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[COMMUNITY] Racial Formation of Asian Americans (1852 - 1965)

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  • madchinaman
    Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans, 1852-1965 by Bob Wing http://www.monthlyreview.org/1205wing.htm The U.S. immigration
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2006
      Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian
      Americans, 1852-1965
      by Bob Wing

      The U.S. immigration reform of 1965 produced a tremendous influx of
      immigrants and refugees from Asia and Latin America that has
      dramatically altered U.S. race relations. Latinos now outnumber
      African Americans. It is clearer than ever that race relations in
      the United States are not limited to the central black/white axis.
      In fact this has always been true: Indian wars were central to the
      history of this country since its origins and race relations in the
      West have always centered on the interactions between whites and
      natives, Mexicans, and Asians. The "new thinking" about race
      relations as multipolar is overdue.

      However, one cannot simply replace the black/white model with one
      that merely adds other groups. The reason is that other groups of
      color have faced discrimination that is quite different both in form
      and content than that which has characterized black/white relations.
      The history of many peoples and regions, as well as distinct issues
      of nationality oppression—U.S. settler colonialism, Indian wars,
      U.S. foreign relations and foreign policy, immigration, citizenship,
      the U.S.-Mexico War, language, reservations, treaties, sovereignty
      issues, etc.—must be analyzed and woven into a considerably more
      complicated new framework.

      In this light, Asian-American history is important because it was
      precedent-setting in the racialization of nationality and the
      incorporation of nationality into U.S. race relations. The racial
      formation of Asian Americans was a key moment in defining the color
      line among immigrants, extending whiteness to European immigrants,
      and targeting non-white immigrants for racial oppression. Thus
      nativism was largely overshadowed by white nativism, and it became
      an important new form of racism.

      This development resonates powerfully today in the discrimination
      faced by the millions of immigrants from the global South over the
      past forty years, while white European immigrants face virtually
      none. And lately the Bush administration has formed a new link
      between war, racism, and attacks on immigrants in his "permanent war
      on terrorism at home and abroad." While Asian Americans were this
      country's first "aliens ineligible to citizenship," today Arab
      Americans are its most prominent racialized enemy aliens.1


      By the time the first Asians began to come to these shores in any
      numbers (the Chinese in 1852), basic patterns of U.S. race relations
      had been set by more than two centuries of Negro slavery and Indian
      wars. However, those patterns were under attack, and the soon to be
      fought Civil War would mark a new departure that would fundamentally
      affect the plight of Chinese in the United States as the century

      Reduced to its fundamental dynamics, what had emerged was an
      entrenched system of white supremacy and black oppression centered
      on, but not limited to, slavery. The African slave trade was a
      product of European colonialism of African nationalities, but within
      each slaveholding country, different racial formations were
      developed, according to particular conditions.

      In recent years it has become a progressive mantra that racial
      categories are "socially constructed," but it is often forgotten
      that they only achieve full structural and systemic power when they
      are legally defined and enforced by state power.2 In what became the
      United States, the plethora of both European and African
      nationalities very early on was subsumed by a legally defined and
      state sanctioned system of racial categories.

      In this unprecedented new system, famously hostile European
      nationalities (e.g., English, Irish, Germans, and French) were
      united as whites, and the numerous African nationalities, together
      with all those who seemed to exhibit the slightest perceptible trace
      of African ancestry, were categorized as Negro, thus with "no rights
      that the white man is bound to respect."

      This hypodescent (or "one drop") rule, firmly codified in statute by
      1705, was meant to provide crystal clarity to the social status of
      the numerous racially mixed offspring sired by white planters. This
      was crucial since unlike other slave societies, the Southern
      planters depended primarily upon slave reproduction (rather than the
      African slave trade) to fill its slave supply and were also bound
      and determined to prevent a substantial free group of mulattos to
      blur the color line.3

      Such a state enforced, polarized system of racial categories and
      race relations was and is unique to the United States. Also unique
      to the United States (as compared to other slaveholding countries)
      was the exclusion of anti-slavery (and slaves) from the independence
      struggle. Instead slaveholding Founding Fathers like George
      Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison ensured that the new
      country limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. The system of white
      supremacy was thus extended to an exclusion of people of color from
      the nationality and polity. Ripped from Africa and excluded from
      U.S. citizenship, African Americans were rendered strangers in their
      own homeland.

