"The Chinese Exclusion Act" (PBS, May 29, 2018) and the responsibilities of the documentary film-maker

By Robert Shaffer posted 05-30-2018 04:56:15 PM


The venerable “American Experience” series on PBS on May 29, 2018 aired a 2-hour documentary on “The Chinese Exclusion Act.”  The directors were Ric Burns (brother and sometime collaborator of Ken) and Li-Shin Yu, and it featured an impressive cast of historians discussing this seminal episode of American racism.  All social studies teachers and those seriously interested in U.S. history should see the documentary, which is available for streaming (at least for now) at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/chinese-exclusion-act/. It is also available for sale as a dvd or as an iTunes download, and material about the documentary, and selected clips, are also on the website. 

However, I have my reservations about particular aspects of the documentary and about whether it will have the desired impact in classroom use.  In particular, the apparent effort by the film-makers to investigate in a seemingly timeless manner this period in American history precludes any overt discussion of particular lessons we might draw in the present moment, when efforts by President Donald Trump and many of his supporters to keep out certain groups of immigrants (Mexicans, Muslims, residents of “s***hole” countries) are once again issues of urgent concern.

The cut-off of almost all immigration from China from 1882 to 1943 not only threw a decidedly racist shadow over U.S. immigration policy but served as a template for the later exclusion of other Asians and the regulation and restriction of some European immigrant groups.  As Mike Hale, a television critic for the New York Times stated in his review (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/arts/television/pbs-chinese-exclusion-act.html) of this new documentary, highlighting this injustice serves as “a corrective to the national myth of the melting pot.”  The Chinese Exclusion Act has been incorporated into the secondary social studies curriculum over the past thirty years, boosted by the National Center for History in the Schools’ proposed “National Standards for United States History” in the 1990s and since included in most state standards and textbooks.

From my standpoint, there are four achievements of the Burns-Yu documentary which make it of special interest to secondary social studies teachers. 

First, the directors get on camera several of the most important recent historians on Chinese American immigration, and these men and women make engaging guides to the material.  They include: John Kuo Wei Tchen, who pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s the study of New York’s Chinatown and who authored New York Before Chinatown (2001), which showed both acceptance of and the gradual segregation of Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s; Erika Lee, whose At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (2003), is now the standard work on the subject; K. Scott Wong, co-editor of Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era (1998) and author of a book on Chinese Americans during World War II; Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2005), which firmly established among scholars the connections between Chinese exclusion and subsequent policing of “illegal aliens”; and Jean Pfaelzer, author of Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (2007), who on this documentary forthrightly labels anti-Chinese violence as “ethnic cleansing.”  Social studies teachers may come across these scholars’ names when doing background work for their lessons on Chinese immigration and Chinese exclusion, and it is always nice to put a face to a name.  (Tchen had been the lead historical consultant for an excellent recent exhibition at the New York Historical Society on Chinese immigrants in New York City, and that exhibit clearly influenced the new documentary.)

Second, the directors, through their interviews with these and other scholars, do an excellent job of showing how the demand by many whites on the far-off West Coast from the 1850s to the 1870s to exclude Chinese immigration, and even to expel those already in the United States, became a national issue, leading eventually to the 1882 exclusion law.  Several scholars explain that the resurgence of racism as Reconstruction came under attack, the decline of radical Republicans in the mid-1870s, and the efforts of the white supremacist Democratic Party in the South to broaden its appeal nationally all contributed to the passage of this racist law.  One scholar explains in the documentary that with presidential elections so close between Democrats and Republicans from the mid-1870s until the 1890s, appeals even for the few electoral votes of such states as Nevada and Oregon could tip the balance in the Electoral College, and these votes would gravitate to the party that embraced Chinese exclusion.  (Here is yet another flaw in the Electoral College system that teachers might explore with students, although these broader implications are left implied rather than explicit in the documentary.)

Third, the documentary shows beyond doubt that the passage of the 1882 act emboldened white racists and led to a surge in violence against Chinese immigrants already in the U.S.  To be sure, there had been earlier anti-Chinese riots and lynching, as in Los Angeles in 1871, but the massacre of two dozen Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the burning of Chinese homes and the expulsion of the entire Chinese community in Eureka, California, both in 1885, are emblematic of the heightened “ethnic cleansing” as racism had become enshrined in U.S. law. 

