Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xii + 354 pp. Photos,
notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-4739-9 ISBN
0-8078-2432-1; $19.95 (paper), ISBN .
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. x + 338 pp. Photos, notes,
bibliography, and index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-06371-6 .
Louis C. Anthes , Department of History and School of Law, New York
Top-Down, Bottom-Up, and All-Around:
Race, Immigration, and the Politics of
Color in American History
Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the
newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French,
Russians, and Swedes are generally what we call a swarthy complexion; as are
the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the
principle body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their
numbers were increased" (Benjamin Franklin, 1751).
taxonomy is hardly an oddity from late colonial British North America. In
truth, the myth underlying it persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Though the particulars changed, Americans continually color-coded
their visions of the one and the many.
recent books examine color-coding in American history. Andrew Gyory's
Closing the Gate and Matthew Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different
Color explore the realm lying between "black" and "white" through the
lens of immigration history. Gyory focuses on the history of the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882; Jacobson offers a survey of the history of European
immigration. Both authors accept race as constructed, but they emphasize
differently how such constructions have been made. Whereas Gyory focuses on
labor and political history, Jacobson approaches the topic from cultural
history. Taken together, these two works demonstrate that race consciousness
history has been top-down, bottom-up, and all-around.
an independent scholar who received his Ph.D. in history from the University
of Massachusetts, asks a "simple question: Why did the United States
pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882?" (p. 1). Not surprisingly, his
simple question deserves a not-so simple answer, and it in fact, requires
rejecting three theses that historians have previously offered: first, that
Californians demanded the law; second, that a racist atmosphere pervaded
nineteenth-century American culture; third, that the national labor movement
lobbied for the law. In a carefully documented presentation, Gyory argues
that "The Chinese Exclusion Act provides a classic example of top-down
politics and opens a unique window for viewing the political system of the
Gilded Age" (p. 15).
heart of Gyory's argument lies a distinction that he claims most Americans
east of the Rocky Mountains accepted. He notes that throughout the 1870s,
"the bulk of eastern workers ... remained steadfast in the opposition to
imported labor and support for voluntary immigration" (pp. 44, 67). And so,
although most favored immigration regulation, they aimed to end "contract
labor"--the practice of hiring immigrant workers in groups. According to
Gyory, the distinction between "importation" and "immigration" represented a
solidarity "from below," as workers recognized employers importing Chinese
labor as an attempt to weaken their movement. It is the strongest claim of
his book, and the clarity with which he presents it earns him a respectable
place in the historiography about anti-Chinese politics in American history.
Although labor solidarity at times looked forward to international socialism
(pp. 88), it also recalled the ideals of abolitionism and the politics of
Free Labor, which communicated certain meanings of "freedom" dear to those
movements. For example, in a debate over whether Congress should strike the
word "white" from the 1790 law limiting citizenship to "free white persons,"
one Republican senator from Wisconsin proposed instead limiting citizenship
by creating a religious test for immigrants, barring unrepentant "pagans."
In the same debate, Senator Lyman Trumbull, author of the Civil Rights Act
of 1866, rhetorically asked his fellow Senators: "is it proposed to deny the
right of naturalization to the Chinaman, who is infinitely above the African
in intelligence, in manhood, and in every respect?" (pp. 51). Such remarks,
which betrayed other chauvinisms in the name of protecting Chinese
immigrants, were also echoed in the rhetoric of striking workers. In the
Cigar Makers' strike of 1877 in New York City, one labor newspaper observed
that the Chinese had proven to be reliable picketers and noted that the
Chinese "showed themselves capable of REAL civilization" (pp. 98).
often underanalyzes the racial meanings implicit here. By emphasizing how
little anti-Chinese sentiment existed outside California, Gyory overlooks
how race informed solidarity on the east coast. For instance, Gyory
describes one St. Patrick's Day banquet in Connecticut, at which the
director of a Chinese Educational Mission, Yung Wing, told attendees of his
hopes that the "two races progress in Christian education and civilization"
(pp. 92). For Gyory, such tributes represented a kind of "interethnic
unity." But he misses how both groups conceived of themselves as having
"racial," not "ethnic," identity, and ignores that "unity" was articulated
in terms of "Christianity" and "civilization."
ignores how ideas about race often consolidated, rather than divided,
Americans. Ideas such as Christianity and civilization, which when not
explicitly associated with "whiteness" (though they often were --see,
e.g. p. 194), could imply a shared identity of race-lessness. This
particular idea of race, as being an attribute of the civilized Christian,
goes to the heart of the pro-immigration / anti-importation distinction.
