Racism in America

Chinese laborers at work on construction for the railroad built across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, circa 1870s. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images- History.com

In my previous post, I shared some excerpts from a speech given by Brigham Young in 1850. Although some of the comments made in that speech are rightfully considered racist by present day standards, they represent a reasonable example of the opinions of many Americans at that time. 

And, just as Young’s speech suggests, these opinions were not limited to African Americans. The following can be found in an article on the website of the National Museum of African American History & Culture:

“The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history. The U.S. has never been without it.” —David R. Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness, Working Toward Whiteness, and  Class, Race, and Marxism.

The site continues:  “Race is a human-invented, shorthand term used to describe and categorize people into various social groups based on characteristics like skin color, physical features, and genetic heredity. Race, while not a valid biological concept, is a real social construction that gives or denies benefits and privileges. American society developed the notion of race early in its formation to justify its new economic system of capitalism, which depended on the institution of forced labor, especially the enslavement of African peoples.” 

The article goes on to explain that although early European colonists used the word “white” to describe people who looked like them, it quickly became associated with the words “race” and “slave” in the American colonies. Soon, the three major “races” were defined as “savage” Indians, “subhuman” Africans and “white” men. Later, similar designations were used to define groups of other nationalities, such as the Irish, Germans, Chinese, Polynesians, and others. In each case, these “races” were treated poorly, found employment challenging, and often had to congregate in groups for their own protection.

The treatment of the Chinese workers who arrived in America to find work in the mid-1800s is just one example of how “non-whites” were treated. About the time that the Central Pacific Railroad was looking for more workers to build the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, China was going through a serious recession. A large portion of the workforce that built the Transcontinental, at times as much as 90%, were Chinese. They were invited and welcomed since they were willing to work under dangerous conditions for much lower wages than American “whites.” But many Americans felt threatened about the mass immigration of Chinese and treated them with hostility. 

They were treated poorly by the American government as well. In 1852, The Foreign Miners License tax law was passed in California which required all foreign miners to pay a tax of three dollars a month at a time when most miners were only earning six dollars a month. If the tax wasn’t paid, tax collectors could seize and sell their property. According to an article in the Library of Congress titled Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History, Chinese immigrants could not hold jobs for federal, state or local governments. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which forbids any further immigration of Chinese workers, the first and only immigration policy that that barred immigration from a single nation. This law also prohibited any Chinese immigrants already living in the U.S. to ever attain citizenship. Later, in The 1924 Immigration Act, these restrictions were extended to other Asian nations.

The Chinese were not alone in experiencing this form of persecution. Many Irish workers had arrived on the East Coast to escape the famine in Ireland at the same time as the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was being constructed by the Union Pacific. These workers could only find jobs like the Chinese workers — jobs at the bottom of the occupational choices. The same article from the Library of Congress cited above states, “Many Irish American women became servants or domestic workers, while many Irish America men labored in coal mines and built railroads and canals. Railroad construction was so dangerous that it was said, “(there was) an Irishman buried under every tie.”

In the 1860s the Ku Klux Klan was organized and antagonized all forms of “non-white” races with impunity. Later the American Protective Association followed suit along with numerous other white supremacist organizations.

A Wikipedia article on Racism seems to summarize the issue of Racism in America: “Throughout United States history, white Americans have in general enjoyed legally or socially sanctioned privileges and rights which have at various times been denied to members of various ethnic or minority groups. European Americans, particularly affluent white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, are said to have enjoyed advantages in matters of education, immigration, voting rights, citizenship, land acquisition, bankruptcy, and criminal procedure.”

Members of the Mormon faith, more formally known as The Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), were persecuted so much that they had to move regularly, always heading west through the various states of America at the time. When they finally decided to leave the U.S. completely, they were very disappointed to come under federal government again when Mexico ceded the land that would eventually become the United States’ Utah. After that, Brigham Young became ensnared in numerous confrontations with the U.S. government, including the Mormon Rebellion and the Mormon Massacre which will be discussed in the next post. 

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