      The pattern regarding Native Americans was much different. Native
      Americans were only marginally incorporated into the emerging U.S.
      society and racial system. Rather, they fought to retain what
      territorial and political autonomy they could in their own
      nations/tribes/territories in the face of recurrent Indian wars.
      While they were defeated in most of those wars, they successfully
      resisted incorporation into colonial or U.S. society proper. Thus,
      it was oppressive relations between nations (specifically settler
      colonialism), not racial oppression within U.S. society, that
      predominated: wars, treaties, territorial fights, military/colonial
      rule, tribal governments, a reservation system, redrawing of
      boundaries, etc.

      Until the 1840s or so, European immigrants to the United States or
      what became the United States had an inviting situation, although
      not without discrimination arising from distinct languages,
      citizenship, religions, and newcomer status. The Irish and other
      European immigrants became white the day they landed on these
      shores, but some were treated as "second class whites" for varying
      periods of time.

      The often neglected dialectical opposite of black oppression is
      white supremacy and white privilege: the obverse of the enslavement
      of blacks was the monopolization of political power, land, skilled
      trades, and all other forms of rights, property, and privilege by
      whites, including immigrants.4 Combined with the ready availability
      of land opened up by the devastating Indian wars, until the end of
      the nineteenth century the majority of whites avoided
      proletarianization and instead became bourgeois or petit bourgeois
      property holders of one kind or another.

      Although in the colonial days many European immigrants started out
      as indentured servants, the vast majority, or at least their
      offspring, eventually settled into independent farming, independent
      trades, small businesses, or better. It was not until the 1840s that
      an industrial proletariat of any size began to develop. And
      virtually all of this small proletariat was constituted by European
      immigrants who, in turn, came to play a key role in the developing
      trade unions and urban political machines, thus developing certain
      levers of power to defend and expand their rights. By the time of
      Chinese immigration in the 1850s, the United States was just
      beginning to deal with massive immigration from Europe and sharp
      ethnic/national conflict. Nativism had just been born.

      Finally by way of background, the United States grabbed almost half
      of Mexican territory through the U.S.–Mexico War of 1848 and thereby
      expanded its own boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. The war
      highlighted the harsh dynamic of settler colonialism that dominated
      relations between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest in the
      nineteenth century. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that
      ended the war guaranteed "all the rights of citizenship of the
      United States" to Mexicans who chose to remain in the Southwest, in
      practice it was routinely violated as white settlers used everything
      from legal maneuvers to lynching to dispossess Mexicans of land and
      power throughout the area.5

      Phase 1: From Racially Coerced Labor Force to Exclusion

      It was into the above situation that the early Chinese immigrants
      unwittingly thrust themselves. The Gold Mountain had a racial cordon
      and a developing ethnic/nationality one as well. The experience of
      the Chinese in California in the nineteenth century was to break new

      Contrary to the myth that the early Chinese were part of the odious
      coolie labor trade that flourished between 1847 and 1874, most of
      the early Chinese immigrants bought their tickets to the United
      States on credit and were not contract laborers per se. Once they
      paid off their debts, they were more or less free. And, owing to the
      rather free-flowing, frontier character of Gold Rush-era California,
      as well as the crying shortage of labor, racial constraints were not
      nearly so entrenched or immediate as in the more settled parts of
      the country.6

      However, the shortage of labor and the grab for land and gold of
      this period in California were also prime conditions for the
      reproduction of racism. The white people of California, although
      themselves new colonists to the area only recently conquered by war
      from Mexico and many of them recent immigrants to the United States,
      immediately asserted their presumed white right to these and all
      other resources and/or positions of privilege over and above the
      Native Americans, Californios, Mexicanos, Chinese, and other Latin
      Americans who made up the California population at the time. And in
      this, the full force of existing U.S. racial law and custom not
      surprisingly backed them.*

      The Making of `Aliens Ineligible to Citizenship'

