Asian Americans and the Color Line: Revisiting an Analytical Framework
Solicited by Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS). Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee
Sunday, April 18, 2021, 11:15 AM - 11:45 AM
Type: Paper Session
Tags: Asian American; Immigration and Internal Migration; Race
W.E.B. DuBois memorably described the color-line in 1903 as "the relations of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, and the islands of the sea." Asian American historians have found the idea of the color-line to be a generative metaphor for understanding the role of race in shaping Asian American communities, as it brings together international and domestic frames of reference and suggests connections between race and space. Recent research in Asian American history, however, which emphasizes the roles of political economy, relational racialization, intraethnic class conflict, gender dynamics, and settler colonialism, challenges historians to consider whether the idea of the color-line also obscures important dimensions of Asian American history. This panel explores the strengths and limitations of the color-line as an analytical framework for understanding the historical experiences of Asian Americans. Beth Lew-Williams argues that, although local ordinances in the 19th-century West seemed to mimic black codes and segregation laws, Chinese Americans did not encounter a color-line analogous to the one that governed the Jim Crow South. Lew-Williams analyzes how Chinese Americans were included within, rather than excluded from, the political economy, racial regime, and legal world of the 19th-century American West. Beth Lew-Williams argues that, although local ordinances in the 19th-century West seemed to mimic black codes and segregation laws, Chinese Americans did not encounter a color-line analogous to the one that governed the Jim Crow South. Lew-Williams analyzes how Chinese Americans were included within, rather than excluded from, the political economy, racial regime, and legal world of the 19th-century American West. Jonathan Tran revisits the influential work of James Loewen on Chinese settlement in post-Reconstruction Mississippi. Tran argues that an account of the racial identities of the Mississippi Chinese must be grounded in an analysis of the political economy that produced those identities. Manu Karuka reconstructs the trajectory of W.E.B. DuBois' analysis of imperialism, from his 1915 article "The African Roots of War," to his writings in the 1950's. Karuka argues that DuBois' study of imperialism, which shifted DuBois' understanding of the color-line in a more materialist and internationalist direction, provides a starting point for considering his foundational legacy for Asian American historians. Calvin Cheung-Miaw explores Asian Americanists' shifting ideas about the white/non-white binary through their intellectual engagement in the debate over Asian American access to educational institutions. Asian American legal scholars in the early 1990s began to argue that existing notions of racial equity were ill-suited for conceptualizing and remedying anti-Asian racism. Though they believed their scholarship would bolster popular support for affirmative action, their ideas inadvertently led other Asian Americanists to wonder whether Asian American interests diverged from those of other communities of color.
The Overdeterminations of Race: The Complicated Legacy of James Loewen’s The Mississippi Chinese
James Loewen’s The Mississippi Chinese (1971) is broadly considered the definitive history of Reconstruction-era settlement of Chinese. It is also wrong in significant ways. Using a “becoming white” interpretive lens, Loewen’s preoccupation with racial identity overdetermined his historical narrative. Two decades later, a series of titles would make similar kinds of arguments: David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995) and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of Another Color (1998). Like The Mississippi Chinese before them, these narratives prioritized racial identities to the exclusion of the political economies that produced them, allowing race to conceptually float free from the material history. Even with significant push back from historians, particularly labor historians, critical race theorists adopted the narratives for their own purposes (e.g., critical whiteness studies). Deploying tropes that were rhetorically powerful because conceptually vague (e.g., “whiteness”) these subsequent arguments now exercise great influence on disciplines far afield from history. Notice that the problem here is not simply that the tropic discourses misinterpret the historical record, in turn marginalizing those already marginalized by racism. It is also that in doing so, they undermine the antiracist goals for which the concepts were deployed in the first place. This paper outlines this development, specifically related to The Mississippi Chinese and generally related to the narratives Loewen’s text inspired. Concluding, the paper sketches an alternative way of approaching histories of race and racism, namely, the Black Marxist tradition as carried forward by historians of capitalism.
Jonathan Tran, Baylor University
Imperialism and the Color Line
This paper will trace out the development of W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis of imperialism, from his 1915 article “The African Roots of War,” to Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, to his antiwar activism and writings in the early 1950’s. I am particularly interested in examining the ways Du Bois drew out a relationship between colonialism and racism, and in the ways he drew out a relationship between war and finance capital. I am also interested in the ways Du Bois’s analysis and critical language developed in relation to the changing political situation. Increasingly, Du Bois’s analysis of imperialism would enunciate a materialist critique of the color line, and of the stakes of an international struggle to eradicate it. By tracing out Du Bois’s decades-long engagement with the concept of imperialism, we can also consider key dimensions of his understanding of the role of the critically engaged public intellectual. Du Bois’s analysis of imperialism, I argue, is one point to begin considering the foundational legacies of his work for Asian American studies. Whether analyzing the large-scale exploitation of Chinese and South Asian indentured labor that developed after the British abolition of slavery, or publicly standing against the violence of U.S. military assaults on Korean aspirations for self-rule and development (at great personal cost), Du Bois left a body of work that provides Asian American studies with a set of concepts and an understanding of history that can situate Asian American histories within broader currents of imperialism and decolonization.
