference can be alarming to Americans. Difference alludes to change, which brings uncertainty; and that very uncertainty runs the risk of bringing instability to what one would consider stable. Now this personal stability, although it can be argued socially - can also be argued economically, as made evident in the case of the Chinese. With their chopsticks and braided hair - the Chinese showcased a difference that most Americans at the time could not comprehend (Ou 487). This fearful incomprehension shows that like the other immigrants, these newcomers were perceived to threaten the stable livelihoods of Americans. Most importantly they were perceived to threaten the root of these livelihoods - jobs, but in such a way that the Chinese’s exceedingly different manner unintentionally magnified their own potential threat to Americans.  However, this does not mean that racial prejudice may have necessarily come first, but rather that the racial and cultural justifications for them were developed into systematic beliefs in order to distract the different groups, particularly those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy, from the economic issues at hand.

       In the mid to late 19th century, stiff competition for jobs and a desire for higher wages further made the Chinese unfavorable to the economic situation at the time. Therefore, there was a severe backlash against Chinese immigrants and several negative references were used to refer to them. Many of these references contained racist undertones such as the “Chinese represented a threat to the purity of the white racial system”, which some scholars analyze as a racial factor that contributed to the low acknowledgement of the Chinese (Kil 666). And although racial prejudice did play a role in the resentment towards the Chinese -  more importantly, it can be noted that the Chinese were also “widely believed for taking part in the ‘coolie’ system - a system of cheap contract labor that benefited the capitalists and undermined the white native worker” (Kil 670). Here, the “coolie system” reveals that  it was “their willingness to take on slave labor” that caused the most resentment (Ou 490). As a result, instead of the Chinese benefiting the American people, the Chinese were actually worsening the economic situation by sending the standard salary into a never-ending downward spiral. Thus, it wasn’t so much the ethical or social issue that it was compared to slave labor, or the racial issue that caused the Chinese to feel so much resentment - rather it was that the Chinese were working in such a cheap fashion that they were simultaneously pushing wages down for all workers.

         Another reference used to pinpoint the economic frustrations of Americans of the time was the term “celestial invader” - due to China being called the “Celestial Empire” during the 19th century (Kil 672). Being called such nicknames, one racial analyzation brought up by a scholar states that a “theme of the ‘celestial invasion’ was the anxiety expressed over the Chinese threat to ‘home’... for the home was also a racialized space [and since] the purity of the white family bloodline historically fell upon white women to maintain”, this can be analyzed as another racist view that enforced the norm against interracial mixing - prompting the allegations that Chinese men raped white women by literally “invading their home” (Kil 672). Furthermore, the term also shows that many Americans feared that the Chinese would eventually invade the U.S by means of immigration since many were taking jobs that were once held by white workers (Kil 672). Therefore, the statement above showcases that the primary concern for Americans at the time was the loss of jobs and the decrease of wages. Thus,economic factors can be seen to have primarily influenced the resentment rather than racial bigotry. 

          However, racial attitudes seem to have changed toward Chinese immigrants who entered the U.S after the 1990’s. The Chinese are now perceived differently - not only are they viewed as the “model minority”, but “the pig-tailed coolie has been replaced in the imagination of many Americans by the earnest, bespectacled young scholar” (Wu 1). This changed perspective has been hailed as a historical stepping stone for Asian Americans due to the fact that “before the 1940s and 1950s, whites had deemed ethnic Japanese and Chinese unassimilable aliens unfit for membership”, which may be contrasted with the present day, where according to the 2010 census “Chinese Americans today have among the highest incomes and highest levels of education of any ethnic group in America” and have “become its most exceptional and beloved people of color” (Wu 2; Liu 14). Credited as a powerful step towards a “racial democracy” in the United States, the “rearticulation of Asian Americans from ineradicable aliens to assimilating others…[is] an enterprise that mirrored the move toward racial integration at home” (Wu 5), or in other words - the present has seen a racially watershed moment as the Chinese are now seen in a more positive perspective in American society. 

       However, though the aforementioned scholars deemed that racial attitudes towards Chinese immigrants have transitioned to a more positive context within the span from the first wave to the third wave, other scholars offer differing conclusions on the subject. According to Jihyeon, although the “surface rhetoric [may have] been changed to ‘diligent’ or ‘hardworking’ [from ‘coolies’]...the image of Asians as coolies still persists in the United States. [M]any Asians [are still] the target of exploitation in the U.S labor market and the victims of hate crimes because of this very image” (20). The changing perspectives of Asians in the media demonstrates that racial attitudes did change from one attitude to anotherbut not in the sense that Asians no longer face discrimination. Jihyeon continues to say that “early Chinese immigrants were often described as rebellious, bold and emotional...thus [as a result], the model minority construct seeks to repress these characteristics and racialize Asians as a homogenous group that has assimilated well into American society” (20) - in other words, the change is shifting from one extreme to another. But, whether the shift in racial attitudes evolved from a negative perspective to a positive perspective, vice versa or stayed negative - the aforementioned scholars all highlighted and elucidated their arguments in a perspective seen through the lens of race. Regardless, this form of analysis through racial means is rather a distraction from the economical powers at play.  

