Today, residential zoning, drug prohibition, and restrictions on legal immigration are three of America’s most consequential public policies. As we will see, all three began in California, and all three were explicitly motivated by extreme anti-Chinese bigotry.  All three policies were intended to exclude “undesirables”.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that modern proponents of those policies have a similar motivation, although I will argue that bigotry continues to play a role in at least some of these policies.

Until recently, I had assumed that these three policy regimes began during the early 1900s, as part of the so-called “progressive era” of activist government.  In fact, they began in the late 1800s, mostly in California.  A recent Jacob Sullum article in Reason magazine examined this period:

‘Smoking Opium is Not Our Vice’

America’s First Drug War Was Driven by Xenophobia Against Chinese Migrants

Despite the title, the article is about much more than the war on drugs; it exposes how deeply held racial prejudices affected a wide range of public policies. 

Much of the article does focus on San Francisco’s notorious opium dens, which led to the first American laws prohibiting drug use:

These “infamous resorts” were “an unmitigated evil,” demanding “immediate and rigid legislation.” . . . That “rigid legislation” was the nation’s first anti-drug law, if you don’t count the short-lived alcohol bans that 13 states enacted in the mid-19th century.

Of course this war on drugs was not successful:

Wasn’t San Francisco’s ban supposed to put an end to that? Despite the 1875 ordinance, Rogers reported in 1876, “the practice, deeply rooted, still continues.” And “in enforcing the law with regard to this matter,” police “have found white women and Chinamen side by side under the effects of this drug—a humiliating sight to any one who has anything left of manhood.” That comment reflected anxieties about opium-fostered race mixing, including the fear that Chinese men were using the drug to seduce or sexually enslave white women.

By the way, anxiety about race mixing remains a common theme in the war on drugs, illustrated in the 2000 Soderbergh film entitled Traffic. [Full disclosure:  My wife is Chinese, so perhaps I have “nothing left of manhood”.]

The ultimate goal was to get Chinese residents to leave the country:

As politicians like Lewis saw it, the opium problem was inextricably intertwined with the Chinese problem. If the government could not forcibly remove these “filthy” foreigners, as Lewis seemed to prefer, it could at least make life as difficult as possible for them. As former congressman James Budd put it at an 1885 anti-Chinese meeting in Stockton, California, it was local authorities’ “duty” to make conditions so “devilishly uncomfortable” that the Chinese would be “glad to leave.”

Legislators certainly tried. San Francisco’s ban on opium dens, which cities like Stockton imitated, was just one facet of a broad, long running legal campaign aimed at subjugating or driving away Chinese immigrants. In addition to attempts at outright bans on Chinese immigration into California, that campaign included special taxes, discriminatory regulations, and restrictions on the right to hunt, fish, own land, vote, and testify in court.

Judges often allowed these sorts of laws, despite their obvious discriminatory intent:

“Smoking opium is not our vice,” U.S. District Judge Matthew Deady wrote, “and therefore it may be that this legislation proceeds more from a desire to vex and annoy the ‘Heathen Chinee’ in this respect, than to protect the people from the evil habit. But the motives of legislators cannot be the subject of judicial investigation for the purpose of affecting the validity of their acts.”

In other cases, the laws were viewed as too intrusive and blocked by judges holding views that in 2024 seem almost quaintly old fashioned:

“To prohibit vice is not ordinarily considered within the police power of the state,” [Justice Jackson] Temple wrote. “A crime is a trespass upon some right, public or private. The object of the police power is to protect rights from the assaults of others, not to banish sin from the world or to make men moral….Such legislation is very rare in this country. There seems to be an instinctive and universal feeling that this is a dangerous province to enter upon, and that through such laws individual liberty might be very much abridged.” Concurring Justice A. Van R. Paterson likewise argued that “every man has the right to eat, drink, and smoke what he pleases in his own house without police interference.”

Today, American politicians continue to blame the Chinese for corrupting our youth.  China is supposedly to blame for America’s fentanyl epidemic–as if we have no agency.  Not because China exports fentanyl to America, nor because they export fentanyl to Mexico that is re-exported to America.  Rather they are blamed for exporting chemicals that can be used elsewhere to create fentanyl.  As viewers of Breaking Bad are well aware, Americans are quite capable to creating illegal drugs without any help from the Chinese. And prison sentences have generally been longer for drugs preferred by African-Americans (crack cocaine) as compared to drugs preferred by white Americans (powder cocaine).  Racial bias has always been a factor in the war on drugs.

