Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans 1852-1965

Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans 1852-1965

Monthly Review
December 2005

Bob Wing

Bob Wing was part of the first wave of Asian-American activists in the late 1960s. He was founding editor of the antiwar newspaper, War Times,and of the racial justice magazine, ColorLines, and is one of the national leaders of United for Peace and Justice, a nationwide antiwar coalition of more than 1,200 organizations. This article was edited and slightly updated from a longer essay written in 1995.

The U.S. immigration reform of 1965 produced a tremendous influx of immigrants and refugees from Asia and Latin America that has dramatically altered U.S. race relations. Latinos now outnumber African Americans. It is clearer than ever that race relations in the United States are not limited to the central black/white axis. In fact this has always been true: Indian wars were central to the history of this country since its origins and race relations in the West have always centered on the interactions between whites and natives, Mexicans, and Asians. The “new thinking” about race relations as multipolar is overdue.

However, one cannot simply replace the black/white model with one that merely adds other groups. The reason is that other groups of color have faced discrimination that is quite different both in form and content than that which has characterized black/white relations. The history of many peoples and regions, as well as distinct issues of nationality oppression—U.S. settler colonialism, Indian wars, U.S. foreign relations and foreign policy, immigration, citizenship, the U.S.-Mexico War, language, reservations, treaties, sovereignty issues, etc.—must be analyzed and woven into a considerably more complicated new framework.

In this light, Asian-American history is important because it was precedent-setting in the racialization of nationality and the incorporation of nationality into U.S. race relations. The racial formation of Asian Americans was a key moment in defining the color line among immigrants, extending whiteness to European immigrants, and targeting non-white immigrants for racial oppression. Thus nativism was largely overshadowed by white nativism, and it became an important new form of racism…

…In recent years it has become a progressive mantra that racial categories are “socially constructed,” but it is often forgotten that they only achieve full structural and systemic power when they are legally defined and enforced by state power. In what became the United States, the plethora of both European and African nationalities very early on was subsumed by a legally defined and state sanctioned system of racial categories.

In this unprecedented new system, famously hostile European nationalities (e.g., English, Irish, Germans, and French) were united as whites, and the numerous African nationalities, together with all those who seemed to exhibit the slightest perceptible trace of African ancestry, were categorized as Negro, thus with “no rights that the white man is bound to respect.” This hypodescent (or “one drop”) rule, firmly codified in statute by 1705, was meant to provide crystal clarity to the social status of the numerous racially mixed offspring sired by white planters. This was crucial since unlike other slave societies, the Southern planters depended primarily upon slave reproduction (rather than the African slave trade) to fill its slave supply and were also bound and determined to prevent a substantial free group of mulattos to blur the color line…

Read the entire article here.

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