Only by admitting, assimilating, and converting, Chinese immigrants one at a
time could native-born Americans accept them. As one Massachusetts worker
revealingly opined: "I don't object to their coming here. Let 'em come
single-handed, like other emigrants, and take their chance. But they come
banded together. That isn't right" (pp. 42). Such typical thoughts, rather
than those coming from figures like Dennis Kearney, constantly led Congress
to consider passing laws, just short of total exclusion, aimed at
restricting Chinese immigrants from coming as single men, rather than with
families (p. 213), or from coming "together" on boats, fifteen or more at a
time (pp. 136-68). Although Gyory argues that political "manipulation" was
the "essence" of anti-Chinese politics (p. 257), we might properly suspect
that its "essence" also entailed its opposite: an "acquiescence" to the
values of a kind of American individualism rooted in certain ideals about
contrast to Andrew Gyory's professedly "top-down" history, Matthew Frye
Jacobson, an assistant professor of American Studies and History at Yale
University, decentralizes racial politics in his survey of European
immigration to the United States. "Racial categories themselves," he writes,
"reflect competing notions of history, peoplehood, and collective destiny by
which power has been organized and contested on the American scene" (p. 9).
Emphasizing racial "fluidity," "vicissitude," and "mutability," Jacobson's
account seeks to demonstrate that to "write about race in American culture
is to exclude virtually nothing" (p. 11). If his project seems so broad as
to be meaningless, he is aware of this irony, since he describes his project
as rendering something "at once so thick" and yet so "vaporous." In other
words, race does not exist, yet it exists all-around.
thesis of Whiteness of a Different Color is principally that the
history of European immigration should not be represented uncritically in
terms of the history of "ethnicity." As he complains: "historians have most
often cast the history of nineteenth-century immigration in the logic of
twentieth-century 'ethnic' groups" (p. 6). In the spirit of David Roediger,
The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
(1991), and Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Volume One:
Racial Oppression and Social Control (1994), Jacobson argues that what
needs to be understood is how different Europeans have always been ascribed
a place in America's racial color-coding scheme, only to be caught in the
push and pull of, what W.E.B. DuBois aptly named, the "wages of whiteness."
Jacobson's important book helps to fill an important gap in the literature
about the history of European immigrants assuming different racial
identities in the United States. Many legal scholars will welcome it, as it
substantiates an argument that Harvard Law School Professor Patricia
Williams has made about the impoverishment of contemporary racial discourse:
"I suspect that a realization that a culture of whiteness exists is
occasioned only rarely. ... [P]erhaps it is easier to look at immigrant
communities of those whom we now call whites in order to recapture the
extent to which acculturation in the United States is assimilationist in a
deeply color-coded sense" (Patricia Williams, "Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v.
FCC: Regrouping in Singluar Times," 104 Harvard Law Review 530
example, Jacobson explains how immigrants from Italy in the 1890s lived in a
"racial middle ground" within the binary world of white-over-black. Though
entitled to citizenship according to the Naturalization Law of 1790, which
permitted "free white persons" to naturalize, Italians in the Jim Crow south
were socially segregated by self-ascribed whites, who referred to them as
"dagoes" and "white niggers" (p. 57). As Jacobson points out, color itself
was not simply determinative of race, as if it could be, but was associated
with a set of "social arbiters" such as manners, employment, and housing:
"Italians were known to have been lynched for alleged crimes, or even for
violating local racial codes by 'fraternizing' with blacks." As one merchant
in New Orleans complained at the time, "I had rather have a thousand
Chinamen than one Italian" (p. 58).