      Although California was an antislavery territory dominated by "free
      soilers,"7 attempts to subordinate the Chinese came forthwith. But
      determining the precise social status of the Chinese and their place
      in U.S. society was neither automatic nor unanimous. Whites were
      divided among themselves between those (mainly capitalists) who
      desired easy access to cheap Chinese labor and those (mainly labor,
      that is white labor) who wished them excluded from the country. They
      were stymied by the fact that existing law covered only Negroes,
      whites, and American Indians, not Asians of any sort, by the unusual
      combination of foreignness and non-whiteness that the Chinese seemed
      to present, and by the fact that white California's racial
      conditions and concerns did not completely match those of the
      federal government. These were conditions they had to sort through,
      by means of political and ideological struggle, with tremendous,
      though often overlooked, opposition from the Chinese themselves.8

      It is this process that constitutes what is here referred to as
      the "racing,"9 "racialization," or "racial formation"10 of the
      Chinese into Asian Americans. This process eventually produced a
      social category of a new type, one that was neither simply
      national/ethnic nor strictly racial, but a combination of the two:
      by the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese were racialized
      as "aliens (hence national) ineligible to citizenship (based on

      At key junctures the U.S. state has defined racial groups and
      dictated the race relations of which they are part. But it has done
      so not in a vacuum, but in accordance with racialized socio-economic
      and political struggles. The culmination of the process of
      developing the racial category appropriate to the Chinese, not
      surprisingly, paralleled and eventually settled the fight over
      whether or not to exclude Chinese from entering the country and/or
      attaining U.S. citizenship.

      As the vast majority of the early Chinese headed for the gold mines,
      California's first assertion of white supremacy against the Chinese
      focused on control of the mines. In 1850, California passed the
      Foreign Miners Tax. The letter of this tax was nativist and applied
      to all foreigners. In practice it was mainly collected from the
      Chinese in an attempt to drive them from the mines. This
      contradiction undermined its usefulness as social policy or law.
      Still, once the Hall case (more on this below) and common practice
      made clear that the Chinese had no protection of any sort, they were
      regularly victimized by white miners and extorted by tax collectors.

      Another attempt to define the legal status of Chinese took racial,
      not nativist, form. In late 1853, a "free white citizen" named
      George Hall was convicted of murdering a Chinese man, but the next
      year the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction on the
      grounds that Hall had been "convicted upon the testimony of a
      Chinese person."

      The chief justice ruled that Indians had originated from Asia before
      crossing the Bering Strait and that therefore the laws barring
      testimony by Indians applied to the "whole of the Mongolian race,"
      that Chinese were covered by the generic term "Black" and that the
      court should not turn "loose upon the community" the Chinese "whose
      mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as
      inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual
      development..." (People v. Hall). Here was convoluted American
      racial logic attempting to grapple with the "racing" of a set of
      people seen as entirely foreign. No concern whatsoever was evinced
      for the Chinese murder victim. Again, the Chinese were stripped of
      crucial constitutional rights, but the means for doing so were
      inadequate and inconsistent.

      Soon the revolutionary Reconstruction Congress passed the Fourteenth
      Amendment followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1870. The act
      expressly gave Chinese the right to testify in court and forbade the
      imposition upon them of discriminatory "penalties, taxes, licenses
      and exactions of every kind."11 In addition, the Burlingame Treaty
      of 1868 between the United States and China guaranteed the right of
      emigration between the two countries. Together, these hindered white
      California's ability to institutionalize racially the social
      position of the Chinese.

      The original U.S. Constitution defined naturalization as available
      only to "free, white persons," but the Civil Rights Act of 1870
      finally extended the right of naturalization to "persons of African
      nativity or descent." Congress debated Chinese naturalization in the
      course of the Reconstruction era civil rights debates, but that
      august body of white men declined to extend citizenship rights to
      Asians. Asians were defined as "aliens ineligible to citizenship,"
      which became the new racial-national legal category to exclude
      Asians from entering the United States, owning land, etc.

      By 1880, Reconstruction was defeated and the federal government
      joined the anti-Chinese movement. It legalized Jim Crow, reversed
      the Civil Rights Act, and negotiated a new treaty with China that
      paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

      In the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Alien Land Laws of the 1910s
      (which deprived Asians of the right to own land), the U.S. racial
      system also settled on its basic racial categorization of Chinese
      and other Asians: that of being "aliens ineligible to U.S.

