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  Current Newsletter  
Issue No. 34

Hate Speech, Santa Cruz Style (1879)

Lest you think that xenophobia, race-baiting, scapegoating, and hate-speech are a recent phenomenon, the History Dude is here to puncture your feelings of uniqueness. Sorry.

We've been there before. The scary thing is that the nineteenth century demagogue who resembles our 2016 version worked a deep vein of fear and anger that resulted in the most racist immigration exclusion in US History. Scapegoating resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The 19th century demagogue who personified (and personally took credit for) the success of the anti-Chinese movement was an Irish-American named Denis Kearney.

Quick Bio - Born in County Cork in the late 1840s, Denis (yes, one "n") Kearney came to the US as part of the huge Irish Famine immigration. By the 1870s, he had married, naturalized and was a successful San Francisco businessman. The double-headed Depression and Drought of the mid-1870s hit California working people hard, [link to Secret History] and Kearney was angry enough to be one of the founders of the California political organization known as the Workingmen's Party. Offering hope to the unemployed and downtrodden, the party grew quickly in the fertile depression-tainted soil of California, and Kearney became its most visible spokesman. He quickly found that his most productive target was Chinese immigrants.

"The Chinese Must Go" – Americans love slogans, and Kearney proudly took credit for the phrase that dominated California politics from 1876 into the 1880s. He and the Workingmen's Party became major players in California politics, influencing the re-writing of the California Constitution in 1879, and taking over, for a time, many city and county governments.

Denis Kearney, Irish native and naturalized American citizen who helped found the Workingmen's Party in California in the 1870s.

This less than flattering cartoon showing Kearney giving an anti-Chinese speech. Though some thought Kearney to be an intemperate boor, a vast majority agreed with his slogan: "The Chinese Must Go."

Duncan McPherson, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and one of the leaders of the anti-Chinese movement in California. An abolitionist and supporter of women's suffrage, McPherson had a deep seated hatred for Chinese that stayed with him most of his adult life. The family and I continue to work on finding out why.

James D. Phelan ran on an anti-Japanese immigration campaign theme in 1920 when the Japanese were the scapegoats. He lost the election. He had an elaborate summer home with garden at Lighthouse Point, Santa Cruz.

Scapegoating, An American Pastime The Chinese were blamed for everything that was wrong in late 1870s California. Distinctive in their dress, language and physical appearance, they were easily isolated and caricatured. The fact that much of the energy for this movement came from recently-arrived Irish immigrants is part of American tradition – last folks through the door turn and beat up the next – much like old-fashioned high school or fraternity hazing.

Workingmen's Party Comes to Santa Cruz – Anti-Chinese sentiment was already running in Santa Cruz in 1877 with the in-your-face named The Order of Caucasians. When the Workingmen's Party burst on the local scene in December 1877, it was led by two Order of Caucasians members who were decidedly non-workingmen: developer-businessman-Methodist minister Elihu Anthony, and Santa Cruz Sentinel editor and publisher, Duncan McPherson. By spring of 1878, the majority of the Santa Cruz Town Council were members of the Workingmen's Party. The Santa Cruz branch of the Workingmen's Party was the second largest in California behind San Francisco.

Hate-Speech Santa Cruz Style – Duncan McPherson hated the Chinese. Decades of my research on McPherson, with the assistance of his descendants, has yet to explain why this otherwise erudite and reasonable man held such fierce antipathy toward them, but he wrote some of the strongest and most scurrilous editorials against the Chinese ever written anywhere. About anybody. Using terms such as "degraded vermin" and "lepers" he declared them to be an "unmitigated curse" to California.

In an 1879 editorial, McPherson strung together every negative characteristic he could summon in a paroxysm of racism and hatred that declared the Chinese to be:

" half human, half devil, rat-eating, rag-wearing, law-ignoring, Christian civilization-hating, opium-smoking, labor-degrading, entrail-sucking Celestials."

