The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1972, Volume 18, Number 2
James E Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. By Alexander Saxton. (Berkeley, Ca., University of California Press, 1971). Bibliography. Index. Notes. 401 pages. $8.50.

Reviewed by Stanford M. Lyman, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Asian in the West and co-author with Marvin Scott of The Revolt of the Students and A Sociology of the Absurd. His most recent book, The Black American in Sociological Thought, was published by Putnam’s in March, 1972.

Until recently the events surrounding the anti-Chinese movement in America have been regarded as regional history peculiar to the West and having little national significance except for their effect on immigration legislation. Certainly such early works as Mary Coolidge’s Chinese Immigration (1909) and Elmer C. Sandmeyer’s The Anti-Chinese Movement in America (1939) presented the regional themes. Gunther Barth’s Bitter Strength (1964) did little to dispel the local importance of the Chinese story. But a fundamental departure from this perspective appears to be emerging in the writings of recent investigators of the subject. Thus, Stuart Creighton Miller’s The Unwelcome Immigrant (1969) documented the Sino-phobic character of national American thought from 1785 to 1882. Stanford M. Lyman’s The Asian in the West (1970) suggested the significance of Chinese immigration for changing the bases of institutional racism in America. With Alexander Saxton’s work briliantly re-analyzing the role of labor in the anti-Chinese movement, it is fair to say that a full scale revision is in progress. The history of the West is to be integrated in national history, and Chinese immigration is a fundamental part of that integration.

The cultural baggage which the Californians carried with them from the East, Midwest, and South was an uncomfortable amalgam of Jeffersonian yeomanry, Jacksonian populism, and anti-monopolistic individualism. Central to this potpourri of ideas was a general xenophobia and a particular anxiety over non-white peoples. Many of the pioneers of California were fleeing both slavery and abolitionism, cities and banks, foreigners and old Americans. In the shortlived bonanza mines of California they celebrated their independence, not only by popular elections and tribunals, but also by restricting the activities of Chinese laborers to menial tasks. They did not absolutely remove the Chinese, for so long as the latter were willing to wash clothes, cook meals, and do the daily drudgrey, and, more importantly, so long as they could be confined to tasks that were too dangerous for whites to tackle or which would create a wage floor from which whites could rise, their presence would be tolerated.

The ideologies of the major parties led ultimately to racial hostility toward the Chinese and a resurgence of that Negrophobia that had been dampened by the Civil War. The Democrats had pioneered in the development of the “producer ethics,” which, extended to include not only yeomen farmers but also artisans, workingmen, businessmen, promoters, and independent manufacturers, locked these “carriers of value” in relentless warfare against the monopolists and bankers. However, the producer ethic, although, egalitarian on its face, proved to be racist in practice. The Negro was declared to be unequal and, hence, unable to compete with the supposedly superior white men in the pursuit of happiness. Some Democrats became active defenders of slavery; others, though they did not support the American system of bondage, feared the exploitative use of Negroes by “monopolists” and an inevitable subversion of the producer class. Northern workingmen were most subject to anti-Negro sentiment since they encountered free Negroes as competitors and worried that emancipation would swamp the labor market. Immigrants and their children, who comprised the bulk of the Californian labor force, were even more prone to a racist stance. Fearful of being reduced to the lowest point on the social and economic ladder, they opposed abolitionism and flocked to the Democrats who assured them that it was permissible to hate Negroes. In California, Chinese replaced Negroes as the objects of this hatred, and indeed, Sinophobia helped to resuscitate the Democracy in the post-bellum period when the spirit of Reconstruction forbade open denunciation of blacks.

The Republican Party inherited the egalitarian philosophy of Locke and Jefferson but linked it to order and the preservation of property. The egalitarian ethics was further sullied by Nativism, which attracted workingmen to Republican ranks, and by the free soil and unionist aspects of its antislavery position. Free-soilers were also Negrophobes, linking the settlement of the territories to the liberation of white men. Unionists opposed separation of the Republic but were silent on the issue of Negro rights. The principled civil rights orientation of the Republicans rapidly disappeared in the post-bellum period. The death knell was sounded early. On July 4, 1870 Charles Sumner appealed to his colleagues to eliminate the word “white” in the naturalization clause of the Immigration Act so that Chinese in the West might become citizens; his amendment was defeated 30 to 14.

Ideology within the labor force favored republicanism, socialism and the producer ethics. Although these three tendencies did not always coalesce, they seemed to suggest an egalitarian outlook. However, again the race question eroded the purity of the ethic. Trade unionism faltered on the Negro question, and in 1868 the National Labor Union voted to exclude blacks.i However, it was the Chinese question which animated labor’s racist spirit. Labor’s emancipation of the workingman would be confined to the white worker. The solidarity of the working class would be bifurcated by the color of the working men.

Saxton’s contribution is in telling the story of labor’s devolution from a principled position of class unity to a practical one of racial division. By identifying Chinese laborers as the agents and tools of the monopolists, by accepting the racist imagery of the Chinese, and by refusing to adopt a class position undifferentiated by race, the house of labor missed the opportunity to solidify its forces and strike a blow against the racism rampant in America. Radicalism, trade unionism, and racism coalesced on the Chinese issue and the Chinese — already the objects of merciless exploitation by capital, demeaning patronage by missionaries, and destructive discrimination in the courts and legislatures — were left to fend for themselves as best they could. Their own cultural orientation and old-world organizational formsespecially the vertical guilds which permitted and even encouraged exploitation of laborers and artisans — were strengthened. The Chinese ghetto was reinforced by pressures from within and without.

As for labor, its promise of universalism and equality were permanently compromised. The practices worked out to exclude the Chinese — the boycott, union label, and even the most potent weapon, the strikewere put into service not only to shorten hours and increase wages, but also to drive out Asians. Later this same arsenal would be used to exclude Negroes, ignore Mexicans and Indians, and in general restrict labor’s interests to those of the white workingman. California was the setting for the beginnings of this tragic story; the nation is the inheritor of the California legacy. Alexander Saxton is to be congratulated for uncovering this awful truth and making it available in careful detail and objective analysis for all of us to ponder.