Last, but certainly not least, the scholars and the film-makers emphasize that Chinese immigrants did not quietly acquiesce to the new law, which in addition to cutting off immigration also reiterated the prior policy that Asian immigrants were not eligible to become naturalized American citizens.  Chinese immigrants filed literally thousands of federal lawsuits against limitations on their civil rights – perhaps as many as one lawsuit for every ten Chinese immigrants in the U.S.  Using the 14th Amendment’s wording that states could not “deny to any person” – not just citizen – “within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” Chinese immigrants and their supporters were able to strike down some (certainly not all) state laws and local policies that blatantly discriminated against Chinese.  Perhaps more significantly, Wong Kim Ark, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, won an 1898 Supreme Court decision that firmly established the principle of birthright citizenship, again based on the 14th Amendment, which states plainly, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…”  Again, social studies teachers will be able to use this documentary and the issues it explores to examine closely with students the far-reaching implications of specific passages in the U.S. Constitution.

Wong Kim Ark

So what’s not to like in this documentary?  What caveats should teachers have about using it in the classroom? 

There are a few specific lapses in historical accuracy.  While the 1882 Exclusion Act explicitly barred Chinese immigrants already here from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, this prohibition on naturalization had already been in effect since a 1790 law which stated that only free white immigrants could become citizens.  So the 1882 law was not as stark an innovation with regard to naturalization as the film-makers imply.  (That racism already permeated U.S. policy with regard to citizenship had been demonstrated in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, of course.)  One historian in the documentary inaccurately refers to anti-Chinese cartoons in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s; to the contrary, this popular illustrated magazine generally portrayed Chinese immigrants quite positively, even as it spewed vitriol against Irish Catholic immigration.

As a filmed documentary – a medium that relies on visual and audio components to mutually reinforce each other – “The Chinese Exclusion Act” falls short from the vaunted Ken Burns/Ric Burns style.  “The Chinese Exclusion Act” continues the practice of having the camera pan over period graphics, artifacts, and maps while a narrator reads from a primary source or a historian explains a point.  However, too many of the visuals here, to be blunt, are not likely to excite secondary students or even college students.  There are lots of puzzling aerial shots of rivers and landscapes that are only at times relevant to the narrative.  There is an embarrassing overuse of flickering candles over laws and articles, which I suppose was meant to demonstrate the evanescence of Constitutional rights, but which this viewer found both distracting and indicative of a lack of suitable visual items.  While the documentary appropriately discussed Angel Island’s role as a kind of West Coast mirror-in-reverse to Ellis Island, functioning more to keep Chinese out than to welcome them in, there are surprisingly few images of the buildings or the museum exhibits in what is left of this facility in San Francisco Bay.  Moreover, the film-makers often include interview footage of three or more historians making the same general point – on the significance of the Wong Kim Ark case, e.g. – before moving to the specific explanations.  I am all for establishing a scholarly consensus, but here it contributed on more than one occasion to the documentary dragging.  For classroom use, then, teachers will want to show only a few carefully chosen clips.

Eliminating some of this repetition might have provided the film-makers time to address three issues more fully: paper sons, U.S.-China relations in the early 1900s, and the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1943.

The documentary does discuss the practice of some Chinese immigrants fraudulently entering the U.S. during the exclusion era by claiming to be sons of immigrants already here, a practice made easier by the destruction in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake of birth and immigration records.  Indeed, historian K. Scott Wong speaks movingly on camera about his surprise upon learning that his grandfather was a paper son.  But there might have been more analysis of the ethical dimension of this subversion of an unjust law: was it legitimate civil disobedience, attempting to level the playing field with respect to other immigrants, or did it cast yet more suspicion on this already-despised group – or perhaps both?

Burns and Yu, with their on-screen interviews, do an excellent job tracing the U.S.-Chinese relationship from the 1840s to the 1880s, including the Exclusion Act’s clear violation of the Burlingame Treaty which had allowed reciprocity in Americans entering China and Chinese entering the U.S.  However, they let this thread disappear, with almost no discussion of Chinese resentment from 1900 until 1940 of the Exclusion Act.  So the 1905 Chinese boycott of American goods, for example, is missing.  Moreover, the film-makers miss the opportunity to contrast American self-congratulation in preserving the “open door” of trade and missionary activity in China, with the concomitant myth that the U.S. has a special relationship with China, even as the U.S. emphatically slammed the door shut in the face of Chinese migrants themselves.

