Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Newly Chinese

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

It’s not hard to draw comparisons between the new century vilification of Mexicans and the turn of the century vilification of the Chinese just leafing through Jean Pfaelzer’s Driven Out -

Although the poorest of the poor, the Chinese bore the blame for the era’s widespread hunger and homelessness… Racial stereotypes began to reflect the desperate economic realities of the decade. The myth of the docile Chinese coolie, readily enslaved and easily purged, gave way to the myth of the scheming ogre, rather like the shifting stereotype of the African American, who morphed from the compliant, happy-go-lucky slave to soulless “beast” after the Civil War.

And even more disappointing because it is not unreasonable to expect African Americans to understand that vilification and stand against it -

William Hall, a black leader in the Bay Area, denounced the Chinese for the effect “which coolie labor is exercising against poor white and black men.” (Philip) Bell believed that the presence of the Chinese would further reduce blacks’ wages, and he asked readers of The Elevator (the African American newspaper on which he was editor-in-chief) to boycott San Francisco businesses that hired Chinese workers… He urged African Americans to vote only for public officials who would deal with this “thorn in the flesh…”

The disappointment extends to descendents of the Italian, Irish, German, and other immigrants who faced the same discrimination when they settled here. Each ethnic group has contended with nativist hate mongering upon touching American shores and yet, once settled, each joins the nativist chorus against the newer immigrants.

I am saddened – shocked – frightened and threatened by how quickly assimilation into the dominant culture occurs. And how old immigrants so quickly forget their struggles in the “New World.”

The Encyclopedia of the New American Nation explains it this way:

in the last quarter of the twentieth century antiforeign sentiment erupted during periods of economic duress, especially in areas in which these groups settled and in contexts where political candidates like Pat Buchanan courted voters with antiforeign themes. Residents of the postindustrial rust belt seemed most sensitive to antiforeign ideas, which often emerged with antigovernment tones. For example, the downturn in the American automotive market negatively affected Asian Americans. The Ku Klux Klan and other survivalist and hate groups still sputtered along, erupting occasionally, as an unhappy underside of multicultural reality. Defenders of an older America denounced nonwhite newcomers, as their predecessors dunned immigrants in the 1840s, 1890s, and 1920s. But the nostalgic nativism… did not hide the point that newcomers since the 1970s had often done the kinds of work that native-born Americans choose not to do. In this way newcomers continued to reap the promise of what was still the most powerful force on earth—the American dream.

As the parent who is easily distinguished as being nonwhite – a second generation child (born here of newly immigrated parents) and a father of third generation children – I am perhaps more stubborn about clinging to the “old world” than my parents (whose primary concern was successful assimilation into the new world). I am a firm believer that a strong ethnic identity and a strong personal identity are deterrents to the negative aspects of nativism.

When my children are old enough to stand in my shoes, will they be as comfortable with their cultural roots as I want them to be? Will they recall the history of American persecution of Chinese immigrants and use those memories to inform their discussions of nativism? And if they are fathers, will they teach their children to value the same freedoms and take on the same responsibilities as I believe I do for them?

The sentiment behind Arizona's anti-immigrant law is not new. Throughout history, tough economic times and a lack of resources, has brought all the negative aspects of nativism to the forefront and the newly immigrated have suffered. I am worried, if not my children, my children’s children will forget their immigrant roots and join the chorus of hate ringing out now across this country.

As far as I know my children are unaware of what is going on in Arizona. They do not understand racism yet. We live in the most diverse city (in terms of race, religion, culture, and subculture) in the world. And they have not yet studied the American Civil War in school. They don’t know about slavery and the Civil Rights fight a century after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. They’ve seen videos but are too young to appreciate the inspirational message and the awe of Martin Luther King’s Dream.

They don’t understand why people are treated harshly because of their skin color or ethnic background. They only understand there are kids who are fun to play with and kids who are mean and who they don’t want to play with. They still appreciate the excitement of trying a new food or learning a new game.


Unknown said...

thanks for the interesting post! I once read an interesting book on a similar vein called something like "how the jews became white folk".

Vincent said...

@Aaron: Thank you for reading. I think with regard to "Jewishness" there is an extra layer of complexity because of the distinction between "religious Jews" and "ethnic Jews."