In 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act banned the importation of opium (other than for medicinal purposes.)  But even in the early 1900s, some politicians saw the folly of assuming that an import ban on opium would solve the problem:

Although “Chinamen desire opium prepared for smoking in their own country,” Rep. Sereno E. Payne (R–N.Y.) said, smokable opium “can be manufactured in this country from medicinal opium.” And “rather than not have it at all,” he added, “they would take that prepared in this country, undoubtedly.” Given that prospect, Payne was skeptical that the law would have a substantial impact on opium smoking.

Anti-Chinese sentiment also led to the very first laws aimed at restricting immigration based on national origin:

The “moral crusade” championed by the Chronicle soon inspired the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law to ban immigration based on national origin. The law, which applied to “skilled and unskilled laborers,” notionally made exceptions for certain categories of visitors, but permission was difficult to obtain. Congress also made Chinese immigrants already living in the United States ineligible for citizenship and required them to obtain reentry permits when they traveled abroad. Such policies were applauded by the “Anti-Chinese Leagues” that began to proliferate across the West in the late 19th century.

Even today, some of our leading politicians rail against allowing (legal) immigrants from “s***h*** countries”, regardless of how talented they may be.  Immigrants from poor countries like India and Nigeria have actually done quite well in America.

New York City’s 1916 residential zoning laws are generally regarded as the first example of using regulation to prevent “undesirables” from moving into certain neighborhoods.  In fact, an even earlier example occurred in California, again motivated by anti-Chinese sentiment:

Other anti-Chinese measures of this era were neutral on their face but clearly aimed at a specific ethnic group. San Francisco, for example, set a minimum space requirement of 500 cubic feet per resident for private dwellings (thereby forbidding common living conditions in Chinatown), prohibited theater performances between midnight and 6 a.m. (targeting Chinese opera), and required licenses for laundries in wooden buildings—licenses that Chinese laundry owners somehow were never able to obtain. That last ordinance passed muster with the California Supreme Court, which saw it as a valid exercise of the city’s police power. But the U.S. Supreme Court later unanimously ruled that the law’s discriminatory enforcement violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

Today, San Francisco continues to restrict the construction of low cost housing.  As a result, its already rather small African-American population is being priced out of the area, even as numerous “Black Lives Matter” signs populate San Francisco front yards.  Africans-Americans comprised about 13.4% of San Francisco’s population in 1970; today the share has fallen to roughly 5%.  If “progressive” NIMBYs get their way, even that 5% will soon be gone.

To be clear, there are many people who favor drug, housing and immigration regulations for reasons other than ethnic bias.  Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that these rules were originally put in place to exclude people viewed as undesirable, and many modern Americans continue to be motivated by anti-Chinese bias.  Recently, several states have put in place restrictions on Chinese college students attending their state colleges, and also prohibited Chinese people from buying real estate.  Unlike with Huawei and TikTok, there is no plausible national security argument for these policies.

PS.  There is much more of interest in the Sullum article—I encourage people to read the whole thing.  It’s also worth thinking about how perceptions change over time:

Testifying before the California Senate’s Special Committee on Chinese Immigration the year after Douglass’ raid, another San Francisco police officer, George W. Duffield, averred that “ninety-nine Chinamen out of one hundred smoke opium” and that “every house” had an opium den.

Even then, that was a gross exaggeration.  Today, drug use among Asian-Americans is considerably lower than for any other ethnic group.

PS.  A recent article in The Economist begins as follows:

One of the most chilling moments in America’s post-war relationship with Japan occurred in Detroit in 1982. Two American car workers clubbed a Chinese-American man to death, mistaking him for a Japanese citizen they accused of stealing American jobs. A sympathetic judge fined them $3,000, with no jail time. This outrageously lenient verdict reflected a mood that later extended to the highest level of government. Fearful of being overtaken by Japan as the world’s economic superpower, America wielded the crowbar. It imposed trade restrictions, sought to pry open Japan’s domestic markets and led international efforts to reduce the value of the dollar against the yen. Only after Japan’s asset-price bubble burst in the 1990s did America leave it alone.

Sound familiar?