For the past 20 years in American immigration policy, Chinese immigrants are actually deemed favorable to the American economy - an immense shift in economics from the first wave immigrants in the 19th century. In 1990, Congress created a “federal visa program known as EB-5, which offers green cards to foreign families who invest at least $500,000 in U.S. projects that create at least 10 jobs per investor” - to date “Chinese nationals are the biggest source of EB-5 funds, making up more than 85% of visas approved” (Brown, Fung and Wei, “Funding U.S Builders: Visa Seekers”). Money raised from EB-5 has successfully gone on to fund large scale operations such as Hudson Yards whose investors come from approximately “1,200 Chinese families in search of U.S. visas” (Brown, Fung and Wei, “Funding U.S Builders: Visa Seekers”). The governmental support of the program (demonstrated by the usage and acceptance of funds raised through EB-5) shows that whilst the U.S government and Americans have welcomed Chinese nationals into the U.S through immigration, the variation in attitude is actually the result of the Chinese now granting jobs to Americans rather than taking jobs. In this sense, Chinese immigrants who partake in the EB-5 program as investors benefit both American industrialists as well as the American government. It provides both entities with the capital needed to launch large initiatives whilst simultaneously benefiting the American people by creating jobs. Furthermore, the Chinese economy has only recently reached global superpower status (Brown, Fung and Wei, “Funding U.S Builders: Visa Seekers”). Therefore, it is only in recent news that Americans now view the Chinese as an economic partner as well as a competitor of equal standing.

        Although it is unreasonable to say that every third wave Chinese immigrant has granted jobs to Americans, this analysis of the underlying economic factor in the immigration attitudes toward the Chinese can be similarly used to analyze  the first wave Chinese immigrants.  In the 1840’s, the California Gold Rush drew predominantly male Chinese miners to the west coast to seek their fortune (Kil 664). However, it is important to note that the majority of these men initially planned to “make quick money” before returning to China (Kil 664). And since the cost of hiring the Chinese was actually only “two-thirds the cost of white labor... industries considered them indispensable and initially encouraged their immigration” (Kil 664). Here, Chinese immigration is encouraged when it benefited American industrialists as a form of cheap labor - more specifically, the Chinese were benefiting these American industrialists economically. 

      However, “as Chinese laborers continued to arrive on the western shores” in the mid 19th century, Americans as well as other immigrants noticed that although a large number of Chinese did in fact return to China, many stayed behind to work in the labor intensive industries (Kil 664).  In his play “Patsy O’Wang”, Thomas S. Denison also “hints at the...assertion that the Chinese workers took jobs, not only from Irish men, but also from Irish women" (Ou 490). Due to the harsh employment reality for new immigrants in the 19th century, many of the Chinese that stayed were willing to work in undesirable conditions (mostly out of necessity because few other options were available) for lower wages (Ou 489). As a result, the decreased wages spurred agitation from competing workers of all ethnicities as industrialists would use the Chinese as “strike breakers” to defeat the purpose of striking for a higher wage (Ou 489). Thus, there were increased frustrations among both the lower and middle classes, who then blamed Chinese (Ou 489). Thus, resentment towards the Chinese is once again, mostly fueled by economic unrest. 

      But more importantly, the resentment first started as soon as Americans and other immigrants recognized that the 19th century Chinese immigrants would provide little to no net benefit. Although economically beneficial to American industrialists (in that it kept wages low), this economic situation from the mid 19th century is reversed in comparison to the 21st century Chinese investors EP-5 where the first wave Chinese are seen as stealing jobs. Thus, here is a situation where the Chinese are currently (at the time) unfavorable to the economy. 

       Moreover, although many scholars have argued that race explains the mistreatment of 19th century Chinese immigrants in comparison to other immigrants, it can be argued that the mistreatment is not solely the result of their Asian ancestry. For instance, one such argument influenced by racist undertones was that many legal barriers were specifically raised against the Chinese - laws that barred them from even attempting to pursue the “American Dream” (Winger 55). In 1882, Congress passed the first policy “adopted to exclude immigrants based on their race and nationality” in American history and appropriately named it The Chinese Exclusion Act or the “CEA” (Kil 663). It was passed due to the growing resentment from both Americans and other immigrants alike, and in conjunction with the lacking political power of the Chinese, the Chinese were defenseless against the policy. The passing of this policy shows that despite all of the other white Europeans migrating into the US around the same time, the CEA was passed for the strict regulation of only the Chinese (Kil 663). However, what looks like racist legislation is actually a distraction for an economic sanction. By restricting Chinese access to American jobs, a less competitive work environment is projected to bring more lucrative benefits to Americans. 

Throughout American culture and history, the majority’s perspective is usually seen as invisible - for it is the dominant lens in which through everything else is viewed. In the case of the 19th century, born-white Protestant Americans were the dominating force in government, media, as well as business (Landale and Avery 281). Thus, this was the respective group that gained the most net benefits in the cases of both waves of Chinese immigrants. Moreover, the changing attitudes towards Asians, predominantly the Chinese was and is the result of whether or not the group was favorable to the current American economy. The racial justifications for the mistreatment of the Chinese in the 19th century and current stereotypes that portray Asians as the ideal minority are simply disguises that divert attention from the underlying economic factors.

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