      This definition applied only to Asians and became the perfect legal
      grounds systematically to identify and discriminate against them, a
      racial category of a distinctive type. This category was new in that
      it incorporated a non-indigenous, non-white, non-black group into
      the U.S. racial system. It was also new in that the terms "aliens"
      and "naturalization rights" explicitly incorporated nationality as
      well as "race" into it.

      Racially Coerced Labor and Class Struggles

      This racialization process was crucial to what I see as the first
      phase of the Asian-American experience, that of a racially coerced
      labor force. Asian Americans were systematically stripped of their
      political, economic, cultural, and citizenship rights and thereby
      condemned to be a vulnerable labor force that was made available to
      white capital at a price much cheaper than white labor.

      Although the lower wages and substandard living conditions the
      Chinese were forced to accept certainly increased the profits of
      white capitalists, there was much more significance to the racially
      coerced labor force than short-term "superprofits." In fact, turning
      the Chinese into a racially coerced labor force was a fundamental
      condition for the development of capitalism in California. At that
      time, labor was so scarce and land so plentiful that free people had
      better alternatives than to become wage slaves. As with slavery and
      sharecropping in the U.S. South, coercing people of color into
      serving as labor was central to the primitive accumulation and the
      early accumulation of capital in California; they were barred from
      owning land and forced to become the labor counterpart to (white)
      capital in mining, railroads, agriculture, and factories, which
      propelled California's booming economy and helped forge the first
      continent-wide national economy.

      But it wasn't only the white capitalists who benefited. The racial
      cordoning of Asians also enabled non-capitalist whites to monopolize
      small businesses, independent trades and farms, and privileged
      positions within the workforce, not to speak of land, education, and
      political power. This is what Harry Chang called the racially
      differentiated process of proletarianization.

      Unfortunately, even this was not good enough for white labor.
      Through their trade unions and political organizations, they were
      actually the loudest and most organized voices demanding the
      complete expulsion and exclusion of the Chinese from the United
      States. However, a careful look at the "white workers" who led the
      anti-Chinese movement reveals that the most organized and vocal
      section were actually independent craftsmen or highly paid skilled
      workers, not regular wage workers, who in the nineteenth and early
      twentieth century commonly joined the same skilled craft unions and
      indeed dominated the U.S. trade union movement until the 1930s.

      These white independent producers and craftsmen did not compete with
      the Chinese for factory or field jobs. What they feared was that
      factory based capitalist industry or agribusiness, basing itself on
      semi-free Chinese labor, would successfully displace their small
      businesses or farms, independent trades, or highly paid skilled
      labor jobs: in short, that their small-scale petit bourgeois
      production and trades would be undermined by capitalist enterprises
      and they themselves might be proletarianized. Thus the status of
      Chinese labor became a significant issue in the class struggle
      between small, independent producers (miners, artisans, and farmers)
      and large-scale capitalist enterprises.12

      At the same time most unskilled white workers also joined the
      crusade to exclude the Chinese in order to increase their own
      employment opportunities and to fulfill their own concepts of white
      supremacy.13 The widespread participation, indeed leadership, of
      white workers in the movement to exclude the Chinese points to the
      folly of theories that would constrict racism to the oppression of
      workers of color by white capitalists. It shows that, to the
      contrary, white labor is often not just a simple description of the
      color of some workers, but a social category reflecting the fact
      that white workers and their unions have all too often expressly
      fought for the interests of white workers as against both white
      capitalists (some of whom may have preferred having cheap,
      exploitable Chinese labor ready-to-hand) and against workers of

      Rather than fight white capital for equality and build solidarity
      among all workers, white labor demanded the exclusion of Chinese
      labor from the country to advance the condition of white workers at
      their expense. Here we had a classical racist trade union tradition:
      white workers (skilled and unskilled) banding together in unions and
      political organizations in the name of "Americanism" and "free
      (white) labor" to defend their privileges over non-white workers.

      The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a culmination of the attempt
      to create a cross-class, nationwide white consensus to define
      legally the Chinese place in U.S. life, thereby forcing the country
      to come to grips with how to handle the intersection of race and
      nationality. For the first time in U.S. history, a group was
      excluded from immigrating by (white) immigrants and former
      immigrants themselves. On one hand, the act was clearly based on
      nationality, as it excluded a group from immigrating to this
      country. On the other hand, it was clearly racial: it excluded the
      Chinese specifically because they were not white. Once verging on 20
      percent of California's population, the ensuing anti-Chinese riots
      and Exclusion Act drove most Chinese laborers out of the country and
      prevented their reentry.

