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The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the…

The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1971)

by Alexander Saxton

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Nineteenth century labor writers and orators framed the justification for hostility to Chinese immigrants with the cheap labor argument. Chinese workers, whether from some inherent cultural or racial characteristic or by cause of the system of labor contracts that brought them to America, were willing to work for far lower wages than white workers. These low wage demands plus the seeming endless supply of manpower from mainland China would lead to an ever cheapening of labor eventually overwhelming the possibility of economic independence for free (white) wage labor.

In The Indispensable Enemy Alexander Saxton argues that this economic raionale is not sufficient to understand anti-Chinese sentiment that lead to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. First, the he addresses the reality of Chinese labor competition. Chinese immigrants made up 9 percent of the California population in 1860, and though gaining in absolute numbers until the immigration restrictions of the 1882, white population grew faster and the Chinese were 7.5 percent in 1880. However, the Chinese who came to America were almost entirely men of prime working age. As the white population was increasingly made up of family groups with the decline of the early placer mining period, the Chinese made up a far larger fraction of the workforce population, perhaps up to 20 percent 1870 . This raises the possibility of considerable competition between white and Chinese labor.

In the placer mining period, white ‘49ers were largely successful in monopolizing mining stakes, driving off Chinese and other groups like the prior Mexican inhabitants. However, a large service sector developed to supply the needs of the mining camps and Chinese immigrants filled this role. With some struggle whites also kept the Chinese out of the core mining jobs in the deep-shaft phase that followed. The first mass importation of Chinese contract labor came with the effort to man railroad construction. But even here, Chinese were largely filling new low skill jobs for which few white applicants existed. As Chinese labor increased, white workers were not displaced, but moved up to skilled and supervisory positions . As both manufacturing and market competition increased with the completion of the railroad a new split developed between locally oriented, low competition building and shipping trades dominated by whites and nationally oriented, high competition light manufacturing dominated by Chinese. The higher waged labor that survived in light industry, in for instance cigar and shoe making, did so ironically by charging a higher price for “white-made” products. (Sadly, this 'white label' may be the origins of the union label program.)

By the 1870s a split labor market had developed and there was little direct competition between Chinese and white workers. And yet, opposition to the Chinese dominated politics in California from the Reconstruction era to the enactment of Chinese exclusion (and to some extent beyond in the form of anti-Japanese organizing). And anti-Chinese sentiment was the major rallying cry of all labor organizations through this period. Saxton finds the solution to this paradox in the ideological value of anti-Chinese sentiment to both labor leaders and politicians appealing to the worker vote.

Saxton finds the roots of this ideologically useful racism in the Jacksonian period when the newly politically active northern working class found an ally of convenience in the southern slave-owners under the umbrella of the Democratic Party. The ideology of the northern worker parties was rooted in the egalitarian “producers ethic” that saw political and cultural virtue flowing from farmer and artisan labor. However, in order to justify the alliance with the South, northern Democrats had to draw the egalitarian line at the racial barrier, and argue that it was black inferiority that required their subjugation under slavery. Abolition would mean competition with degraded black labor, eventually undermining whites. However, as the nation moved westward the expansion of the slave “system” began to seem the greater threat to free labor and the Democracy eventually collapsed under the sectional divide. This new opposition to slavery required no allegiance with the slaves and northern support for bringing blacks into the body politic was thin at best. However, in the direct aftermath of the Civil War open calls for anti-black racism were at least temporarily discredited. If politics of unity through a common enemy were to continue a new enemy was needed. First in the west, and then to some extent nationally, that enemy was the Chinese.

The bulk of the book is a narrative of successive political and labor struggles that were shaped by anti-Chinese rhetoric and organizing. The basic outline of this story (Denis Kearny’s sand-lot rabble rousing, increasingly unified opposition to the Chinese on the West coast and the eventual winning over of national politicians in the passage of Chinese Exclusion) is familiar from the works of Mary Coolidge and Elmer Sandmeyer. However, these earlier authors had generally presented labor and working class organizations as a united front against the Chinese. Saxton’s principle contribution is in the detailing of the internal struggles of workers over the use anti-Chinese rhetoric and organizing and the way focus on the Chinese tactic shaped labor ideologies and organizational structures.