Manu Karuka, American studies, Barnard College
Race, Alienage, and the Terms of Chinese Inclusion
Although the term “Chinese exclusion” may accurately describe U.S. border control between 1888-1943, it does not adequately explain the regulation of race and alienage within America’s interior during the same period. Chinese migrants may have been excluded from the nation by federal law, but those who were already in America (and those who continued to arrive surreptitiously) were also included within the political economy, racial regime, and legal world of the American West. This talk will explore the terms of that inclusion, that is, the laws, structures, discourses, and practices used to regulate the Chinese living within the nation. Too often, scholars have depicted the internal regulation of Chinese as a “color line” akin to (but not as severe as) the racial regime of the Jim Crow South. This scholarship focuses on local ordinances that seem to mimic black codes and segregation laws. In fact, Chinese migrants in the 19th-century West did not encounter a color line that ran parallel to the one regulating African Americans, nor did they find that local communities reenacted exclusion within the interior. But just as Chinese exclusion and black segregation were fundamentally legal regimes, law underwrote Chinese inclusion as well. Focusing on local and state laws regulating the Chinese, this talk will offer an alternate framework for understanding the nature of Chinese inclusion.
Beth Lew-Williams, Princeton University
The End of “united people of color”? Asian American Legal Theory and the Debate over Education Access in the Early 1990s
Asian American Studies was first demanded by student activists who rallied under the banner of Third Worldism - the belief that Asian American, Chicanx, Black, and Native American communities faced analogous, if not identical, situations of racial oppression. In the 1990s, however, Asian Americanists began to question this framework. They were less sure that Asian Americans and other people of color were natural allies, and worried that advocating for the interests of Asian Americans might sometimes hinder, rather than advance, the empowerment of other communities. This paper traces Asian Americanists' shifting ideas about Third Worldism through their intellectual and political engagements in one key controversy: the debate over Asian American access to educational institutions. Convinced that elite educational institutions had been biased against Asian American admissions, Asian American legal scholars in the early 1990s began to argue that existing notions of racial equity were ill-suited to conceptualizing and remedying anti-Asian racism. These scholars believed that greater attention to anti-Asian discrimination would bolster popular support for affirmative action. However, their ideas inadvertently led other Asian Americanists to wonder whether Asian American interests diverged from those of other communities of color. Nearly all the participants in the debate over anti-Asian racism at educational institutions, however, overlooked class divisions within the Asian American community that might have provided new grounds for multiracial solidarity.
Calvin Cheung-Miaw, Stanford University
Chair and Commentator: Karen J. Leong, Arizona State University
Karen J. Leong is Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Asian Pacific American Studies in the School of Social Transformation; and affiliate faculty in the Department of History and Film and Media Studies. She received her doctoral degree in U.S. History from the University of California at Berkeley, PhD., History in 1999. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality and nation. She is committed to teaching and researching the history of what it means to be American, what it means to be part of the US empire, and what it means to practice a vibrant democracy, drawing on interdisciplinary perspectives to highlight how diverse communities have negotiated hierarchies of power, resisted oppression, built coalitions for change, and have shaped United States society.
In 2005, Leong published The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Mayling Soong Chiang, Anna May Wong and the Transformation of American Orientalism with University of California Press. In 2005, she was a member of a multidisciplinary team that received an NSF HSD grant to explore the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Vietnamese and African American communitie; she was lead author of “Resilient History and the Rebuilding of a Community: The Vietnamese American Community in New Orleans East,” Journal of American History (Dec 2007). She co-edited a special issue of Feminist Teacher (2012) about feminist pedagogy and civic education; co-edited a special issue of Frontiers: Journal of Women’s Studies about transnational feminisms (Dec 2015); and co-edited a special issue of Amerasia (Spring 2016), Multiple Voices, Multiple Histories: Exploring the Intersections of the Japanese American and American Indian Experiences of Internment in Arizona during World War II.
