‘Keep California White’—James D. Phelan and the ‘Yellow Peril’ race controversy

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Emmigration, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Volume 26

The current boldness of racist groups in the United States reminds us that the history of minority rights in that great country is a troubled one.


By Mark Phelan


For nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the USA the path to acceptance and integration was difficult, with the result that prejudice and adversity are common themes in the diaspora discourse, including Hollywood depictions of the Irish in America. Yet populist racism appealed to elements of the Irish-American community also. This tendency was most common in frontier regions such as the ‘Gold State’ of California, where rapid economic development and perceived opportunity led to cultural diversity and concomitant xenophobia.

James D. Phelan’s background

Above: James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco 1897–1902 and senator for California 1915–21.

Noted Irish exponents of ‘white nativist’ ideology included James D. Phelan (1861–1930), whose legacy is well established in San Francisco. Descended from a line of James Phelans (hence the distinguishing ‘D’, which stood for Duval), he had a privileged upbringing thanks to the commercial instincts of his father, an emigrant from Queen’s County (Laois) who grew a small dry-goods business in Cincinnati into one of the great trading empires of his era. The elder James Phelan owed his fortune to the California gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the thousands of hopefuls who looked to strike it rich through prospecting, he decided to mine the miners themselves. Understanding that the wagon trails carried speculators with few belongings, Phelan senior borrowed heavily, kitted out several ships with suitable stock, and dispatched them from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn. In this way he became the monopoly supplier to California’s miners, making a stupendous fortune through profiteering in goods tailored to the infant gold industry. In time, the patriarch Phelan branched into real estate, banking and wholesale liquor, thereby becoming the richest man in California by the time of his death.

Equipped with a vast inheritance, James D. Phelan embarked on a high-profile political career that saw him serve as mayor of San Francisco (1897–1902) before graduating to Congress, where he sat as US senator for California (1915–21). As mayor of San Francisco, which was then the largest city on the western seaboard of the United States, James D. Phelan patronised the arts and preached the virtues of honest, open and effective government. A noted anti-corruption crusader of the day, he worked to secure public ownership of San Francisco’s utilities, while also condemning what he perceived to be the extortionist demands of the Teamsters and other labour unions. At the time, lockouts and strikes were common in San Francisco, and Mayor Phelan took the side of the employers by assigning large numbers of city police to protect strike-breakers during periods of industrial unrest.

Phelan’s identification with the employers paved the way for his controversial successor as San Francisco mayor, Eugene ‘Handsome Gene’ Schmitz. Of Irish extraction also (his mother hailed from Dublin), Schmitz claimed to represent the working poor, but in truth he oversaw a corrupt municipal regime that revolved around bribery and union jobbery. Phelan opposed him at every turn. Following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, he blocked unscrupulous officials in city hall from accessing relief funds provided by the American Red Cross. In addition, he advocated and funded an anti-corruption investigation that culminated in the conviction of Schmitz and his close ally ‘Boss’ Abe Ruef in 1908.

‘Yellow Peril’

Although Phelan’s philanthropy and commitment to honest government were noble aspects of his public service career, he is chiefly remembered for his persistent stoking of the ‘Yellow Peril’ race controversy.

In Phelan’s era, hostility to Orientals was a staple of cultural politics in America, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 targeting the ‘coolies’ who built the railroads and dug the mines. A vibrant ‘Chinatown’ dominated the centre of San Francisco, and its presence infuriated Phelan and other city fathers. Accordingly, they campaigned to relocate the Chinese to the county boundary, a location deemed to be less offensive to the white citizenry yet which still fell within the catchment area of municipal tax collectors. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, Phelan and his fellow racists redoubled their efforts to transplant the Chinese, only to be defeated by opponents who valued the city’s lucrative Oriental trade. In addition, the planned suppression of Chinatown prompted a formal intervention by the Chinese government, while logistical difficulties included prohibitive housing laws that acted against resettlement. Despite the best efforts of Phelan and his supporters, therefore, ‘Chinatown’ was rebuilt on the existing site, although western architecture superseded the eastern aesthetics of the pre-earthquake era.

Because of the Exclusion Act, inexpensive Japanese labourers steadily replaced the Chinese, with the result that Japan, which also menaced American minds because of its military prowess, became the chief bugbear of California’s white nationalists. Phelan’s home city was a hotbed of Japanophobia, with local schools imposing segregationist policies that embarrassed the national government, while the San Francisco Chronicle constantly articulated the cause of Japanese exclusion. For his part, Phelan subsidised the campaigners and defended their reasoning in Washington. A 1907 interview published by the Boston Globe summed up his attitude to the Japanese. ‘As soon as Japanese coolies are kept out of the country’, Phelan argued,


‘… there will be no danger of irritating these sensitive and aggressive people. They must be excluded because they are non-assimilable; they are a permanently foreign element; they do not bring up families; they do not support churches, schools, nor theatres; in time of trial they will not fight for Uncle Sam, but betray him to the enemy.’


Above: ‘Stop the silent invasion’—one of Phelan’s blatently racist posters for his unsuccessful 1920 bid for re-election to Congress as senator for California.

The coalition priorities of the First World War, when the United States and Japan were military allies, temporarily quelled Yellow Peril hysteria. This hiatus was tactical rather than genuine, however, and with the Allied victory of 1918 Phelan and his fellow agitators reverted to form. After the war, Phelan published an explosive article titled ‘The Japanese Evil in California’ before contesting the 1920 Senate elections under the tasteless slogan ‘Keep California White’. In his writings and speeches, Phelan developed his prejudiced theory that the Japanese were unassimilable subversives, far more ‘dangerous’ to white America than Negroes, who apparently lacked the Oriental capacity for industry and discipline.

As a senator for the Democratic Party, Phelan fell victim to the Republican landslide of 1920. Electoral defeat did not temper his aversion to the Japanese, however. Collaborating with a fellow Irish-American agitator, Valentine McClatchy, he instead spearheaded the Japanese Exclusion League of California, a lobby group that influenced the 1924 Immigration Act, which barred further Japanese settlement completely. This legislation contributed greatly to the corrosive climate that defined US and Japanese relations in the following years, and which presaged the eventual war that Phelan consistently predicted.

Phelan, however, did not live to see the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Dying peacefully at his Saratoga villa in 1930, he left a substantial personal fortune and an enduring civic legacy symbolised by the numerous streets and buildings in San Francisco that bear his name. Recent events nevertheless suggest that the Phelan name may be subject to evolving restrictions. Last year the University of San Francisco renamed one of its major buildings owing to protests about Phelan’s racism. As with the movement to rename/remove Confederate symbols in the South, the rebranding of Phelan Hall as the Burl Toler Hall (in honour of the first African American to be accepted as an NFL referee) speaks to the ongoing ‘history wars’ being played out across the increasingly contested American public space.


Mark Phelan lectures in history at NUI Galway.


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