Life of the Mind: A History of Exclusion
Faculty Book: Beth Lew-Williams
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most immigrants from China, and subsequent legislation extended the ban to other Asian countries. In The Chinese Must Go (Harvard University Press), assistant history professor Beth Lew-Williams traces the roots of Chinese exclusion. She discussed the book — and how its historical insights might have foreshadowed the current immigration debate — with PAW.
How did the debate over Chinese exclusion shape our notion of citizenship?
Our concepts of “citizen” and “alien” were defined during the debate over Chinese exclusion. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, made citizenship something that the federal government defined, rather than the states. That led to drawing boundaries around citizenship, and the primary target was the Chinese. The result was border control for the first time and the idea that border control was a manifestation of national sovereignty and security. It also created the idea that aliens are permanent outsiders rather than Americans in waiting.
Photo of Beth Lew-Williams by Denise Applewhite.