The War Against Asian Sailors and Fishers


Beginning in the 1880s, maritime unions sought federal legislation to prevent Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Asian Indian sailors from serving as crew members on U.S.-flag vessels. The campaign succeeded and mandatory citizenship requirements for crews remain in the U.S. Code to this day. Similarly, federal and state laws limited the ability of Asians to fish, own fishing boats, or to serve on crews of fishing vessels. Few of these laws targeted Asians by name, but legislative history and contemporary media accounts indicate otherwise. Racial exclusion motivated many facially neutral requirements such as literacy tests and restricted jobs to citizens or those who declared their intention to become citizens. Since U.S. law restricted naturalization by race from 1790 to 1952, the citizenship requirement generated direct racial effects—white immigrants could be sailors or fishers, but not Asian immigrants. This discrimination had several significant characteristics: It was carried out by complementary state and federal law; it was expansive in terms of time and geography, it often used facially neutral categories to carry out intentional racial discrimination, and it is little-known today. These characteristics suggest the pervasive and comprehensive nature of racial discrimination in U.S. law the pre-Civil Rights era.

About the Author

Gabriel J. Chin is Edward L. Barrett Jr. Chair and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor, University of California, Davis School of Law. B.A., Wesleyan University; J.D., University of Michigan Law School; LL.M., Yale Law School. Sam Chew Chin is an Adjunct Lecturer, York College; Sea Grant Knauss Fellow, National Marine Fisheries Service, 2019. B.S., University of California San Diego; M. Phil., Ph.D. Candidate, Biology, City University of New York Graduate Center.