Friday September 7th marked the 100 year anniversary of one of the B.C. labour movement’s darkest moments – the anti-Asian riots of 1907. The riots targeted residents and shops in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown, with some 9,000 participants carrying placards reading “Stand for a White Canada” and calling for an end to Asian immigration to British Columbia. The riots were incited by the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) – an organization formed in San Francisco in 1905 and in Vancouver on August 12th, 1907. Shamefully, it was a coalition of 67 labour unions that founded the San Francisco AEL, and by 1908, it reported 231 affiliated organizations, 195 of them trade unions.
This mobilization of organized workers against other workers along racial lines highlights the need for a clear understanding of why racism exists and is allowed to exist, the pernicious role it plays under capitalism, and the real road to its abolition.
On September 7th 1907, a march organized by the AEL ended with a series of inflammatory speeches at Vancouver City Hall (then on Main St). Mobs of up to 9,000 flooded into Chinatown, beating people up and causing thousands of dollars of damage to store fronts. They then poured into Japantown where residents fought back with clubs and broken bottles. Canadians are taught in grade school that we live in a country built upon multiculturalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, like all colonies, Canada’s birth and development were, not plagued, but supported and sustained by racism.
Wherever class society exists, the ruling class uses racism and other prejudices to try to keep the oppressed classes divided. As long as working class people are pitted against each other along race, gender or religious lines, they will be distracted from their common enemy – the capitalist system, and will not have the unity necessary to defeat it. Fortunately, this “divide and rule” tactic has its limits. When the inability of the capitalists to meet the needs of ordinary people becomes apparent, the class questions cuts across these other questions and a recently divided working class finds unity out of necessity. There are numerous examples throughout history of the class question uniting workers assumed to be pitted permanently against each other. One example from close to home, is that of the Québec working class during the Common Front of 1972, which cut across national lines and united French and English workers against the capitalist exploitation of Québec.
European settlement and development of the colonies in the Americas would not have been possible without racism on the part of the white settlers. A belief in the superiority of their race, culture and religion was essential to rationalizing the obliteration of literally thousands of indigenous nations, not to mention people, by open warfare, theft of livelihood and disease.
Similarly, the large scale exploitation of Asian immigrant labour, in particular Chinese labour, would not have been tolerated if it were not for racism among the Caucasian population who had themselves immigrated to Canada not so long before. As many Canadians are aware, Chinese labourers played a key role in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In British Columbia in particular, they made up the major part of the workforce. When B.C. joined confederation in 1871, it was under the condition that a railway be built linking B.C. with eastern Canada within ten years. “It is simply a matter of alternatives” said Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in relation to the hiring of cheep Chinese labour; “either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway.”
In 1880, an initial 7,000 Chinese workers were brought from California, and another 5,000 were brought directly from China, basically sold by Chinese gangs with representatives in Victoria (B.C.’s capital city). These workers lived and worked in abysmal conditions, making just $1 a day, while white, black and native workers made approximately $3 a day. The most dangerous stretch of railway, the 500 km that go through the Fraser Canyon, was built almost entirely by Chinese labourers. To give an idea of just how unsafe the conditions were, by the end of 1881, only 1,500 workers remained from the latter group of 5,000 who came from China. The rest had died from illness or in explosions and other construction accidents. So, the contractors arranged for more Chinese labourers to be shipped over.
The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 meant that, as far as the Canadian government was concerned, there was no more need for Chinese immigration. Many of the workers who had survived the building of the railway found work in B.C.’s deadly coalmines, where they faced the same conditions of exploitation. In Cumberland, home to some of the world’s most deadly coalmines at the time, the museum still displays the original company lists of the names of hundreds of miners killed on the job. Names, that is, unless the fallen miner was Chinese, in which case he was listed, “Chinaman #1, Chinaman #2, etc…”
In 1885, the Canadian government passed the infamous “Chinese Immigration Act”, requiring a $50 head tax on each Chinese immigrant to Canada. This amount was raised to $100 in 1900, and $500 in 1904 (a significant amount of money at the time). Additionally, the Chinese Immigration Act threatened Chinese workers with deportation if they participated in a union. In Cumberland’s Big Strike of 1912, this meant that the Chinese workers, having paid their life savings to come to Canada, crossed the picket lines, creating a major rift between the workers, along racial lines. The same scenario was played out elsewhere.
