On this dayApr 26, 1862

California Targets Chinese Immigrants with Tax to “Protect Free White Labor”

California Migration Museum

On April 26, 1862, the California State Legislature levied a burdensome tax on Chinese workers as part of a campaign to “protect free white labor” and discourage Chinese migration to the state.

Chinese people first came to California alongside tens of thousands of other migrants during the California Gold Rush that began in 1849. By 1860, roughly 10% of the state’s population was Chinese. Many white citizens, politicians, and labor organizations resented economic competition from Chinese workers and promoted myths about the racial inferiority of Asian people.

In his inaugural address in January of 1862, California Governor Leland Stanford, who later co-founded Stanford University, announced:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. … There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race.

Three months after Gov. Leland’s speech, on April 26, the California legislature passed “An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, And to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California,” which created a monthly tax of $2.50 on Chinese workers in all but the least-desirable industries. The tax amounted to around 10% of the salary that Chinese laborers made at that time, and tax collectors were empowered to seize and sell the property of anyone who did not pay the tax.

Although this tax and several other measures targeting Chinese immigrants were later declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court, white Californian lawmakers persisted in efforts to dehumanize, subordinate, and exclude Chinese people. In 1879, the state approved a new constitution that declared Chinese people “dangerous to the well-being of the State,” banned corporations and local and state governments from hiring Chinese workers, and gave municipalities the authority to confine Chinese residents to one section of town or evict them from city limits altogether.

California’s decades-long campaign against Chinese people served as a precursor to anti-Chinese efforts on the federal level that culminated in 1882 with the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and prohibited Chinese immigrants already living in the country from becoming American citizens.

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