Five pairs of blue jeans in different washes hang on wooden hangers on a wooden rack. The different washes range from light blue gray to dark blue.
Image Source: Jason Leung / Unsplash

“White Labor,” a Pair of Levi’s Jeans, and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Earlier this month, a pair of Levi’s jeans from the 1880s sold at an auction for $76,000, one of the most expensive pairs of vintage jeans ever sold. The jeans were found in an abandoned mineshaft somewhere on the West Coast and are in great condition. Their authenticity was partially determined by the brand’s label printed on a pocket. The label includes the phrase “the only kind made by white labor,” which was briefly a part of Levi’s slogan (WSJ). This phrase was adopted at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment during that time and represents a dark and discriminatory part of U.S. history.

The first Chinatown developed in San Francisco during the influx of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush in the 1800s. After the abolition of slavery, cheap labor was needed. Initially, white communities were tolerant of their presence. But as the economy worsened in the 1870s, many grew resentful of the rise in Chinese immigrants, blaming them for the lack of job opportunities (ASHP). 

TAKE ACTION

• Take your favorite pair of jeans (or pants) and learn about the history of the company that made them. Where did they come from? Who likely manufactured them?

• Consider: Did you learn about this in school? If not, what did you learn about the American West during this timeframe? Who was centered in this narrative?

At this point, unemployment in San Francisco, where Levi’s headquarters were based, had reached nearly 20%. A rally for labor rights turned violent when the white mob decided to attack San Francisco’s Chinatown. Over that evening and the following day, thousands of people descended on the community. Police officers armed white residents with guns in an attempt to quell the protests, only to fuel the violence. Four Chinese people were killed, dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed, and over $100,000 in property was damaged. Later that year, San Franciscan Denis Kearney formed the Workingmen’s Party of California, a labor organization whose rallying cry was: “The Chinese must go!” (SF Gate).

Unsurprisingly, businesses distanced themselves from the Chinese American community. Before the riots, Levi’s employed 180 Chinese and 38 non-Chinese workers. Afterward, they only employed white workers. Around this time, they changed their slogan to “the only kind made by white labor” to differentiate themselves from the competition…and their own past (Heddels).

But this attack against the Chinese community was unfolding across the U.S., not just in San Francisco. In 1871, a violent attack on Chinese people in Los Angeles resulted in the deaths of 18 people (Los Angeles Public Library). Elsewhere, Chinese people were being driven out of neighborhoods. And the enduring myth that Chinese people brought diseases into communities, a racial stereotype that persists amid the COVID pandemic, was also created (Anti-Racism Daily).

This negative sentiment led to President Arthur signing the first Chinese Exclusion Act In 1882, which barred almost all Chinese people from entering the country (Chinese Historical Society of America). It was America’s first race-based immigration law. Canada followed with their own Chinese Immigration Act in 1885. This horrific policy wasn’t fully abolished until 1965, when the Immigration Act made it unconstitutional to limit people based on their country of origin (SF Gate).

Levi’s removed this slogan—and changed its hiring practices—in the 1890s. The brand has long since apologized and made its commitment to the AAPI community known. But anti-Asian sentiment still exists because of the political and social discrimination of the late 1800s. In addition, anti-immigration sentiment continues to inspire unwarranted violence and discrimination against marginalized communities to this day.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• A pair of vintage Levi’s jeans sold in an auction had the brand’s old slogan, “the only kind made by white labor,” printed on its pockets.

• The brand’s slogan was added around the time that anti-Chinese sentiment was rising in San Francisco, the location of the company’s headquarters, and around the world.

• Anti-immigration sentiment caused violence and discrimination against Chinese people culminating in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the vast majority of Chinese people from entering the U.S.

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