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[LABOR] Samuel Gompers's Continuing Exclusionary Views

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  • madchinaman
    The Chinese Question and American Labor Historians Stanford M. Lyman [from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter 2000] STANFORD M.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 8 3:29 PM
      The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians
      Stanford M. Lyman
      [from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter
      2000]
      STANFORD M. LYMAN is Robert J. Morrow Eminent Scholar and professor
      of Social Science at Florida Atlantic University. A specialist on
      Asian American studies, minorities and sociological theory, he is
      the author of Chinese Americans, The Asian in North America, and
      Chinatown and Little Tokyo: Power, Conflict, and Community among
      Chinese and Japanese Immigrants in America. His most recent book is
      Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd and Other Essays on
      the "Nouvelle Vague" in American Social Science.
      http://www.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue28/lyman28.htm


      -

      Members of Congress were sufficiently impressed by Gompers'
      argument, made in behalf of the Burnett Immigration bill, already
      vetoed by President Wilson, to reintroduce the measure in both
      houses and overturn the President's second veto by a two-thirds
      majority.

      On the Chinese question Gompers never repudiated his statement of
      1894 in which he declared his opposition to the "evil effect of
      [the] Chinese invasion: [a] people . . . who allow themselves to be
      barbarously tyrannized over in their own country, and who menace the
      progress, the economic and social standing of the workers of other
      countries, cannot be fraternized with."

      So sure was Gompers that Asiatic immigration constituted a major
      threat not only to American labor but to American society that, from
      1905 until his death two decades later, he entertained dark
      suspicions about some kind of evil force at work to thwart his
      exclusionist efforts.

      -


      GOMPERS' HOSTILITY TO ASIAN WORKERS WOULD CONTINUE THROUGHOUT HIS
      LIFE. In his autobiography, Gompers recalls an unforgettable if
      hasty trip he made into San Francisco's Chinatown. In that memoir,
      Gompers indicates the prejudicial source of his opposition to
      Chinese immigration. Class was not the issue.

      I made a trip through Chinatown not the especially prepared route
      for tourists. It was an awful experience with all its hideousness. I
      had read Dante's Inferno, but Chinatown seemed to me a greater
      horror with its reeking smells, the human wrecks, gambling and mad
      licentiousness. The picture burned into my mind that night came to
      me vividly throughout future years when Chinese immigration was
      under consideration.

      So sure was Gompers that Asiatic immigration constituted a major
      threat not only to American labor but to American society that, from
      1905 until his death two decades later, he entertained dark
      suspicions about some kind of evil force at work to thwart his
      exclusionist efforts. Thus it was that in his autobiography he
      recalled meeting a man never named who informed him of a vast
      conspiracy whereby unknown numbers of Chinese were being smuggled
      illegally into the United States with the connivance and collusion
      of a clandestine network of district attorneys and court
      interpreters.

      Moreover, after his chosen enforcer, Immigration Commissioner
      Terence Powderly, told him that he had been ordered to "cease his
      activity" with respect to exclusionary enforcement, and Frank
      Sargent, Powderly's successor, had become so disenchanted with his
      inability to bring a halt to the illegal entry of Chinese that he
      gave up governmental service and returned to his presidency of the
      Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Gompers became convinced that
      there were "Some . . . Federal officials . . . responsible for this
      smuggling [who] were so high up in administrative circles that they
      were able to prevent enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Law."

      Moreover, these officials, he claimed, were not only exercising
      control over the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but also
      operating out of the Department of Commerce and Labor.

      A few years later, when Woodrow Wilson had become President of the
      United States and, as Gwendolyn Mink shows, the AFL had begun to
      conduct a "politics of union preeminence," entering into a
      relationship with the Congress and the Executive Office that, on the
      one hand, "regarded social insurance and wages and hours laws for
      men . . . as hostile incursions by government," while, on the other,
      sought "policies that would promote its own autonomy"

      Gompers shifted the focus of his heated exaggerations,
      suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy (i.e., the very trio of
      qualities that Richard Hofstadter calls the "paranoid style" that
      has so often modified American public policy debates) to a recently
      formed opponent of exclusionism, the National Liberal Immigration
      League, which, he insisted, was being financed by "the Hamburg-
      American Steamship Company, the Campagnie G‚n‚rale Transatlantique,
      and the Steamship Companies and industries generally that found a
      financial profit in employing cheap immigrant workers."

      Members of Congress were sufficiently impressed by Gompers'
      argument, made in behalf of the Burnett Immigration bill, already
      vetoed by President Wilson, to reintroduce the measure in both
      houses and overturn the President's second veto by a two-thirds
      majority.

      On the Chinese question Gompers never repudiated his statement of
      1894 in which he declared his opposition to the "evil effect of
      [the] Chinese invasion: [a] people . . . who allow themselves to be
      barbarously tyrannized over in their own country, and who menace the
      progress, the economic and social standing of the workers of other
      countries, cannot be fraternized with."

      Lest one take up Philip Taft's position that Gompers' Sinophobia was
      merely a representation of the attitude of the day, one might
      contrast Gompers' statement above with that of Jacob A. Riis, who
      traversed New York City's Chinatown at about the same time. Riis
      took note of the poverty, "dismal dreariness," "forbidding
      partitions," opium parlors, gambling dens, overworked
      peddlers, "teeming tenements," and womanless condition of the
      Chinese immigrant laborers. But, where these would lead Gompers to
      call for exclusion of the Chinese, the same conditions inspired Riis
      to call for more not less immigration from China:

      This is a time for very plain speaking on this subject. Rather than
      banish the Chinaman, I would have the door opened wider for his
      wife; make it a condition of his coming or staying that he bring his
      wife with him. Then, at least, he might not be what he now is and
      remains, a homeless stranger among us. Upon this hinges the real
      Chinese question, in our city, at all events, as I see it.

      It is a true tragedy of scholarship that Gyory failed to consider
      this argument, failed, that is, to see that Chinese workers were as
      integral a part of the labor force as the Irish workers he lauds.
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