It is important to note that the end of Chinese exclusion in 1943 was primarily a matter of geopolitics, as the U.S. needed China as an ally in World War II against Japan – and the documentary forcefully makes this point.  But the issue of just how the policy changed is given decidedly short shrift, coming down, it seems, to a powerful speech by President Franklin Roosevelt.  There is nothing here about the wide range of Americans, including Chinese Americans, who agitated and organized for the change.  Two other specific groups, at least, should have been mentioned.  Returned American missionaries and their children who had lived in China, including the novelist Pearl S. Buck, had long protested the exclusion policy, and they played key organizational roles in repeal.  The Congress of Industrial Organizations, a new trade union federation that challenged the old-line American Federation of Labor on racial policy as on so many other issues, also supported repeal.  Given the importance of white working-class agitation from the mid-1800s onward in constructing this anti-Chinese wall – agitation well-covered in the documentary – calls by some labor leaders to tear down that wall deserve some mention as well.  If we wish to learn about American racism from an examination of the Chinese Exclusion Act – clearly a major goal of this documentary – then surely there should be a more concerted attempt to learn about American anti-racists, including their acceptance of what might seem today to be more symbolic than real reform.

There is an undertone of “shock” by the film-makers and by some of the talking heads at the existence of such American racism, at this blatant repudiation of the words of the Declaration of Independence.  Of course, outrage is always appropriate in such instances.  Nevertheless, at this point, fifty years after the “new social history” of the 1960s and 1970s had clearly placed slavery and racial discrimination very much front and center in the narrative arc of American history, this “shock” at the treatment of one ethnic group seems naïve, even disingenuous.  Given that the film-makers link the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants with the rise of Jim Crow and the confinement of American Indians to reservations, and that some of the historians see in this mistreatment of the Chinese a stepping-stone towards the mistreatment of other groups, the idea of shock quickly wears thin.  While many Americans have undoubtedly not heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the apparent idea that this incident is marginalized in history courses today does not do justice to the efforts by textbook and curriculum writers – and by social studies teachers ourselves – to ensure that students not only “hear about” but discuss the implications of this long-running injustice in our society.  An otherwise astute article on Huffington Post by Marina Fang (the link is below) on the documentary unfortunately echoes the anachronistic idea that this important episode rates barely a mention in our social studies classes.

And that leaves the elephant in the room: What about today?  Could such an injustice recur?  Can we learn something specific from the era of Chinese exclusion for the age of Trump?   The film-makers studiously avoid any such consideration.  The quotations they use from the historians to sum up the lessons learned include comments about the resilience of Chinese immigrants in the face of injustice and efforts to get the U.S. to live up to the creed inherent in its founding documents.  These sentiments are fine as far as they go, but we have a President who has called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration, and he attracts crowds who cheer when he calls not only for a wall to keep Mexicans out but vows (unsuccessfully so far, as today’s newspapers yet again remind us) to have Mexico pay for that wall. 

Mike Hale in his New York Times review writes, “Throughout the film, the contemporary parallels smack you in the face.”  True enough, so why not address them forthrightly?  For example, can we attribute the likely increase in violence against immigrants (or those perceived to be immigrants) to Trump’s rhetoric over the past three years, as this documentary attributes the uptick in anti-Chinese violence in the mid-1880s to the 1882 law?

There may be, of course, a legitimate concern by the directors and producers that the documentary would become dated if there were too many references to Trump himself, and undoubtedly much of the work had been completed before he became President.  But the television premiere is sixteen months into Trump’s reign, and some of the historians upon whom Burns and Yu rely have spoken directly on his policies.  Mae Ngai spoke to the New York Times in January 2018 about Trump’s “s***hole” comments (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/us/trump-immigration-history.html).  Erika Lee was on National Public Radio in 2017 directly comparing the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump’s proposed Muslim ban (https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/05/05/527091890/the-135-year-bridge-between-the-chinese-exclusion-act-and-a-proposed-travel-ban).  Lee has posted on her website other remarks she has made to the press about “immigration in the Trump era”: http://www.erikalee.org/2017/02/27/immigration-in-the-trump-era/.  Surely the film-makers could have solicited some such comments in the months before the documentary’s television premiere.

To be sure, people who see Burns and Yu's "The Chinese Exclusion Act" will certainly be moved to make some of these connections themselves, as Marina Fang has done in that Huffington Post essay, "How the Chinese Exclusion Act Can Help Us Understand Immigration Politics Today,"  at How The Chinese Exclusion Act Can Help Us Understand Immigration Politics Today.   And we as teachers can raise such issues with our students even if the documentary itself does not.  But film-makers engaged with the interplay between past and present have a responsibility, it seems to me, to place the current ramifications of their subjects squarely in public view.  I am disappointed that Ric Burns and Li-Shun Yu did not do that with their otherwise valuable documentary, "The Chinese Exclusion Act."