She and Myla Vicenti Carpio, associate professor of American Indian Studies at ASU, have been recipients of grants from the ASU Institute of Humanities Research and the Truman Library Institute for their collaborative book project, “American Movements: Understanding the Ideological and Institutional Reasoning for Japanese American and American Indian Relocations, 1940-1970.” She is also working on a book manuscript entitled, “Japanese Americans in Transnational Arizona.”
She has been editorial board member for the Journal of American History, Western History Quarterly, and the Pacific Historical Review. She was a founding member of the Committee for the Study of Race in the American West in Western History Association. She was elected a member of the nominating committee and the national council of the American Studies Association, and was appointed to serve on the ASA’s executive committee. She worked with K-12 Arizona teachers to develop curriculum about democracy, diversity, and internment for the Arizona portion of the Japanese American National Museum’s Enduring Communities project across five states. She was recognized for her scholarship by the Arizona Humanities Council in 2007 when she was named the Dan Schilling Arizona Humanities Scholar of the Year.
Presenter: Calvin Cheung-Miaw, Stanford University
Calvin Cheung-Miaw is a PhD candidate in the Modern Thought and Literature program at Stanford University. An historian of race that specializes in intellectual history and social movements, his dissertation locates the roots of contemporary debates over Asian American identity and politics by mapping Asian American Studies scholars' changing ideas about the place of Asian Americans in the U.S. racial landscape. By placing Asian Americans at the heart of the discussion about the white/nonwhite binary in the post-civil-rights era, the dissertation explores why Third Worldism—the belief that Asian American, Chicanx, African American, and Native American communities faced analogous, though not identical, situations of racial oppression—went from being ensconced within Asian American Studies to being deeply questioned by Asian Americanists themselves, over the course of three decades.
His writings have appeared in Amerasia Journal and In These Times. An article on transnational political assassinations during the Reagan era is forthcoming from Pacific Historical Review.
Presenter: Manu Karuka, American studies, Barnard College
Manu Karuka is the author of Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). He is a co-editor, with Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein, of “On Colonial Unknowing,” a special issue of Theory & Event, and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013). His work appears in Critical Ethnic Studies, J19, Settler Colonial Studies, The Settler Complex: Recuperating Binarism in Colonial Studies (UCLA American Indians Studies Center, 2016, edited by Patrick Wolfe), and Formations of United States Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2014, edited by Alyosha Goldstein). He is an assistant professor of American Studies at Barnard College.
Presenter: Beth Lew-Williams, Princeton University
Beth Lew-Williams is a historian of race and migration in the United States, specializing in Asian American history. Her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), maps the tangled relationships between local racial violence, federal immigration policy, and U.S. imperial ambitions in Asia. During a period better known for the invention of the modern citizenship, the book reveals how violence, exclusion, and imperialism produced a modern concept of alienage in U.S. law and society. The Chinese Must Go won the Ray Allen Billington Prize and the Ellis W. Halley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, the Sally and Ken Owens Prize from the Western History Association, the Vincent P. DeSantis Book Prize from the Society of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Caroline Bancroft History Prize, and was a finalist for the Berkshire Conference book prize.
Her next book project, tentatively titled John Doe Chinaman: Race and Law in the American West, considers the regulation of Chinese migrants within the United States during the nineteenth century. Immigration law may have excluded Chinese migrants from the nation for more than fifty years, but those who were already in America (and those who continued to arrive) were also included within the political economy and racial regime of the American West. This book will explore the terms of that inclusion, focusing in particular on the role of civil and criminal law. An early example of this research can be seen in “‘Chinamen’ and ‘Delinquent Girls’: Intimacy, Exclusion, and a Search for California’s Color Line,” which appeared in The Journal of American History (December 2017). The Western History Association awarded this article the Ray Allen Billington Prize, the Jensen-Miller Award, and the Vicki L. Ruiz Award.
At Princeton, Lew-Williams is affiliated faculty in the Program in American Studies, the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Asian American/Diaspora Studies. She is also a core member of the Princeton Migration Lab.
Lew-Williams earned her A.B. from Brown University and Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. She has held fellowships from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the George P. Shultz Fellowship in Canadian Studies. She has been in residence at UW-Madison’s Institute for Research in the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Study. Before coming to Princeton in 2014, she was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University appointed in History and Asian American Studies.
Presenter: Jonathan Tran, Baylor University
Jonathan Tran (PhD Duke University) is Associate Professor of Religion at Baylor University where he holds the George W. Baines Professor of Religion. He is author of The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (2010) and Foucault and Theology (2011). His next two books, Yellow Christianity: Intervening on Antiracist Thought and Christianity and the Promise of Politics, will be completed in the next two years. He serves as co-editor of the Stanford University Press series “Encountering Traditions.”