The ruling class continues to use racism to justify the increased exploitation of groups of workers. In America, Latin American immigrants are paid poverty wages to subsidize the profits of huge janitorial companies. Filipino women with multiple science degrees are employed for less than minimum wage to care for the children of wealthy Canadians and Americans. In large factories, workers are divided by race, with foremen who speak their own language, in hopes that this will undermine any possible attempts at unionization. In these instances, racism is not just about race, but about profit. Race is simply a pawn in the profit-making game of the capitalists.
To view racism as a simple issue of one race pitted against another, or even one race exploiting another is a gross over-simplification. In a system that prioritizes profit at all cost, racial, religious, cultural, and other differences will be exploited wherever it is profitable. The specifics are somewhat random. As an example, a Spanish woman immigrating to Britain might be expected to clean toilets for a poverty wage and be treated as a second class citizen. In the Americas however, and South America in particular, where the Spanish were the colonizers, this same woman would enjoy a position of privilege where race is concerned.
We find that all around the world, there are those that exploit and those that are exploited – those that profit off the work of others, and those that work for the profit of others. Both camps include people of all races, religions, cultures and ethnicities. It would be ignorant to deny that racial inequality exists. Race however, is not sufficient as an explanation for it. If it is a simple matter of “all whites” as a homogeneous group naturally being prone to subjugate “all non-whites” as a homogenous group, then we have no explanation for the Condoleeza Rices and the Li Ka-shings of the world, or for the millions of white working class and poor people who themselves struggle to survive within the capitalist system.
Racism and other prejudices are born out of fear, ignorance and superstition, including religious superstition. What could foster racism more than a belief that “my people” will go to heaven, while all others will not? Even supposedly alternative concepts such as the new age take on karma or the notion (popularized by The Secret) – that “if you only visualize positive things, they will come to you” – foster and enforce racism and distract from the class divisions and economic system that really cause misery around the world. These ideas are a slap in the face to the third world. Are whole regions of Africa and the Middle East in a current state of barbarism because the people there did not “ask, believe, and receive” good things? Are the world’s wealthiest elite in the United States in the positions they are in because of the good they have done for others? The conclusions that one would have to draw are absurd.
The capitalist class maintains and, when profitable, attempts to deepen prejudices among the working class. The capitalist system itself also sustains prejudices by creating want and competition among neighbours. It is ignorance about the lives and beliefs of other people that makes someone who is visibly “different” an easy target for blame when life feels like a constant and confusing struggle. Without want and hardship, there would be no need to seek such scapegoats. Without ignorance and superstition, there would be no reason to fear those who look different or lead different lives. But want and hardship will exist as long as the capitalist system exists, because it depends on the increasing exploitation of the majority of the population. Ignorance and superstition will similarly exist as long as a whole layer of society are deprived of a decent education.
The socialist transformation of society will sweep away all of the class contradictions, poverty and despair that breed prejudice. The billions of dollars produced on a daily basis will be freed up and invested in real decent social programs, including healthcare and free education. Full employment will lead to shorter working hours, freeing up time for education and participation in the running of society. Rising standards for the vast majority of the world’s population will do away with feelings of fear, want and competition. There will be no reason to seek scapegoats when the real culprit – the capitalist system – has been eliminated. Socialism will create the material preconditions for a world without racism.
Campaigning against racism, sexism and other prejudices is not enough to do away with these symptoms of a sick society. Absolutely, we must fight with determination against the ignorance and prejudice that exist in the ranks of the labour movement, but it must be in the larger context of doing away with the capitalist system, or our efforts and precious time will be wasted.