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[LABOR] "The Chinese Question" / Chinese Exclusion Act / American Labor

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  • madchinaman
    The Chinese Question and American Labor Historians Stanford M. Lyman [from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter 2000] STANFORD M.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7 11:37 PM
      The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians
      Stanford M. Lyman
      [from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter
      2000]
      STANFORD M. LYMAN is Robert J. Morrow Eminent Scholar and professor
      of Social Science at Florida Atlantic University. A specialist on
      Asian American studies, minorities and sociological theory, he is
      the author of Chinese Americans, The Asian in North America, and
      Chinatown and Little Tokyo: Power, Conflict, and Community among
      Chinese and Japanese Immigrants in America. His most recent book is
      Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd and Other Essays on
      the "Nouvelle Vague" in American Social Science.
      http://www.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue28/lyman28.htm


      -

      The single most important force behind the Chinese Exclusion Act was
      national politicians of both parties who seized, transformed, and
      manipulated the issue of Chinese immigration in the quest for votes.

      For it is an undisputed fact that America's first labor historians
      took great pride in the role played by organized labor's exclusion
      of the Chinese worker not only from the United States but also and
      equally significantly in his (and her) exclusion from trade union
      membership and eviction from jobs once dearly held.

      The anti-Chinese agitation in California, culminating as it did in
      the Exclusion Law passed by Congress in 1882, was doubtless the most
      important single factor in the history of American labor, for
      without it the entire country might have been overrun by Mongolian
      labor and the labor movement might have become a conflict of races
      instead of one of classes.

      Rose Hum Lee's statement that America's Chinese immigrants "were
      excluded from skilled occupations by the labour unions' concerted
      efforts to bar them from shoe, textile, and tobacco making, heavy
      machinery and other industries." Nor does he acknowledge the
      comparative point to be made with respect to the allegation that
      Chinese workingmen were a peculiar species of "cheap labor,"
      although Betty Lee Sung had done so some 31 years before his book
      was published: "The greatest antagonism against Chinese immigration
      in former years was directed against the threat of cheap labor.

      Not that the Chinese were different from other immigrant
      nationalities in this respect . . . But it was felt that because of
      the greater endurance and efficiency of the Chinese laborer, he was
      a threat to the job tenure of the white laborer."

      -


      The general public in this country, unfortunately, does not know or
      understand the Chinese. This is due partly to the remaining effect
      of the propaganda against the Chinese during the anti-Chinese
      agitation here, but primarily to the present prevalence of certain
      elements in this country, which makes this knowledge and
      understanding impossible.
      J.S. Tow, The Real Chinese in America(1923)

      There must be candor in disclosure, honesty in inquiry and resolute
      determination in attack, or we will fail again, as we have so often
      failed before.
      C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma
      (1999)

      A SPECTER IS HAUNTING AMERICA'S LABOR HISTORIANS:
      It is the apparition of the Chinese worker. Long gone from his once
      insecure place in the fields, factories, industries, mines, and
      railways on the western frontier, as well as from the shoe and
      cutlery manufactories where he once served as a short-term
      strikebreaking laborer in the Northeast, the Asian immigrant from
      what was once called the Middle Kingdom is today being raised from
      the ignominious grave to which earlier labor historians had
      consigned him. But now he serves as a foil in an ongoing debate over
      whether organized labor's history contains a rich heritage of left-
      multiracial virtues or a clandestine legacy of right-racist vices.
      Arrayed on each side of this battlefield of words and documents,
      accusations and counter-charges, are some of the finest minds and
      some of the newest Ph.D.-minted members of the historians'
      profession.

      Those who seek honor for a non-racist labor heritage are led by the
      late Herbert Gutman and count among their number Eric Arnesen, Bruce
      Laurie, Leon Fink, Alan Dawley, Alex Lichtenstein, Daniel Letwin,
      and numerous other epigoni. Those who examine the patterns and
      consequences of white working-class racism are a dissident element
      among labor historians, and include Herbert Hill, Alexander Saxton,
      David Roediger, Nick Salvatore, Noel Ignatiev, and Gwendolyn Mink,
      among others.

