Labor Radicalism and the Local Politics of Chinese Exclusion: Mayor Jacob Weisbach and the Tacoma Chinese Expulsion of 1885

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The 1885 Chinese expulsion from Tacoma, Washington Territory highlights the importance of local political economy in shaping how a wider anti-Chinese movement played out in a particular community. Tacoma was a newly emerging city where white residents felt the threat of corporate domination in the form of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In this context, the city’s German immigrant mayor, Jacob Weisbach, could draw upon his longstanding labor radicalism to mobilize a broad anti-Chinese coalition that blurred the divide between white workers and the local business class. The result was the forceful removal of Chinese residents following a year-long campaign that culminated in mob action and became known as the ‘Tacoma Method’. This local violence in turn fed into ongoing national efforts to secure Chinese exclusion. Tacoma’s Chinese expulsion illustrates how radical labor traditions could be turned, under particular conditions, to the politics of racial repression even as the proponents of expulsion framed their efforts in terms of an egalitarian and democratic agenda. The participation of the Knights of Labor and other labor radicals in a politics exemplified by the Tacoma Method was accordingly tied to the larger racialized American state-building project as it unfolded in the late 19th Century.

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Labor History

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