Last month, I spent a day at my daughter’s future college; while on campus, I attended two short TED-Styled presentations. The first was regarding direct undergraduate lead research about the West Nile Virus and the benefits this research provides as it relates to both the Helena Montana community at large as it relates to the spread of the virus along with the value to the undergraduate students that learn early in their collegiate life the value of teamwork, collaboration, planning, data integrity, and original research.
The second session was completely different. It was a discussion on the history of Chinese immigrants in early Montana. I wasn’t certain what I would learn, however, I knew that I didn’t know much about the Chinese in Montana and that although I am conversant about the early Chinese influence in California, I certainly was aware that my cultural understanding was deficient on this topic.
The first thing I learned was that the 1870 census reported 10-15% of the entire Montana population as Chinese. Today, the entire Asian population for Montana is less than 1%. What happened? Was it that the Chinese left or that the other populations (notably European Caucasian) had merely dwarfed the early Chinese immigrants?
Additionally, the Chinese were originally drawn to Montana to work in and around mines and mining. Railroading followed mining and once railroads were completed and mining became nearly off-limits to the Chinese, services were the common employment engine for this significant number of people.
The key element is what have we learned and how best can we work together to eradicate what exists and how best can we prevent future injustice.
Now, maybe I had read about or even learned about such laws as the 1882 and 1892 Chinese exclusion acts that barred Chinese immigrants from naturalization and restricted their land and other rights. In 1872, Montana passed a law relating to Chinese Laundries and a special tax that only applied to them. Unions in Butte lead a boycott of Chinese laundries and used shame by posting the names and photos of people that were supporting Chinese businesses.
It turns out that Chinese weren’t the only ones ostracized by the system; Japanese immigrants were likewise taxed and boycotted. The difference was that Japan was an emerging and stronger global power towards the end of the 19th Century and used its global political clout to protect its citizens from such abuse and accordingly, the Japanese avoided many of the laws and societal barriers that held the Chinese back.
While these laws were clearly unconstitutional, the larger populations of Chinese in San Francisco and Seattle expressed their unwillingness to challenge these laws. These larger communities stressed keeping a low profile, avoiding the situation, and protect one’s life. Meanwhile, the Butte Chinese community, likely the third or fourth largest concentration of Chinese immigrants during the late 1800’s opted to organize and challenge these laws.
They challenged these laws under the 14th Amendment and its due process that applied to people and not citizens. They formed and participated in an organization known as The Committee of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, Marysville, Montana. These Butte Chinese, organized, challenged, and prevailed. And by prevailing, they set a new standard for all Chinese immigrants that over far too long of a time period began to erode and remove government-sponsored barriers.
It should be noted that the anti-Chinese federal statutes remained law until 1943. War does make certain accommodations and institutional change necessary. Allies are better treated than combatants.
There is a website where more research is available at www.MontanaChinese.org.
Dominant Culture Prevails
While listening and learning during this less than twenty-minute lecture, I contemplated just how easy it is for powerful groups to strip rights, privileges, and opportunities from politically weaker others. I think about the laws that some legislative committees dream up regarding restricting the rights of the LGBTQ communities. I think about how polarizing our countrymen and women are about the rights of immigrants, legal and illegal. I think about the flaming discourse regarding Muslims and the associated threat of Jihadists. I think about just how easy it is for like groups to associate and form alliances to the detriment of other groups.
Like other generations, we live in challenging times with challenging alternatives. Our political process at least feels more polarizing than in previous times. We can disagree without being disagreeable. Politicians of all parties need to be more reasonable and rationale. Journalists and media companies need to check their inherent biases as best as possible and provide news and information that is complete, accurate, and timely without embedding their own editorials into the mix. Editorials and opinion matter greatly. The ideas of those that “know” are more relevant than those that “don’t know”. With the spread of rumors seemingly faster than the spread news, this is an accelerating problem.
Meanwhile, back to the lecture. What I learned was that by being curious and open to new ideas and information, I learned that there is much more to learn about the Chinese influence, pain, suffering, and ultimately success in our Western Lands. I (re)learned that wrongful legislation wasn’t limited to the Japanese during WWII or for Native Americans (more likely ongoing) or for Blacks who suffered from both legislative and economic injustice. The list of nationalities, races, religions, and gender specific bad legislation is as long as it is abusive. The key element is what have we learned and how best can we work together to eradicate what exists and how best can we prevent future injustice.
These are difficult questions in difficult times.
I pledge to be better at understanding our past to help drive an enhanced future.