      To this force and counterforce must now be added works addressing
      the role of the Chinese workers and the anti-Chinese movement in the
      annals of American labor history. In support of the followers of
      Gutman there has recently appeared Andrew Gyory's Closing the Gate:
      Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act; while several works
      on labor matters within and affecting America's Chinese by Peter
      Kwong stand in virtual but unstated opposition to the former's
      roseate thesis, as do portions of the research conducted by John Kuo
      Wei Tchen and Herbert Hill.

      When it comes to bringing the Chinese back into the history of
      organized labor in America, followers of Gutman must fight on two
      fronts. For it is an undisputed fact that America's first labor
      historians took great pride in the role played by organized labor's
      exclusion of the Chinese worker not only from the United States but
      also and equally significantly in his (and her) exclusion from trade
      union membership and eviction from jobs once dearly held.

      E. Salyer is thus quite correct when she observes, in a blurb
      written on the back cover of Gyory's book, that "he challenges the
      standard interpretations which have stood for years and become
      incorporated into the 'textbook' versions of American history."
      Although Salyer has exaggerated the extent to which standard
      textbooks had adopted the outlook of the previous generation's labor
      annalists, she is referring to Gyory's attempted repudiation of the
      thesis about Chinese workers and organized labor's response, best
      represented in a statement made by the much revered Selig Perlman in
      1922:

      The anti-Chinese agitation in California, culminating as it did in
      the Exclusion Law passed by Congress in 1882, was doubtless the most
      important single factor in the history of American labor, for
      without it the entire country might have been overrun by Mongolian
      labor and the labor movement might have become a conflict of races
      instead of one of classes.

      Whereas Perlman and such other traditional labor historians as John
      R. Commons and Philip Taft justified the anti-Chinese actions taken
      by America's incipient trade union movement by treating their only
      slightly bowdlerized versions of the rhetoric employed by the
      Sinophobes as part of the Zeitgeist, Gyory as the disciple who
      voluntarily accepted Gutman's challenge that someone accommodate the
      issues in the Chinese question to the theses central to the "New
      Labor History" insists on denying that white workers and their labor
      institutions were possessed by a vigorous and pervasive anti-Chinese
      animus.

      To simplify his argument, Gyory lumps his opponents into a single
      category. He passes lightly over Perlman's statement on the matter,
      and is equally complacent over related comments made by Commons,
      Taft, and such other labor historians as Joseph G. Rayback and
      Gerald R. Grob. But, immediately, Gyory conflates their perspective
      with that of such present-day critics of the racist practices of
      organized labor as Herbert Hill, Roger Daniels, and Ronald Takaki,
      each of whom might be said to have agreed with the traditional labor
      historians that the anti-Chinese attitude and actions of the
      formative national labor movement were central aspects of its
      development, but, unlike the latter, each of whom denies that this
      perspective and those actions were good, proper, ethical, or
      necessary. Gyory aims some of his most withering fire at Gwendolyn
      Mink.

      In 1986, Mink had argued that white workers' support for Chinese
      exclusion had become "a peculiar bridge between unionism and
      national politics." In Gyory's opinion, Mink has erred most
      egregiously by "repeatedly stressing, with virtually no original
      evidence, that workers in the eastern United States backed the cries
      of their brethren in California and that their support for Chinese
      exclusion thereby 'nationalized labor politics' "; however, even
      worse, Gyory retorts, Mink has echoed "the work of [Alexander]
      Saxton and [Herbert] Hill and anticipated that of [David R.]
      Roediger."

      Rejecting the findings of laborite Sinophobia in studies done
      decades earlier by Mary Roberts Coolidge, Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer,
      and Stuart Creighton Miller each of whom Gyory criticizes for
      adopting and elaborating upon what he regards as a false "national
      racist consensus" on organized labor's history Gyory counters with a
      postmodernist deconstruction of the racist process, viz., "race
      is . . . constructed differently at the same time by people in the
      same social class." And, given his assumption that this assertion is
      a heretofore unrecognized truth, Gyory states, "Workers' myriad
      attitudes toward Chinese immigration demonstrate . . . and reveal
      the dangers of generalizing too broadly about the extent and
      uniformity of racism in any single group."

      But, if the workingmen and their associations are not the leading
      sources of America's anti-Chinese movement, then who are the
      culprits? Gyory's answer is, as Leon Fink writes in a blurb appended
      to the cover of Closing the Gate, one that "rescues our
      understanding of the tragedy of Chinese exclusion (and by extension
      other American racial practices) from the glib generalities reliant
      on a resort to 'racist culture' in favor of a painstaking if painful
      account of specific political agency."