other hand, though, European immigrants could also try and claim the
privileges of identifying as white. By the middle of the twentieth century
in fact, claims to whiteness tended to dominate the thinking of those
identifying as descendants of European immigrants. "As if by collective
fiat," Jacobson observes about the 1930s, "race was willfully erased among
the so-called minor divisions of humanity; the culture-based notion of
'ethnicity' was urgently and decisively proposed in its place; and the
racial characteristics of Jewishness or Irishness or Greekness were
emphatically revised away as a matter of sober, war-chastened 'tolerance'"
consequence of Jacobson's analysis is his provocative claim that liberal
coalition politics that constituted the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s
and 1960s led to unintended consequences that did not benefit blacks: "[I]n
forging a new politics of racial justice along an axis of black and white,
progressives did help to shift the most salient lines of racial identity,
beginning at a moment when the consolidated whiteness of the new immigrants
was not at all a forgone conclusion" (p. 272). That is to say, the very
effort of assimilating blacks into "white" America reaffirmed European
immigrants' place there. In the name of racial justice, the Civil Rights
movement helped settle an identity of "white" for Europeans who had
previously been troubled by that same identity.
virtue of Jacobson's book--his attention to the fluidity of color-coding,
its historicity--is also perhaps its vice. By taking in the whole scenery of
race, it looses the sense of focus that Gyory's book nicely provides.
Gyory's book has the virtue of showing how race was mobilized politically to
change the law.
politicians thus appear to bear responsibility for racism. By contrast,
Jacobson seems to suggest that traditional examples of racial
coalition-building have been of severely limited effect.
same time, though, because of his broad sweep of history, Jacobson is able
to reveal previously ignored ways in which anti-racism coalitions have
succeeded without yielding to assimilationist ideology. For instance,
Jacobson calls attention to the case of American Communist August Yokinen, a
Finnish immigrant accused of failing to intervene while others tried to
expel black workers from attending a dance at a Finnish Club in Harlem, New York.
For his crime of inaction, the Party put Yokinen on trial before "1500 white
and Negro workers," and he was "convicted" and "sentenced" to promote racial
equality (pp. 251-54). Jacobson shows how passively identifying as white,
and then not acting in the face of racist violence, was, for New York
Communists, regarded as racist itself. In this episode, racial politics
became not simply a liberal program of including members of an "out" group,
and so defining the "we" as equal Americans. The organizers of Yokinen's
trial wanted to go deeper, forcing people to be constantly aware of how
people assert race, without seeming to assert it.
country that constitutionalized a system of racial slavery and legally
naturalized only "free white persons," the study of the history of
immigration to the United States must always account for its founding myths
about color and difference. As works on immigration history, Closing the
Gates and Whiteness of a Different Color remind us that attempts
at legal and social exclusion (blackness), at the same time, have always
meant legal and social inclusion (whiteness). Scholars who become familiar
with the arguments of these two important and provocative books will find
that no group or person in American history has escaped this predicament.
Call Number: E184.C5G9 1998
Chinese Americans -- History -- 19th century
Chinese Americans -- California -- History -- 19th century
Chinese Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- History -- 19th century
California -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century
Labor policy -- United States -- History -- 19th century
Labor policy -- California -- History -- 19th century
United States -- Race relations
California -- Race relations
Citation: Louis C. Anthes . "Review of Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race,
Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April, 1999.
“Andrew Gyory has set out to revise the dominant
historical interpretation that the Exclusion Act was generated by the racist
ideology of organized labor. He argues instead that the political process
was top-down, flowing from national politicians and foisted on workers who
were against Chinese exclusion…Unfortunately, the fine empirical work Gyory
has done…has been undermined by some questionable assumptions about the
relationship of intentionality and action.”
Henry Yu, review of Closing the Gate: Race,
Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, by Andrew Gyory, Law and
History Review 20 (Summer 2002): 418-420.