The American government isn’t infallible, which is why it’s essential that its people continue to pay attention and question its policies. After all, the nation itself owes its origins to challenging authority and the status quo. PBS’ “American Experience” special “The Chinese Exclusion Act” is a sobering and eye-opening look at a chapter in American history that not only reveals the way our nation did wrong by people who helped build it but also has clear parallels to today’s issues with immigration.
Directed by Ric Burns (who’d worked on his brother Ken Burns’ series “The Civil War”) and Li-Shin Yu, the two-hour special examines an act passed by Congress in 1882 that both prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and prevented Chinese nationals living in the U.S. from becoming citizens. This was just the beginning of several acts that sought to exclude the Chinese and had remained in place for over 60 years.
The documentary reveals the groundwork for the anti-Chinese sentiment that began in the 1840s with roots in trade with China, opium imports, the California gold rush, and the railroad to the Pacific. Even though mining and railroad companies were the ones hiring the Chinese, the workers who came before them targeted the foreign-looking faces for their hardship and anxiety about employment. In passing the Act in 1882, the U.S. government validated these fears by singling out the Chinese among all others for exclusion, which sent a tacit message backing and fostering racism against the Chinese. It’s a damning position, especially since the number of Chinese working in America still wasn’t high enough to warrant any sort attention.
While the usual types of documentation – old photographs, legal records, letters, newspaper reports, etc. – help to chronicle the events, the special’s real value is in the commentary provided by experts and historians who contextualize the events. For example, slavery had been abolished in the 1860s, and this anti-slavery stance was actually able to be used against the Chinese. The documentary reveals that by framing Chinese immigrant workers as “coolies” or serfs, groups were able to openly oppose hiring the Chinese under the guise of preventing the practice of slave labor. Similarly, experts shine a light on how Southern plantation owners were interested in hiring Chinese people as a possible solution to suddenly not owning slaves to work their land.
But the opposition was far stronger, and now that citizens felt that the government gave the green light to deny the Chinese rights, this led to open hostility and violence. The catalog of injustices range from trying to force the Chinese into a registry and jailing workers for more than a year to the ethnic cleansing of Chinatowns and the lynching of men, women, and children.
The human capacity for hostility and violence is never easy to swallow, but America had proven its ability to rationalize cruelty and barbarism in the name of slavery before, and the racist acts against the Chinese are no exception. The horrific accounts the documentary details are compounded by the fact that this entire chapter of history isn’t as widely familiar as it should be, which is of course where this documentary is invaluable.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act” is a grim subject and one that rarely wavers from that one note. This is not to say that levity and irony are necessary, but having a more immediate human context would have brought out the topic’s emotional core. It’s difficult when there are no living people who can speak to the discrimination directly since this happened more than a century ago.
One commentator reveals that he is descended from a family who had fudged paperwork to circumvent some of the injustices levied against the Chinese. Bringing out more stories like this one would have allowed the subject to hit home more. Similarly, the documentary explains the history of how all of these acts perpetuated many of the perceptions and stereotypes against Chinese and all Asians in America: the Otherization of Asians, the emasculation of Asian men, the sexualization of Asian women, and even the model minority myth that paints Asians as smart and hard workers. Contemporary examples in the media would have contextualized this further and added dynamism.
While the documentary shows restraint in pointing out the obvious parallels to the current administration’s policies — the anti-Muslim sentiments and the demonization of immigrants as inferior or out to steal jobs — it also reveals that there’s a blueprint for how people can say “no” to such mistreatment. This refusal can start with all behavior, no matter how small. Racist insults, prejudiced stereotypes, and microaggressions may have been given a pass in the past, but all of this adds up to an atmosphere of acceptable hatred that has been shown to escalate. In the wake of Roseanne Barr spewing racist insults on social media and having her ABC show promptly canceled as a result, it’s a hopeful sign that today’s tolerance for such behavior has been lowered. And it’s also the responsibility of authorities to repair unjust policies and own up to mistakes.
Defining what it means to be an American has been an imperfect and ongoing struggle since the nation began, but “The Chinese Exclusion” act is doing its part to make sure that conversation stays alive. Collectively and individually, we must decide our response.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act,” a special presentation of “American Experience,” airs Tuesday, May 29 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.