The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 26 13:59:01 MST 2000

The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians

By Stanford M. Lyman

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter 2000]

"The general public in this country, unfortunately, does not know or
understand the Chinese. This is due partly to the remaining effect of the
propaganda against the Chinese during the anti-Chinese agitation here, but
primarily to the present prevalence of certain elements in this country,
which makes this knowledge and understanding impossible."

--J.S. Tow, The Real Chinese in America (1923)

"There must be candor in disclosure, honesty in inquiry and resolute
determination in attack, or we will fail again, as we have so often failed

--C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma (1999)

the Chinese worker. Long gone from his once insecure place in the fields,
factories, industries, mines, and railways on the western frontier, as well
as from the shoe and cutlery manufactories where he once served as a
short-term strikebreaking laborer in the Northeast, the Asian immigrant
from what was once called the Middle Kingdom is today being raised from the
ignominious grave to which earlier labor historians had consigned him. But
now he serves as a foil in an ongoing debate over whether organized labor's
history contains a rich heritage of left-multiracial virtues or a
clandestine legacy of right-racist vices. Arrayed on each side of this
battlefield of words and documents, accusations and counter-charges, are
some of the finest minds and some of the newest Ph.D.-minted members of the
historians' profession. Those who seek honor for a non-racist labor
heritage are led by the late Herbert Gutman and count among their number
Eric Arnesen, Bruce Laurie, Leon Fink, Alan Dawley, Alex Lichtenstein,
Daniel Letwin, and numerous other epigoni. Those who examine the patterns
and consequences of white working-class racism are a dissident element
among labor historians, and include Herbert Hill, Alexander Saxton, David
Roediger, Nick Salvatore, Noel Ignatiev, and Gwendolyn Mink, among others.
To this force and counterforce must now be added works addressing the role
of the Chinese workers and the anti-Chinese movement in the annals of
American labor history. In support of the followers of Gutman there has
recently appeared Andrew Gyory's Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the
Chinese Exclusion Act; while several works on labor matters within and
affecting America's Chinese by Peter Kwong stand in virtual but unstated
opposition to the former's roseate thesis, as do portions of the research
conducted by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Herbert Hill.

When it comes to bringing the Chinese back into the history of organized
labor in America, followers of Gutman must fight on two fronts. For it is
an undisputed fact that America's first labor historians took great pride
in the role played by organized labor's exclusion of the Chinese worker not
only from the United States but also and equally significantly in his (and
her) exclusion from trade union membership and eviction from jobs once
dearly held. E. Salyer is thus quite correct when she observes, in a blurb
written on the back cover of Gyory's book, that "he challenges the standard
interpretations which have stood for years and become incorporated into the
'textbook' versions of American history." Although Salyer has exaggerated
the extent to which standard textbooks had adopted the outlook of the
previous generation's labor annalists, she is referring to Gyory's
attempted repudiation of the thesis about Chinese workers and organized
labor's response, best represented in a statement made by the much revered
Selig Perlman in 1922:

"The anti-Chinese agitation in California, culminating as it did in the
Exclusion Law passed by Congress in 1882, was doubtless the most important
single factor in the history of American labor, for without it the entire
country might have been overrun by Mongolian labor and the labor movement
might have become a conflict of races instead of one of classes."

Whereas Perlman and such other traditional labor historians as John R.
Commons and Philip Taft justified the anti-Chinese actions taken by
America's incipient trade union movement by treating their only slightly
bowdlerized versions of the rhetoric employed by the Sinophobes as part of
the Zeitgeist, Gyory -- as the disciple who voluntarily accepted Gutman's
challenge that someone accommodate the issues in the Chinese question to
the theses central to the "New Labor History" -- insists on denying that
white workers and their labor institutions were possessed by a vigorous and
pervasive anti-Chinese animus.

To simplify his argument, Gyory lumps his opponents into a single category.
He passes lightly over Perlman's statement on the matter, and is equally
complacent over related comments made by Commons, Taft, and such other
labor historians as Joseph G. Rayback and Gerald R. Grob. But, immediately,
Gyory conflates their perspective with that of such present-day critics of
the racist practices of organized labor as Herbert Hill, Roger Daniels, and
Ronald Takaki, -- each of whom might be said to have agreed with the
traditional labor historians that the anti-Chinese attitude and actions of
the formative national labor movement were central aspects of its
development, but, unlike the latter, each of whom denies that this
perspective and those actions were good, proper, ethical, or necessary.
Gyory aims some of his most withering fire at Gwendolyn Mink. In 1986, Mink
had argued that white workers' support for Chinese exclusion had become "a
peculiar bridge between unionism and national politics." In Gyory's
opinion, Mink has erred most egregiously by "repeatedly stressing, with
virtually no original evidence, that workers in the eastern United States
backed the cries of their brethren in California and that their support for
Chinese exclusion thereby 'nationalized labor politics' "; however, even
worse, Gyory retorts, Mink has echoed "the work of [Alexander] Saxton and
[Herbert] Hill and anticipated that of [David R.] Roediger." Rejecting the
findings of laborite Sinophobia in studies done decades earlier by Mary
Roberts Coolidge, Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, and Stuart Creighton Miller --
each of whom Gyory criticizes for adopting and elaborating upon what he
regards as a false "national racist consensus" on organized labor's history
-- Gyory counters with a postmodernist deconstruction of the racist
process, viz., "race is . . . constructed differently at the same time by
people in the same social class." And, given his assumption that this
assertion is a heretofore unrecognized truth, Gyory states, "Workers'
myriad attitudes toward Chinese immigration demonstrate . . . and reveal
the dangers of generalizing too broadly about the extent and uniformity of
racism in any single group."

But, if the workingmen and their associations are not the leading sources
of America's anti-Chinese movement, then who are the culprits? Gyory's
answer is, as Leon Fink writes in a blurb appended to the cover of Closing
the Gate, one that "rescues our understanding of the tragedy of Chinese
exclusion (and by extension other American racial practices) from the glib
generalities reliant on a resort to 'racist culture' in favor of a
painstaking -- if painful -- account of specific political agency." That
"political agency" is specified by Gyory: "The single most important force
behind the Chinese Exclusion Act was national politicians of both parties
who seized, transformed, and manipulated the issue of Chinese immigration
in the quest for votes." And thus begins his investigation, one that seeks
nothing less than a "not guilty" verdict for the now nearly century-old
indictment charging that America's labor movement has been scarred by its
support for Sinophobic as well as other forms of a virulent racism. Should
Gyory succeed in his endeavor, he will not only relieve America's labor
movement of its stigmatizing anti-Chinese heritage, but also (if we read
between the lines of Fink's parenthetical statement above) absolve that
movement of charges that its organizational practices restricted African
Americans, Hispanics, and women, reducing the benefits that might have been
gained from interracial solidarity and cooperation. Eliminating its racist
legacy might even succeed in returning the image of America's labor
movement to that presented in 1891 by Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling. More
relevantly, it would provide an enormous assist to the posthumous
fulfillment of Gutman's project: treating a broadened understanding of the
class struggle as the unifying feature of America's labor movement,
relegating labor union racism and workers' gender prejudices to
insignificance. . .

Complete article at:

Louis Proyect

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