Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-82

Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-82

David Roediger

Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-82. By Najia Aarim-Heriot (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. xiv plus 289 pp. $39.95).

Sections of this ambitious book are well-covered in the existing historical literature, but Najia Aarim-Heriot provides a great service by mixing mastery of secondary literatures and new research to provide a sustained and insightful treatment of the imbrication of anti-Black and anti-Chinese racisms over a long and critical period. A Moroccan who grew up in France and who teaches in the U.S., Aarim-Heriot writes carefully and eloquently in defense of the rights of racialized peoples and succeeds at times in showing how knowing their stories change the overall political history of the U.S. She particularly moves the history of anti-Chinese mobilization beyond California, illuminating the critical importance of other western states (especially Oregon), of resonances with Southern postbellum racism and of conflicts and fears in New England in “nationalizing” the issue. The narrative thread for this account is primarily political. While Aarim-Heriot rightly observes that important studies of anti-Chinese mobilizations by labor historians potentially leave us believing that trade unions had more impact on this issue than they could plausibly have had, her own work is nonetheless attentive to intersections of class and race.

The book proceeds chronologically. It posits no early “golden age” of acceptance of Chinese immigrants but nonetheless narrates an ongoing narrowing of possibilities for humane treatment. Early sections are especially apt in establishing the speed with which “negroization” of the Chinese took place. While allowing for differences in anti-Black and anti-Chinese racisms, Aarim-Heriot patiently shows that casting “Celestials” as unfree and unfit for freedom placed them in categories made familiar by racist discourse and policy directed against African Americans. Sections on exclusion in the 1857 Oregon constitutional convention underline this connection and demonstrate the importance of the debates around the Dred Scott case for race-making generally. Likewise fascinating is the analysis of the ways Hinton R. Helper’s anti-Chinese writings intersected with his aggressive staking of racist but antislavery positions.

The excellent sections on the Civil War and Reconstruction remind us that in the 1863 New York City “draft” riots, the gangs of New York turned from brutalities against African Americans to attacks on Chinese peddlers. The latter were portrayed by one riot speaker as “modifications of the negro.” Aarim-Heriot shows deftly how experiments with Chinese labor in the South and Northeast broadened the issue of Chinese immigration. Most importantly, she demonstrates the persistence with which questions of Chinese immigrant rights intruded on postbellum policy debates, brilliantly titling one chapter “Congressional Reconstruction and the Race Questions.” Cruel ironies abounded. Although exabolitionists and Radical Republicans were sometimes susceptible to the fiction that Chinese immigrant workers were “enslaved” or “coolie” laborers, some sought to defend immigrant rights. When Charles Sumner and others failed in their bid to include the Chinese in legislation expanding naturalization rights beyond “white” persons, the act providing that immigrants of African descent could become citizens also became “the first national anti-Chinese legislation.” By 1882, such federal legislation would take the form of an exclusion policy hammered out by placing the Chinese in “counterpoint” to African Americans and both in counterpoint to white male citizens.

In reviewing such a wide-ranging and successful study, calls for still more work are bound to sound carping. However, in light of the book’s title, some further accounts of direct Black-Chinese interactions, and especially of the intriguing instances in which such figures as Frederick Douglass and T. Thomas Fortune defended Chinese rights, would have been apposite. Some gaps in the bibliography also matter, particularly when Aarim-Heriot takes on large interpretive questions. She, for example, ambitiously tackles how race, gender and sexuality all shaped anti-Chinese stereotypes, how the Republican Party expressed a dual nature during Reconstruction, how postbellum party politics featured studied racial appeals and how citizenship reinforced racialization. However, absent sustained considerations of Robert Lee’s Orientals, Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts, W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction and Alexander Saxton’s Rise and Fall of the White Republic, Aarim-Heriot often is less bold on these questions than she might otherwise have been. Such omissions are not surprising, given that historians often marginalize interdisciplinary work and classic African American scholarship, but they do have a cost.

In this case, they do not prevent Chinese Americans, African Americans and Racial Anxiety in the United States from breaking exciting new ground. With the recent work of Erika Lee, Mae Ngai, Joe Nevins and others, Aarim-Heriot’s study establishes that racist reactions to immigrants have both partaken of and reshaped white supremacy in the United States.

David Roediger

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group