      That "political agency" is specified by Gyory: "The single most
      important force behind the Chinese Exclusion Act was national
      politicians of both parties who seized, transformed, and manipulated
      the issue of Chinese immigration in the quest for votes." And thus
      begins his investigation, one that seeks nothing less than a "not
      guilty" verdict for the now nearly century-old indictment charging
      that America's labor movement has been scarred by its support for
      Sinophobic as well as other forms of a virulent racism.

      Should Gyory succeed in his endeavor, he will not only relieve
      America's labor movement of its stigmatizing anti-Chinese heritage,
      but also (if we read between the lines of Fink's parenthetical
      statement above) absolve that movement of charges that its
      organizational practices restricted African Americans, Hispanics,
      and women, reducing the benefits that might have been gained from
      interracial solidarity and cooperation. Eliminating its racist
      legacy might even succeed in returning the image of America's labor
      movement to that presented in 1891 by Edward and Eleanor Marx-
      Aveling. More relevantly, it would provide an enormous assist to the
      posthumous fulfillment of Gutman's project: treating a broadened
      understanding of the class struggle as the unifying feature of
      America's labor movement, relegating labor union racism and workers'
      gender prejudices to insignificance.

      GYORY HAS CHOSEN TO UNDERTAKE A DAUNTING TASK
      Leaving aside debates over whether the labor movement was (and,
      perhaps, still is) racist, whether the exigencies of the times
      justify or fail to lend adequate support to the exclusionary
      position taken by the major unions, and whether workers did or did
      not hold to the same outlook as their own union leaders, there still
      remains the scholarship on this and related questions carried out by
      sociologists and historians of the Chinese, a body of research to
      which any labor historian should attend.

      Of these, Gyory did pay special attention to one work: Chinese
      Immigration, a well documented analysis of American Sinophobia,
      published in 1909 and written by sociologist Mary Roberts Coolidge
      (1860-1945). A scholar-activist who launched modern sex research,
      demonstrated in behalf of women's suffrage, authored the first major
      work on the domestic and marital lives of middle class women, and
      conducted first hand investigations of the social and cultural life
      of the Native Americans of the Southwest, Coolidge's study of the
      Chinese question has long been recognized as a forerunner of
      critical engag‚ research on this topic.

      For Gyory, it is of utmost importance to restrict the findings of
      Coolidge's "California thesis," which, as he summarizes it, "blamed
      workers, and particularly Irish immigrants, for fanning the flames
      of racial hatred." Hence, he complains about the fact
      that "Coolidge's thesis has remained the dominant explanation for
      Chinese exclusion," bemoans the fact that "[s]ucceeding generations
      of historians have refined but not overturned her argument," and
      proclaims, without presenting a scintilla of evidence in support of
      his statement, that Coolidge's Chinese Immigration is "marred by
      class-prejudice, numerous inaccuracies, and a polemical tone."

      The "succeeding generations of historians" to which he must be
      referring would have to include Elmer Sandmeyer, as well as such
      social scientists as Rose Hum Lee, Betty Lee Sung, and Peter Kwong.
      With the exception of his unpersuasive denunciation of Coolidge's
      expos‚ of the corrupt practices of American port officials in China,
      and his dismissal of Sandmeyer's study as one that though "a more
      scholarly and balanced account" than Coolidge's, "essentially
      reaffirmed Coolidge's thesis," Gyory does not address the arguments
      about labor and racism contained in the works by these investigators
      of Chinese life in America.

      However, their findings deserve at least a hearing, if not a central
      place, in studies of the Chinese workingmen and working women. His
      neglect of these works is a glaring omission; it violates what is
      perhaps the single most important tenet of the New Labor History
      viz., the demand for a "rich and detailed study of the many
      varieties of past American working-class experiences." Unless, that
      is, Gyory intends to evict the Chinese worker from the annals of
      American labor history! But more on this point below.

      Gyory does not bother to mention, much less refute, Rose Hum Lee's
      statement that America's Chinese immigrants "were excluded from
      skilled occupations by the labour unions' concerted efforts to bar
      them from shoe, textile, and tobacco making, heavy machinery and
      other industries." Nor does he acknowledge the comparative point to
      be made with respect to the allegation that Chinese workingmen were
      a peculiar species of "cheap labor," although Betty Lee Sung had
      done so some 31 years before his book was published: "The greatest
      antagonism against Chinese immigration in former years was directed
      against the threat of cheap labor.