      In the fifty years to follow, the U.S. forced every Asian
      nationality to follow virtually the same pattern as the Chinese,
      albeit in truncated form. At first, a significant wave would be
      allowed entry to serve as racially coerced, cheap labor, especially
      for California agriculture, then the group would be excluded. The
      1917 Immigration Act denied Asian Indians entry. Despite the rising
      power of the Japanese in the Pacific, Japanese nationals were
      excluded from the United States by the Immigration Act of 1924 which
      barred the entry of "aliens ineligible to citizenship." By
      extension, this act also served to exclude Koreans, as the Japanese
      colonial administration in Korea applied it to them.

      At first, the Filipinos could not be excluded due to the fact that
      the Philippines was a U.S. "territory" (read colony) and its people
      were thereby "wards," sometimes called "nationals" of the United
      States. Consequently, they were legally neither "citizens"
      nor "aliens." Ironically, this was resolved by the Tydings-McDuffie
      Act of 1935, which simultaneously granted "Commonwealth" status with
      promises of eventual independence in 1946 to the Philippines and
      immediately cut Filipino immigration to the United States to fifty
      persons per year.

      Thus the Chinese experience in the nineteenth century produced a new
      racial category—"aliens ineligible to citizenship"—and a new form of
      racism—exclusion—which would be applied to virtually all of the
      Asian nationalities that were to immigrate to the United States
      until after the Second World War. It fundamentally structured the
      social and political rights of peoples of Asian descent once here
      until the 1960s. It was this common history of being considered
      racially inferior and not assimilable that forged the distinct (and
      often mutually hostile) Asian nationalities into a new panethnic
      racial group: Asian Americans.

      Phase 2: Exclusion and the Racial/Ethnic Enclaves

      However, exclusion was not only an immigration restriction. It
      became a unique form of racism that also socially defined the
      situation of the remaining Asians inside the country, as well as
      those who managed to slip through after exclusion until 1965. Unlike
      blacks who were economically integrated into the center of the U.S.
      economy (albeit in extremely oppressive ways) and the Native
      Americans who mainly remained outside U.S. society as a whole, the
      Chinese, and then the other Asian groups in somewhat different
      degrees, were excluded from the mainstreams of U.S. society and
      instead confined to ethnic enclaves. The Asian ethnic enclaves thus
      were also products of both racial and nationality discrimination.

      The Structure of Dual Domination

      One of the prime results of Asian exclusion was the development of
      what L. Ling-chi Wang calls "the structure of dual domination." What
      this extremely useful concept refers to is that the ruling circles
      of not only the United States but also of China, Japan, Korea, and
      the Philippines developed fairly elaborate political, economic, and
      social institutions to dominate and control their respective
      emigrants in the United States; Asians in the United States were
      oppressed both by U.S. and homeland elites.

      To varying degrees, the home countries of many European immigrants
      to the United States also tried to influence their emigrants. But
      the special conditions of exclusion facing Asians produced a unique
      racist isolation within the U.S. structure and simultaneously
      rendered these isolated communities subject to customs, laws,
      organizations, and institutions from the home countries.

      In fact, the two structures were mutually reinforcing. The home
      countries' main aim was to retain the political, economic, and
      cultural loyalty of their overseas communities, while the principal
      interest of the United States was to retain its racially oppressive,
      especially exclusionary, policies and occasional access to cheap
      Asian labor, predominately in agriculture. Thus, the United States
      was usually happy to stay out of the internal workings of the Asian
      communities so long as they stayed within bounds of its broader

      Home-country elites also took advantage of the racist isolation of
      Asians in America to extend their influence and control over these
      communities. For example, excluded from participation in almost all
      American institutions, traditions, and organizations, the Chinese
      community was rife with district, family, and clan associations, as
      well as secret societies, schools, public festivals and rituals, and
      China-based political organizations.

