Anti-Chinese SECURE CAMPUS Act reminder of early Chinese Exclusion Act

Patrick Grzanka, Guest columnist
Published 11:08 a.m. CT June 30, 2020 | Updated 11:14 a.m. CT June 30, 2020


Opinion and Engagement Director David Plazas spoke with U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

Nashville Tennessean

Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and colleagues have an opportunity to redeem themselves by withdrawing support for this racist legislation.

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  • Patrick R. Grzanka holds a Ph.D. in American studies and is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Enough is enough.

This has become a key refrain of protests around our country that have demanded an end to police violence and racism toward communities of color, especially African Americans. The final video-recorded moments of George Floyd’s life, as he was pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer now charged in his slaying, has sparked a moment of racial unrest and social movement organizing perhaps not seen in our nation since the 1960s. This is undoubtedly a profound moment in the history of race in America.

Counterpoint: Marsha Blackburn: SECURE CAMPUS Act targets Chinese government not Chinese people | Opinion

The global pandemic has transformed our lives in virtually every way imaginable and has magnified in stark relief the astounding inequalities that pervade our society. This crisis demands leaders on the local, state, national and global level to advocate for policies, practices and laws that will strengthen our democracy, heal our economy, stop the novel coronavirus and build a world beyond COVID-19 that looks less brutal, less miserable and less unequal than the one we currently inhabit. A world less racist.

New legislation is clearly discriminatory

And yet, as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reached that unimaginable figure of 100,000, the junior senator from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, announced her co-sponsorship of a new law that would target a specific racial-ethnic group and prevent them from studying in the United States.

Patrick Grzanka (Photo: Submitted)

Together with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Blackburn is sponsoring the SECURE CAMPUS Act, legislation that would ban “Chinese nationals” from receiving the necessary visas to conduct graduate and post-graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields, in the U.S.

The bill’s architects, which include another Republican from Tennessee, U.S. Rep. David Kustoff, claim that the bill is in direct response to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to exploit “our universities to spy and steal our technology,” according to a news release from Cotton’s office. Indeed, several high-profile cases involving Chinese researchers at American universities, including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, have underscored the need for policies that might better mitigate the transmission of highly sensitive and valuable scientific information to hostile parties, including other countries.

Predictably, Blackburn and colleagues are jumping on the anti-Chinese political zeitgeist that has become the backbone of President Donald J. Trump’s reelection campaign. The political cynic in me — or realist — might also suggest that Blackburn’s proposed legislation is actually a diversionary tactic to turn the public’s attention away from the real crisis in leadership facing our country as we stare down a long, painful and unnecessarily deadly march toward a COVID-19 vaccine or cure.

More: Tennessee Voices, Episode 47: US Sen. Marsha Blackburn

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History is a guide

History, of course, offers some guidance here. Perhaps Blackburn, Cotton and Kustoff are unfamiliar with how similar their proposal is to one of the most shameful moments in America’s past: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Signed by President Chester Arthur and later expanded in 1924 to bar citizens of all Asian nations from immigrating to the U.S., the act, historians have argued, was a political tool used by politicians to court white voters amid record unemployment in the wake of the California Gold Rush.

Whether the Exclusion Act catalyzed anti-Chinese racism or simply exploited existing hatred is a scholarly question, but that the nation’s first ethnicity-based immigration law was cited in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case affirming segregation in public accommodations, is just one testament to the significance of this law.

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According to James Cantrell, director of International Student and Scholars Services at UT-Knoxville, the campus enrolls approximately 250 Chinese graduate students, roughly 225 of whom are pursuing degrees in STEM fields. This does not include post-graduate fellows at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory who contribute to the groundbreaking science that distinguishes our university as a national leader in several STEM fields, including nuclear engineering.

The SECURE CAMPUS Act, though lacking any new tools for identifying and prosecuting international intellectual property theft, would immediately imperil the futures of these students and postgraduates at UT, not to mention the thousands of Chinese students studying across the country who are vital parts of their academic communities.

Racism disguised as national security

Rather than propose practical solutions that substantively advance U.S. interests and raise the genuine security of our campuses, Blackburn and colleagues are using their powerful positions to advocate racial and ethnic exclusion. This new Chinese exclusion act, updated for the 21st century, is nothing but white supremacy and the politics of racial resentment dressed up in the banal dog whistle of “national security.”

Right now, Blackburn and colleagues have an opportunity to redeem themselves by withdrawing support for this racist legislation and ensuring that their political legacies not be marked by a return to one of the darkest days of America’s past. We are in a moment of crisis.

Communities of color, in particular, are under siege from disproportionate rates of coronavirus infection, serious disease and death. Unarmed Black people continue to be killed doing things as mundane as sleeping in their own homes. And Asian Americans are reporting hate crimes and harassment at alarming rates as the novel coronavirus continues its deadly spread. Our leaders should be tackling the challenge of racism, prejudice and xenophobia in the time of COVID-19, not scapegoating and targeting ethnic and racial minority groups.


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Certainly, competition with China is an important policy issue and one that warrants attention from experts. But dealing productively with China does not mean promoting exclusion and stoking the fires of xenophobic racism. We have been there, but we do not have to go back there.

Enough is enough.

Patrick R. Grzanka holds a Ph.D. in American studies and is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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