Saxton concludes by discussing how anti-Chinese rhetoric served the leadership of the craft unions by restricting the broad egalitarianism of the producer ethic. Such an ethic is difficult to reconcile with a craft structure based on restricting access to privileged skills. The early post-bellum union federations had expressed the expansive language even if their organizations were in fact small and restrictive. The opposition to the Chinese had normalized the notion that the benefits of free labor would only be available to some, not all. By 1905, Samuel Gompers could say, “But the Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others.” Those others being the new European immigrants.

So what can we make of Saxton’s argument. First, I think it’s worth noting several things that the book does not do. This is not a book about the Chinese. The Chinese workers are the object of struggles among white workers and between white workers and other groups. Ironically, we also don’t really hear much about the white workers. This is a result of the principle reliance on local periodicals and a small number of leader autobiographies as sources. What we really learn about is the public activities of formal organizations along with reports of major incidents of violence. Who were the people who turned out to Kearney’s sandlot rallies and why where they there? It’s difficult to know.

Another weakness is the geographic focus. Almost all of the action takes place in San Francisco. Saxton goes into considerable detail in the local political jockeying, not all of which was related to Chinese opposition. Again this was probably a result of the reliance on San Francisco newspapers. The focus is not entirely misplaced, as SF was the major population and political center of California for much of the 19th century and California was clearly the center of anti-Chinese activism. However, frequently when it came time to make the links to national level politics the discussion felt cut short. Why did Chinese exclusion have so much national salience when the Chinese population was essentially restricted to the far west?

The question of the origins of opposition to the Chinese is also raised but little investigated. As Saxton notes in the first chapter, during almost all of the parties in this struggle had moved to California as adults, only about 40% had been born in America and most those were likely second generation with strong ties to their ethnic communities . On the east coast these ethnic differences were the source of considerable tensions. However, in the west only the Chinese were the outsiders. Saxton’s conclusion on this topic is worth quoting at length because it is one of the earliest formulations of the whiteness, though he does little to substantiate the concept here:
'Among workingmen especially this proposition [the degradation of Chinese workers] became self-evident. The outstanding characteristic of all those disparate elements which composed the non-Chinese labor force was that they were not Chinese … Assimilability was on the point of being discovered—that mysterious substance which resided in the circulatory systems of persons having certain ancestries and which rendered them desirable as neighbors, sons-in-law, fellow workers, and even as voters. The words assimilable, white, and the pseudo-scientific term Caucasian, just then coming into fashion, would be taken as equivalents. Before the decade of the seventies was out, there would be California workingmen, styling themselves brothers in the Order of Caucasians, who would undertake the systematic killing of Chinese in order to preserve their assimilable fellow toilers from total ruin.'

There is some implication that the origins of this racism are in the experience with racism against blacks and the slave system, but for the new immigrants that might in reality have been fairly minimal. This leads to the most difficult question in the book. Saxton has made his case well that the anti-Chinese sentiment was not driven principally be rational economic calculation. Anti-coolieism was far better politics than economics. However, this leaves open the question of the dialectic between anti-Chinese racism among the population and the anti-Chinese rhetoric put forth by politicians and labor leaders. Saxton’s narrative runs in the direction of viewing the leadership as using racism instrumentally. This is perhaps best seen in the story of Frank Roney, whose autobiography is a major source for the book. Roney was a labor radical, sometime socialist. He at times expressed real concern about the excesses of anti-Chinese activism. But after losing an early organizational struggle with the firebrand Kearney, Roney switched tactics and decided to use anti-Chinese sentiment as a tool for building the labor movement. This implies that the racism was simply out there in the population and that the leaders would either oppose the Chinese or be swept aside. But what of the role of the incessant anti-Chinese propaganda in the creation of the racist environment?

Suggestions for further reading:
Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910
Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act
Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82 ( )
  eromsted | Dec 10, 2009 |
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