      At the apex of this pyramid, the Chinese Benevolent Association (in
      some places known as the Six Companies) ruled over the Chinese-
      American communities. The Six Companies, in turn, was an instrument
      of the Kuomintang (China's Nationalist Party) which, as an ally of
      the United States against the Chinese Communists, was given almost
      free reign over the overseas Chinese up to and including regular
      violations of the Constitutional rights of those who it perceived
      opposed them.14

      To one degree or another, all the Asian communities in the United
      States were faced with a "dual structure of domination" in which a
      homeland government or political party was allowed by the United
      States to be its junior partner and overseer with a great range of
      powers to develop and enforce the interests both of U.S. racism and
      overseas loyalty. These dual structures were especially strong
      during the exclusion/enclave period, and only in the current phase
      of Asian-American history are they being broken down. Dual
      domination, like exclusion, is a unique combination of racial and
      national oppression.

      Exclusion, Enclaves, and the Class Composition of Asians

      Exclusion also had a major impact on the gender and class
      compositions of the Asian communities, which continues to resonate

      First of all, since the vast majority of the first immigrants of
      each of the Asian nationalities were male laborers who left their
      families behind, exclusion tended to freeze in place the
      overwhelming male composition of these communities and stunted the
      growth of a U.S.-born Asian population.

      Second, anti-Asian hostility and riots, combined with exclusion,
      forced the Asian peoples to band together into Japantowns,
      Chinatowns, and Manilatowns where the prevailing conditions promoted
      a large class of small entrepreneurs (merchants, farmers, labor
      contractors, restaurateurs, etc.) and the political and social power
      of that class over the workers. As regards the Chinese, for example,
      prior to exclusion the majority lived in agricultural areas where,
      by Sucheng Chan's calculations, the business and labor-contracting
      elite seldom exceeded 15 percent of the community. Exclusion
      virtually eliminated Chinese laborers in small western towns and
      left only a smattering of Chinese restaurant or laundry owners. And
      it drove the majority together into Chinese enclaves within the
      cities where entrepreneurs and professionals constituted some 40

      Third, the exclusion acts banned Asian laborers, but allowed
      merchants, students, and their wives or families to enter the United
      States, thus further distorting the class composition of the

      Thus, the Chinatowns, Manilatowns, and Japantowns that emerged were
      not so much the products of "natural" social forces as the distorted
      outgrowth of immigration and naturalization policies that
      discriminated against Chinese as a people in general and against
      specific classes among them in particular.

      For reasons that no one has satisfactorily explained, Filipinos were
      neither enclaved nor did they develop an entrepreneurial class on
      the scale of the Chinese or Japanese. Instead, many Filipinos
      remained migrant farm workers for agribusiness on the West Coast.
      Their enclaves tended to be in agricultural areas and their urban
      communities tended to be adjuncts to or merged with Chinatowns. The
      situation of the Filipinos thus remained that of the first phase:
      racially coerced labor for agricultural capital.

      The Japanese also remained a disproportionately agricultural folk
      until their racist internment during the Second World War, but they
      were only briefly forced into the role of cheap labor. Japanese in
      California were soon able to carve out niches as farmers and
      shopkeepers. The Japanese also formed sizable urban Japantowns in
      Los Angeles and San Francisco with class characteristics similar to
      the Chinatowns.

      While this Japanese economic advance is often attributed to the
      strategy of ethnic enterprise and ethnic solidarity,16 the Japanese
      were also the lucky recipients of a major piece of historical

      Just as the Japanese were arriving in the United States, the
      development of irrigation in California opened the way for intensive
      agriculture and a shift from grain to fruit and vegetable
      production. Between 1879 and 1909, the value of crops from intensive
      agriculture skyrocketed from just 4 percent to 50 percent of all
      crops grown in California. This transformation occurred under a
      market stimulus created by two key technological achievements of the
      period—the completion of the national railroad lines and the
      invention of the refrigerated car. Consequently, for the first time
      perishable fruit and vegetables from California could be sold almost
      anywhere in the United States.17

      Japanese farmers were able to capitalize on these developments. As
      early as 1910 they produced 70 percent of California's strawberries,
      and by 1940 they grew 95 percent of fresh snap beans, 67 percent of
      fresh tomatoes, and 95 percent of the celery. In 1900, California's
      Japanese farmers owned or leased twenty-nine farms totaling 4,698
      acres; five years later the acreage jumped to 61,858; and by 1910 it
      reached 194,742 acres. Even the California Alien Land Law of 1913,
      which prohibited "aliens ineligible to citizenship" from owning land
      or leasing it for more than three years failed to stem this trend.
      By 1920 Japanese farmers owned or leased 458,056 acres.18 Despite
      protests from Japan, a U.S. ally in the First World War, a
      California initiative passed in 1920 closed the loopholes in the
      1913 act, and Japanese landholdings dropped dramatically.19

