William Kent: Conservationist and Anti-Immigrant Politician

Portrait of William Kent

A leading conservationist, Kent said of their gift of Muir Woods, “When we save nature we save up an undiminishing hoard of peace and joy for millions who will never hear of us. If we have enjoyed let us pass the joy on. For our debt to the past can be paid in no other way.”

As a politician, Kent carried his advocacy for conservation to Washington, D.C. When he was elected to the House of Representatives from Marin, he authored the law founding the National Park Service in 1916. He also supported the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote, no doubt influenced by his wife Elizabeth, an ardent suffragist.

But Kent brought many backward ideas to Congress as well. During his political campaigns, he ranted virulently against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. His campaign posters read: “We must exclude Asiatics.”

Once in Congress he helped push through policies that barred Asian immigrants from owning land, becoming U.S. citizens and even entering the United States. Although the infamous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was already in place, Kent pledged his support for the law’s extension and launched a fierce attack on Japanese immigration.

As an educated, prosperous white man, Kent assumed that he was entitled to the many privileges society provided for him and his family. He believed in – and indeed, helped create -- a worldview, in which whites of European descent were superior to all others.

Because his views were widely accepted by the narrow strata of society in which he operated, they did not endanger his social or political standing. He was backed not only by the Oriental Exclusion League, but by many labor unions (that had whites-only membership policies) and mainstream newspapers. A local paper ran the headline, “Kent Against Japs” and quoted Kent, “I have been writing and talking about the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country for the last 30 years.”

When he ran for the Senate in 1920, he gave a speech at the prestigious downtown San Francisco Commonwealth Club and stated, “We who happen to be of English descent are proud and happy in the fact that the country from which we came was not overrun by successions of peoples yellow and black and indiscriminate in their breeding.”

He lost that election. But he did not disappear from political life. President Woodrow Wilson, whom he had campaigned for, appointed Kent to a high government position on the Tariff Board.

Some may wish to dismiss or excuse Kent’s anti-Asian policies by asserting that he was merely a product of his times. But that view ignores the many figures of that time – including prominent authors such as Upton Sinclair, labor leaders, educators and politicians -- who scorned his xenophobic views and fought his policies of treating immigrants from Asia as less than human and undeserving of the same rights as others.