THE SHOCK OF CASUAL RACISM

Read enough of the old newspapers and turn of the century Santa Rosa can seem nearly idyllic, as if it were the next cute little town down the line from River City in “The Music Man.” Life here followed a comfortable routine of church socials, women’s club meetings, and appearances of third-string vaudeville acts, the bucolic pace interrupted only by the occasional gruesome accident or runaway horse. It’s the pleasant, yet numbing, sameness of each day’s news that makes the first item below such a slap in the face.

Much has been written about America’s shameful past of anti-Chinese bigotry, which was rooted in the Long Depression of the 1870s. The 19th century excuses for discriminating against the Chinese immigrants mirror exactly the anti-Latino immigrant bias of today: they were scapegoated for “taking jobs away” from citizens, accused of not wanting to assimilate into American society, and viewed with suspicion for having close ties to their homeland. Prejudice became law with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a cap on immigration of 105 Chinese annually (down from about 30,000/year) and blocked any Chinese already here from becoming citizens.

In 1886 Sonoma County, racial discrimination became civic duty. An Anti-Chinese League formed in Santa Rosa vowing to “rid themselves of the Chinese evil,” and a banner hung over the Mendocino/ Fourth Street intersection: “THE CHINESE MUST GO. WE MEAN STRICTLY BUSINESS.” (MORE on the history of Santa Rosa’s Chinese community.) Contributing to the highly-charged atmosphere that year were the murders of Jesse C. Wickersham and his wife, members of a prominent Petaluma family. The only suspect identified was the couple’s Chinese cook, Ah Tai; although no motive was ever presented, he was presumed guilty because he was missing. (A man identified as Ah Tai is arrested in Hong Kong a few weeks later, and allegedly hanged himself in his cell. Jailhouse “suicides” by Chinese were not rare; in 1900, the Press Democrat reported an inmate hung himself with his own queue.)

By 1904, the local newspapers routinely portrayed the Chinese as a troublesome, often criminal, underclass. Alleged crimes were reported prominently; in June, Ah Sam is arrested for filching 15 cents of potatoes. Ah Wing, who “misbehaved” in February, is in trouble again six weeks later for harassing the same woman, and the front page Santa Rosa Republican story about this “heap bad Chinaman” reveals that the woman didn’t press charges in the earlier incident, which it turns out, was actually just an invitation to the theatre. Wing is arrested on a concealed weapons charge, which was a misdemeanor at the time, with a $10 – 20 fine.

Bigotry in the Press Democrat was active, not only passive. While 20th century owner/editor Ernest Finley is (rightly) considered less than a Neanderthal than predecessor Thomas Thompson, Finley still disgraced himself by bashing the Chinese minority in a racist 1904 screed. And the news item below wasn’t even the most hateful thing published in the newspaper that year; scholars of anti-Chinese bigotry are directed to the Oct. 14 edition for that nugget of filth.

CHINAMAN SAID TO HAVE MISBEHAVED
CHARGED WITH HAVING MADE LOVE TO A WHITE GIRL UNASKED
Arrested and Put Up a Cash Bail of Fifty Dollars for His Appearance in Court This Morning

On Wednesday morning Constable Sam Gilliam and Police Officer Boyes arrested a Chinaman named Wing something or other, charging him with disturbing the peace. It is charged that the Celestial when he delivered the washing at a residence in this city insulted the young woman who answered the door and attempted to make love to her. It is said that he even went so far as to try to hug the girl. Anyway his behavior was very distasteful to her. A complaint was sworn out to Justice Atchinson’s court and the defendant was allowed his liberty on putting up a cash bail bond of fifty dollars.

– Press Democrat, February 18, 1904



BREWER AND THE CHINESE

In a speech delivered recently in Milwaukee, Justice David J. Brewer of the United States Supreme Court expressed himself upon the subject of Chinese exclusion in a manner that has occasioned some comment, particularly among Pacific Coast residents who have noted a close range the results of the unrestricted immigration for which the distinguished jurist pleads.. Among other things, Justice Brewer said:

“I think that the time will come when the people of the United States will look back to the barbarous laws excluding the Chinese as citizens of Massachusetts now look back to the hanging of the witches. America is the great composite photographer of nations, with a duty to take all the various races of the earth and all the various elements of those nations and put them all on the canvas to make one picture, one race.”

This line of argument is so incongrous that it can only be accounted for upon the grounds of the distinguished speaker’s lack of familiarity with the subject he attempts to [illegible damaged microfilm] ever given for the exclusion of the Chinese from our shores is that they never assimilate, and that such is a fact all in any way familiar with their habits and customs must admit. If Justice Brewer will come to San Francisco he will find a large number of adult Chinese who were born in this country, and who have had every opportunity of becoming American citizens in fact as well as in name. Yet all have retained the customs, laws and manners of the time of Confucius. They dress exactly as their ancestors did 3,000 years ago, enjoy precisely the same amusements, worship the gods and idols of their forefathers and only die happy in the knowledge that their bones will find a last resting place in the Chinese soil. They are in our country but are no part of it, nor have they any desire to become such, and they tolerate our peculiarities only because it is necessary to the accomplishment of the ends they desire, which is the accumulation of sufficient wealth to enable them to return to China and end their days in affluence. To the other arguments in support of excluding the Chinese — their immorality, proneness to loathsome diseases and above all the way they undermine and drive out the white laborer — it is perhaps not necessary here to defer, but in view of the above facts question that naturally suggests itself is why Justice Brewer should compare the exclusion of an undesirable and permanently alien population in practice that was based entirely upon superstition and ignorance.

– Press Democrat, July 29, 1904

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