Some students of racism consider that to be one of the most inclusive slugs of viturpation ever written about the Chinese.

Kearney Comes A'Callin' – Denis Kearney took his oratory out on the campaign trail in March1879 to promote the upcoming very anti-Chinese California Constitution, and the reception for him in the Monterey Bay Region was mixed. Multi-racial and diverse Monterey was restrained, while the folks in Salinas were a little warmer when he spoke there. He drew a lukewarm crowd of 400 in Watsonville with one observer expressing the opinion that he was disappointed to find Kearney nothing but a "little Irishman."

He hit paydirt in Santa Cruz where he spoke to a huge supportive crowd on the Lower Plaza. An estimated 3,500 people gathered between two huge bonfires to hear Kearney denounce the Chinese "long-tailed lepers." Santa Cruz was the regional epicenter of the anti-Chinese movement, and several Santa Cruz politicians hitched their political careers to the anti-Chinese movement getting elected to statewide office. Local Workingmen Party candidates were swept into office.

A Sentiment Shared by Almost All – No opinion polls existed in 1879 to provide any idea about the extent of the support for Kearney's and McPherson's feelings about the Chinese. But the September 1879 California ballot that was held to ratify the new constitution (it was) contained a referendum on whether or not voters favored continued Chinese immigration. The statewide results showed that only 6% of the eligible white male voters favored continued Chinese immigration. In the Monterey Bay Region the results were even more lopsided against the Chinese with 5,828 votes against further immigration and 7 in favor. That's not a typo. Seven total votes. Any politician with half a brain could easily see what position to take on that issue.

The Legacy – Chinese Exclusion 1882 – It took awhile for the anti-Chinese wave to reach the halls of Congress, but finally in 1882, Congress passed and the President signed the first U.S. immigration restriction based solely on race. With the exclusion of the Chinese now the law of the land, the Workingmen's Party lost its luster and Kearney's bonfires died down and went out. Kearney died in relative obscurity in 1907.

The Chinese Exclusion Act had a melancholy effect on the Chinese communities in California, and their populations shrank as some Chinese returned to China, while those who remained grew old and died. It was not until 1943 that the Chinese were granted a tiny immigration quota of 105 in return for their assistance in fighting Japan, though the 1943 law also gave Chinese immigrants – for the first time – the right to become naturalized citizens.

The Scapegoating Cycle – With the Chinese labor spigot turned off, California agriculture turned its attention to Japanese immigrants to provide their seasonal labor, but beginning almost the day of their first arrival, an anti-Japanese movement began beating the drums opposing their immigration. When Japanese immigration was stopped in 1924, Filipinos began taking their places in the fields, and an anti-Filipino movement started. And so it went. When the Japanese farmers and farm workers were taken off to concentration camps in 1942 and the Filipinos went off to fight Imperial Japan, their places in the fields were taken by Mexican braceros. With, of course, the anti-Latino sentiments waxing and waning ever since.

Muslims, the New Scapegoats – Anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years has focused on Latin America until on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. In the 15 years since 9/11, the horns of the Scapegoat have settled firmly on the heads of Muslim immigrants and Muslim-Americans, particularly following the terrorist attacks in Europe and in California in 2015 and 2016.

Solution? As descendants of previously scapegoated groups will attest, the racist and intolerant treatment diminished with familiarity and understanding. It probably sounds simplistic, but it is pretty simple: the more the majority of Americans get to know the most recent immigrants, the lower the volume of racism and hate speech.

It's time for the right-minded among us to learn more about Islam and our Muslim neighbors. When we hear anti-Muslim hate speech, not to be afraid to speak up to show the Muslims among us that we are supportive of their rights as residents and citizens of America. And to show everyone that racism and ignorance no longer thrive here as they once did in 1879.

Sources: If you wish a more detailed and developed account of the anti-Chinese movement in Santa Cruz and the region (with citations and bibliography), see Sandy Lydon, Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region, available in all local libraries.