In the past couple years especially in the recent election cycle we’ve seen a rise in xenophobic rhetoric. Additionally, a general perception in this country that we live in a post-racial society, xenophobia and racism do still exist and politics as of late has brought these things to light. Across the country there have been numerous racially or religiously motivated assaults and incidents showing a resurgence of these attitudes within public discourse, with publications such as the right wing media outlet Breitbart encouraging and reinforcing these perspectives. Studies have found that applicants who “whitened” their resume – i.e. changed their Asian last name and disassociated themselves from race-based honors and organizations – were nearly twice as likely to get a call back1. This shows how even nearly a century after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, people in the modern-day are still feeling the consequences that arose from it. This sparks an intriguing idea to whether history will repeat itself regarding the Muslim Ban and whether in one hundred years Muslims will continue to feel the wrath and aftermath of the Travel Ban and institutionalized racism.
I am interested in this specific topic for many reasons. When I first heard about the Executive Order (commonly known as the Travel Ban or Muslim Ban), I immediately made the connection to the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882. One of the biggest reasons being that I am Chinese and resonate with the former Chinese Exclusion Act. As a child my mother got stares from many white families, as hers was one of very few Asian families around (in Utah). She also lost close friends due to parents being racist against Asians. Much of this comes from Asians being poorly portrayed by the media and the government, and because of the history in the US regarding Asians. My family’s history intrigues me into how and why they were treated unfairly. I would like to know if the Muslim Ban will affect American citizens view on Muslims as much as the Chinese Exclusion Act skewed the perception of Asians on Americans.
In 1882 a U.S. federal law was created prohibiting all immigrant Chinese laborers, the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law was put in place mainly because Americans were worried about losing their jobs to Chinese immigrants, many americans also viewed the Chinese as inferior due to their race. Many Asian, and especially Chinese citizens were immigrating to America, specifically the West Coast, because of the job opportunities and positively growing economy. A leap from only 2,716 Chinese immigrants in 1851 to 20,026 immigrants the following year, and by 1870 Chinese were responsible for one quarter of California’s state revenue. Seeing a relatively significant number of Asians in a concentrated area, succeeding in the job department upset many Americans which set the move for an exclusion act into motion2. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens as well as halted Chinese immigration for ten years. Trump recently implemented a Travel Ban, an executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven different Muslim-majority countries admission to the U.S. The order essentially suspended the US’s current refugee program, banned Syrian refugees, and those who were traveling from one of the following countries to the US faced a suspension on their visa: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen3. The order cut the maximum number of refugees allowed in the US per year in half. President Donald Trump also stated that “religious [minorities] … facing religious persecution” would be given priority.
Seeing a relatively significant number of Asians in a concentrated area succeeding in the job department upset many Americans, which put an exclusion act into motion4. Thus, the rapid and substantial increase in Chinese immigrants sparked perceived threats and negative ideas about the Chinese race, grounded in the belief that the Chinese race was inferior. During a speech to the workingmen of San Francisco many of these threats and fears were articulated. It was said that the “industries are almost entirely in [the Chinese’s] hands. . . [and] hundreds and thousands of Chinese are every week flocking into our State”5. By using the word flocking the speaker is directly comparing Chinese people to wild animals, helping promote the idea that people should be scared of Chinese people all the while dehumanizing their race. Helping paint the Chinese in a bad light and adding to propaganda the speaker went on to say that the Chinese “live like degraded slaves”6. This once again demonstrates how the Chinese Exclusion Act was based upon the fear, hate, and threat Americans felt towards the Chinese.
This justification for suspending entry from seven muslim-majority countries shows how America is yet again discriminating against a specific group. Even the name of the executive order itself, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” demonstrates how America has painted Muslims in a bad light, assuming those who are from those seven countries are terrorists. This travel ban reflects and further strengthens the widespread fear across white America towards Muslims based on negative associations. This is very similar to Chinese exclusion, which similarly taps into discriminatory fear towards a foreign group of people. In both cases, there has been an exaggerated idea of uncontrolled migration and an inflated sense of fear. For example, after the travel ban was in place, a CNN interviewee said “the biggest thing for me, especially with having a child now, is the safety factor. Just people coming in that we aren’t properly vetting”7. Mirroring the speaker from San Francisco, it draws upon the threat of non-American citizens coming into what people think of as their own country, as well as assuming and generalizing about a group of people and their threat to America.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and Trump’s Travel Ban have a common thread: they both increased widespread xenophobia. The problem today is that the mass media portrayal of Muslims exaggerates details and facts. To help move past this problem, I propose that we open a dialogue between people in Muslim-majority countries and political figures here in the U.S. Specifically, to have a dialogue on a major reliable news source in order to reach out to the most people and grasp their attention. Using this method I hope the true story will spread throughout the media and eventually help to bring racism closer to the end.
1. Asian Last Names Lead To Fewer Job Interviews, Still
2. Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush
3. Trump’s Executive Order: Who Does Travel Ban Affect?
4. Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush
5. Workingmen of San Francisco
6. Workingmen of San Francisco
7. Lewin, Lyric
Works Cited section (MLA style)
Chen, Jenny J. “Asian Last Names Lead To Fewer Job Interviews, Still.” NPR, National Public Radio, 23 Feb. 2017, 10:18 AM ET,
“Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
Lewin, Lyric. “In Support of a Travel Ban.” CNN, Cable News Network,
“Trump’s Executive Order: Who Does Travel Ban Affect?” BBC News, BBC, 10 Feb.
“Workingmen of San Francisco.” 16 Aug. 1888, San Francisco, Stanford History Education