      Small entrepreneurs (and later, their often college-educated
      children) were only one side of the coin. On the other side were the
      majority of Asians who were workers, but workers in extremely
      oppressive conditions. They were largely excluded from jobs with
      mainstream white employers and the government by racist laws and
      practices, and by the lack of English-speaking skills. Thus, they
      had little choice but to work for Asian employers as menial laborers
      in restaurants, garment factories and other sweatshops, laundries,
      farms, and grocery and dry goods stores. These employers were not
      only non-union, they paid extremely poor wages and provided awful
      working conditions based not on the standard of American business,
      but on a standard unique to their captive ethnic labor force.

      In short, the period of exclusion which lasted until the change in
      immigration laws in 1965 produced ethnic Asian enclaves. These were
      stratified between an unusually large merchant/business class tied
      to conservative or reactionary home governments and backed by
      the "dual structure of domination" and workers who were isolated in
      these enclaves or agricultural areas, stripped of their rights by
      the combined power of U.S. racism and home-country dictatorships.
      The latter were forced to work almost exclusively for compatriot
      businessmen under working and pay conditions that bore no
      resemblance to that of the mainstream of the U.S. working class.

      The Consciousness of Asian Americans

      From their first days on these shores, Asian Americans fought
      against the discrimination they faced. Strikes, slowdowns, and legal
      actions were common. It is little known, for example, that Filipino
      farm workers actually initiated the famous grape boycott of the
      1960s, which was then joined by Mexican workers and tremendously
      amplified under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. Most of these
      struggles were fought on a nationality or class basis.

      It was not until the late 1960s that a common racial/panethnic
      identity took hold among Asian Americans. Several facts contributed
      to this delay: different Asian nationalities immigrated in different
      historical periods, they rarely lived or worked in the same
      geographical areas, most were immigrants until the 1960s, and their
      native languages were unintelligible to each other. Thus there was
      no amalgamation of the Asian nationalities as their had been, say,
      among the different African ethnicities under slavery (and that took
      many generations). Although Asians in the United States fell victim
      to the same racial laws and customs and followed the same racialized
      patterns, the predominant consciousness remained ethnic/national,
      not panethnic or racial.

      The development of Asian-American consciousness took place in the
      1960s when, for the first time, the majority of Asians in this
      country were U.S. born. It was an explicitly political consciousness
      influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of that
      era. And it was cemented for many by the murderous racist
      dehumanization of Asians exhibited by the U.S. government, press,
      and armed forces during the Vietnam War.

      To be Asian American was not a simple recognition that one had roots
      in Asia; it meant to reject the passive racist stereotype embodied
      in the white-imposed term "Oriental" and to embrace an active stance
      against war and racism. The people of color movements of the 1960s
      led to the rejection of the term "Negro" in favor of "Black"
      or "Afro-American"; it produced the new concepts of "La Raza"
      and "Chicano"; and it gave rise to "Asian American."

      Unbeknownst to many people, including many movement people, the
      Asian-American movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was of mass
      proportions and dramatically transformed the political (and
      personal) consciousness and institutional infrastructure of the
      different Asian-American communities. In addition, influenced by the
      powerful Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean communist parties of the
      time, many Asian-American activists turned to Marxism and became a
      major presence in the U.S. communist and socialist movements of the

      However, neither racism nor racial consciousness among Asians has
      ever supplanted either the consciousness or the reality of
      nationality. Indeed, the tremendous increase in immigration since
      1965 has reproduced an overriding foreign-born majority among Asians
      residing in the United States and has further strengthened
      national/ethnic consciousness. Still, Asian-American consciousness
      is far from extinguished; it retains both ideological power and
      institutional expression in the many Asian-American progressive
      organizations that thrive today and will undoubtedly increase and
      find new expressions as the nativity of Asian Americans changes in
      the decades to come. The intersection of race and nationality among
      Asians is an ongoing formation, subjectively and objectively.