      Not that the Chinese were different from other immigrant
      nationalities in this respect . . . But it was felt that because of
      the greater endurance and efficiency of the Chinese laborer, he was
      a threat to the job tenure of the white laborer." Moreover, Gyory
      fails to recognize what Peter Kwong has shown, viz., that the
      American Federation of Labor and its affiliated unions continued
      their hostility to the Chinese worker35 well into the 20th
      century. "Capital," writes Peter Kwong in his recent and devastating
      critique of the conditions under which undocumented workers live and
      labor in the United States, "counts on labor's traditional racism
      and exclusionary practices, for it recruits precisely those whom
      organized labor excludes."

      On December 17, 1943, Congress approved H.R. 3070, entitled "An Act
      to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to establish quotas, and for
      other purposes." It became Public Law 199, thus ending 61 years of
      prohibited entry for Chinese. Gyory, who claims his "book answers a
      simple question: Why did the United States pass the Chinese
      Exclusion Act of 1882?" insists and seeks to demonstrate that "most
      workers evinced little interest in Chinese exclusion," and
      that "Organized labor nationwide played virtually no role in
      securing the legislation."

      In effect, when, in the same paragraph, he quotes an otherwise
      unidentified midwestern congressman declaring, "To protect our
      laboring classes . . . the gate . . . must be closed," Gyory seems
      to be implying that the laboring classes were being protected from
      something Chinese immigration of which they had no fear and little
      concern. But not even his own distorted picture of the events
      leading up to the passage of the Exclusion Act will sustain this
      remarkable thesis.

      However, even if one were to accept the latter thesis for purposes
      of discussion, it would still be necessary to account for organized
      labor's persistent pursuit of exclusion after the original law had
      been enacted, a pursuit that continued up to and including the
      Congressional debates over H.R. 3070 during which, to give but one
      example, Lester M. Hunt of the Teamsters' Union argued that the
      repeal was being "instigated by the communists and that Congress was
      being coerced into passing the bill" and to which the American
      Federation of Labor offered "stiff opposition." Gyory has not
      attended to this profoundly important question. His investigation
      ends in 1882, 61 years short of where it should have gone.

      THERE IS A TRIADIC STRUCTURE TO GYORY'S ARGUMENT.
      Its architectonic is that of a three-legged stool upholding New
      Labor History's precepts as set forth by Gutman and elaborated upon
      by David Montgomery and Leon Fink. One leg purports to show the
      white workingman's commitment to an antiracist abolitionism, an
      antislavery emancipatory outlook, and a position not unlike that of
      the postwar Reconstructionists.

      Because they were steadfast in these beliefs, Gyory insists that the
      white workingmen of the East Coast were either hostile to,
      indifferent toward, or only occasionally aroused to action by the
      anti-Chinese rhetoric and Sinophobic prejudices of both their West
      Coast compatriots and their labor movement's own leaders. Instead of
      race prejudice, Gyory insists there was manifested a vague but
      powerful toleration of worker solidarity amidst ethnic diversity. As
      he would have it, it was that sense of interracial union that was
      manipulated by unscrupulous politicians who turned the legitimate
      fears of these workingmen into support for the exclusion of Chinese
      from the United States.

      The second leg of Gyory's argument gives substance to these fears by
      reviving the "coolie" thesis, viz., the belief that virtually every
      Chinese who set foot on America's shores was an
      involuntary, "imported contract laborer." Denying that this epithet
      and allegation were products of an anti-Chinese stereotype, Gyory
      virtually elevates the anti-coolie hysteria of the 19th century to a
      place in the rational belief system of white workers as well as an
      appropriate rationale for public policy.

      The third leg consists of a subtle arrangement of the temporal
      aspects of labor history such that organized labor's anti- Chinese
      activities after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act are
      omitted altogether, in effect treating them as matters of minor
      significance, events outside the scope of Gyory's study, and thus
      outside the question of labor's responsibility for the treatment and
      condition of the Chinese labor force in America. Each of the legs of
      this three-legged thesis is dependent on the other two, and each
      deserves critical attention.
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