The concept of race meant something different to nineteenth-century Americans than it means to us today. Where we tend to see all descendents of Europeans as belonging to a single white or "Caucasian" race, Americans of an earlier age saw a multitude of different European races. In this worldview, the Anglo-Saxon race (Englishmen and, perhaps, Germans) were not only distinct from, but also superior to, the Celtic race (Irishmen). Other Europeans belonged to the Slavic race (Russians), the Iberic race (Spaniards), the Nordic race (Swedes), and so on.
As the historian Noel Ignatiev has famously observed, the Irish in America had to become white; upon their arrival they were viewed as representatives of not merely a different nationality but a different—and inferior—race. Anti-Irish American cartoonists like Thomas Nast drew Irishmen using the exact same racist stereotypes they applied to African-Americans; like blacks, the Irish were depicted as subhuman monkeys. Decades later, after the Irish had "become white," a new generation of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe would be subjected to the same dehumanizing, race-based stereotyping.
How did supposedly inferior European races like the Irish "become white?" Ignatiev suggests that they did it in part by embracing racism against American blacks, with whom they initially competed for work at the lowest rung of the American economic ladder. Over time, and with the assistance of labor unions and the Democratic Party, the Irish in America were able to make modest economic gains, rising from poverty to the middle class. Once elevated above economic parity with American blacks (who were almost always confined by to the worst jobs in American society), some Irish embraced a virulent strain of racism to emphasize their difference from blacks. In essence, the Irish became white—and helped to create the modern concept of "the white race"—by discriminating against blacks.
While the Irish struggled to become white, another immigrant group—the Chinese, concentrated almost entirely in California—struggled to create a viable community in America. Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in large numbers in 1852, when the combination of famine in China and gold in California made the long journey across the Pacific an attractive prospect for Chinese migrants.
The Chinese initially faced just as much scorn as the Irish, but they never received a similar chance to "become white" by assimilating into American society. They were simply, in the judgment of California's Anglos, too different. Their physical appearance, language, dress, cuisine, and—perhaps most of all—their willingness to take on terribly arduous work for very low pay made the Chinese seem almost inhuman to many whites.
Racism forced Chinese immigrants to settle together in segregated, all-Chinese communities within cities like San Francisco. Through no choice of the Chinese immigrants, those early Chinatowns took on very odd social characteristics. Whites refused to sell land or rent housing to Chinese outside of a very small area, so large numbers of migrants had to pack into a tiny neighborhood. Chinese women were usually forbidden from immigrating, so the early American Chinese community was overwhelmingly male. (In 1855, 98% of the Chinese in America were men.) With no women, the Chinese had no families. They thus lived in overcrowded, all-male bunkhouses. With no families to support and no houses to pay for, the male Chinese workers could survive even while taking jobs for very low pay.
White Americans misinterpreted all of this as "proof" of the innate racial difference of the Chinese people, when in fact it was the abnormal constraints imposed upon the American Chinese community that made the Chinese seem more different than they really were. But the impression of absolute difference and unassimilability stuck, and became the basis of Anglo-American efforts to exclude the Chinese from entering the United States.
A striking anecdote revealing nineteenth-century white Americans' belief in the absolute racial difference between themselves and the Chinese can be found in a footnote to the Supreme Court's infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that the southern Jim Crow system of racial segregation against blacks was legal. The lone dissent to the shameful 7-1 ruling came from Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose minority opinion offered an eloquent defense of the principle of equality under the law: "In view of the Constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."22
Yet Harlan's defense of black equality rested partly on anti-Chinese prejudice, for Harlan objected to Jim Crow, in part, because it meant American blacks would be treated worse than "Chinamen."
"There is a race so different to our own," he wrote, "that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the State and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by members of the white race."23