      The racialization of nationality was a critical event in U.S.
      history that has shaped today's social formation and even impacted
      its foreign policy. It was extended, with different particularities,
      to millions of Latino and Caribbean immigrants, and now Arabs, South
      Asians, and Africans, in addition to East Asians—all of whom are in
      its throes. And as the United States acceded to superpower status in
      the course of the twentieth century, this racialization also took on
      a potent international dimension in the innumerable racist U.S.
      interventions in the third world. Today's "war on terrorism" is,
      among other things, also a war on racialized immigrants as the
      Patriot Act and other new laws treat them as suspected enemy
      combatants simply because of their race and nationality.

      Of course the intersection of race and nationality is not static.
      The racial formation of Asian Americans (not to speak of many
      others) since the Immigration Reform of 1965 has been very different
      than the pre-1965 period. The civil rights achievements of the 1960s
      and 1970s, the structural change of U.S. capitalism to what is
      sometimes called "post-industrial society," the immigration reform
      of 1965, and globalization have reshaped the Asian-American
      communities and their status in U.S. society. Just as the system of
      legalized discrimination, disenfranchisement, and segregation of
      blacks has been overthrown, so the categories of "aliens ineligible
      to citizenship" and "exclusion" have been cast aside. Because of
      their educational level, Asian Americans, along with white women,
      were probably the main beneficiaries of affirmative action.

      Immigration reform has enabled the Asian-American population to
      explode from only about one million in 1965—mostly Chinese,
      Japanese, and Filipinos—to something like 13 million, emanating from
      numerous Asian countries today. Consequently, the majority of Asian
      Americans today have no family connection to Asian-American history
      prior to 1980.

      Still, the provisions of the 1965 immigration act and subsequent
      legislation have reinforced the class trends set in motion by
      exclusion. These laws allow Asian immigrants to enter this country
      primarily based on their family connections to the
      disproportionately merchant/professional population already here
      (family reunification) or based on their unique technical or
      professional skills. Consequently the highly educated and middle-
      class section of the Asian-American population has been reproduced
      on a bigger scale. At the same time, many of those entering based on
      family reunification are workers with few resources and limited
      English-speaking skills, so the numbers of isolated sweatshop
      workers in Asian enclaves have also grown.

      The working-class section of Asian Americans has been expanded by
      Southeast Asians who entered the United States not under immigration
      law, but under refugee law after the failed U.S. wars of aggression
      in Indochina. Although some of these refugees were from the defeated
      elites, most of them were poor. The socio-economic profiles of
      Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong in the United States are
      very similar to those of Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos.

      Thus Asian Americans today have the highest median education and
      household income levels but at the same time unusually high
      percentages of Asians live in poverty and have minimal education.
      The irony is that those Asian Americans who are said to make up the
      so-called "model minority" achieved this status primarily due to the
      class impacts of racist immigration laws and the civil rights
      victories, not simply by "pulling themselves up by their own
      bootstraps." Asian Americans have worked hard, but who hasn't? What
      is more important is that immigration law and other forms of racism
      have had the ironic effect of creating a community with an unusual
      number of middle-class people.

      Among the hard working are the millions of extremely poor Asian-
      American workers who are often rendered invisible in the mythical
      Asian success story. The many vibrant left and progressive Asian-
      American organizations today tend to concentrate their organizing
      efforts precisely among these immigrant workers, many of whom are
      women. Class looms large in Asian-American politics.

      After more than 400 years of racism sanctioned and enforced by the
      state, the victories of the Civil Rights movement erased racial
      categories from the official law of the land. This was a tremendous
      victory. But many of the oppressive patterns and disparities set in
      place by those centuries of official racism continue as major forces
      in U.S. life, reproduced by enduring racialized cultural and
      economic structures unless actively interrupted. Overtly racist laws
      have been replaced by a plethora of covertly racial laws and
      legislation, from the Patriot Act to mandatory sentencing to the
      strict limits on desegregation and affirmative action, and
      discriminatory immigration and refugee law. We have come a long way,
      but there is a harsh road ahead. Unraveling the distinct dynamics of
      race, nationality, class, and gender, as well as their complicated
      intersections, will be critical to advancing racial justice in the
      decades to come.


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