Extending the White Frame: Other Americans of Color

During the mid-nineteenth century' the white-controlled system of racial oppression and its rationalizing frame were substantially extended as white entrepreneurs and political leaders brought in yet more labor and territory of people of color, again mostly for the purpose of generating white profits and wealth. These new oppressions began on a large scale in the 1840s with a U.S. military invasion and conquest of northern Mexico, which brought massive new lands and more than 100,000 Mexicans within the new U.S. boundary', and in the 1850s with the importation of Chinese contract laborers by white companies in the West, such as railroad firms. Those European Americans who imported Chinese laborers and annexed large areas of Mexico by imperialistic force already' had a strong white racial frame in their heads. That age-old frame, from the beginning centrally' focused on white superiority and black inferiority, has long been adaptive and multidimensional. Its central racist doctrines have regularly' been adjusted and extended to new social contexts and groups. White political and economic leaders, as well as scientists and intellectuals, quickly imbedded the Mexicans and the Chinese in this society’s white-controlled hierarchy of racial exploitation and in its expandable rationalizing racist frame.

In the southwestern United States few white colonizers invading northern Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s viewed the Mexicans as white, but placed them down at the bottom of the U.S. racial hierarchy with Native Americans and African Americans. One white land agent wrote that Mexicans were “swarthy looking people resembling our mulattos, some of them nearly black.” The famous Texas politician and slaveholder Sam Houston spoke of Mexicans as inferior “half-Indians.” Other whites wrote that Mexicans had a “filthy, greasy appearance.”45

In 1848 Senator John C. Calhoun, the former vice president, was actually opposed to the U.S. annexation of Mexico. In speaking against that policy, he revealed elements of the increasingly common racist perspective on Mexicans:

We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race.... Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races.... Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.46

The politically influential Senator Calhoun put Mexicans into the “inferior Indian” and “mixed-race” subframes of the dominant white frame, accenting that they were not white but down the racial hierarchy. He viewed Mexicans as unintelligent and incapable of participating in a “free popular government,” which of course the slavery-oriented United States government was certainly not at that time.

The racist framing of Mexicans and other Latin Americans was not limited to the Southwest. Just before the 1840s Mexican American War, a Boston newspaper published a poem, “Their Women Wait for Us,” that revealed northern whites’ racist framing of people of Latin American (mainly Mexican) descent. The poem accents “Spanish” female hypersexuality and male laziness, using strongly stereotyped and emotion-laden imagery that draws on preexisting white framing of black Americans.47

Moreover, as a result of the imperialistic Mexican American War of the 1840s, what was once northern Mexico was seized by white U.S. officials.

Whites in most of this huge land area viewed all the new Mexican Americans as not white and as inferior. They were to be racially dominated. However, in the part of that area that came to be called “New Mexico,” the handful of powerful whites there had a different viewpoint because they were a small minority. Between the 1840s and the 1880s, these white invaders decided to share some power with the established Mexican elite. Because whites sought statehood—delayed for decades because the territory was not majority white —they developed a perspective viewing the Mexican elite as inferior but still as European and “Spanish.”48

This Mexican elite played a coordinating political, and thus oppressive, role between Anglo whites and the poor Native American, Mexican American, and African American populations there. Members of this elite emphasized their relative “whiteness.” Again we observe the control that powerful European Americans had over the actual definition of racial identities and groups. Whites from the eastern U.S. emphasized traditional white framing and defined the Mexican elite, just temporarily, as white enough to assist in expanding white Anglo control. This history may help to explain the fluctuating accents on whiteness and non-whiteness in some parts of the Mexican American population from that time to the present. Laura Gómez accents this significance: The “twenty-first-century legacy of Mexican Americans’ history as off-white” is that they are “sometimes defined as legally white, almost always defined [by whites] as socially non-white.”49

In addition, from the 1850s to the early 1900s the Chinese workers, and later Japanese and Filipino workers, brought by white entrepreneurs into the West faced extensive racial exploitation and other oppression, which was also rationalized within the dominant white racial frame. Moreover, when the U.S. economy entered a depression in the 1870s, white labor leaders, newspaper editors, and politicians racially framed Chinese American workers in ver}' negative ways, as allegedly taking job opportunities from white people. These workers were physically attacked by white workers and verbally attacked by white politicians and editors supporting those violent white workers.

These Asian Americans were racially framed as heathen, docile, crafty, and dirty; and they were called by white-crafted epithets, such as “Chinks.” White leaders and the white public viewed Chinese Americans as an “alien race,” as inferior foreigners and not “real Americans.” Again we see elements of the old white frame—heathen, docile, alien in culture, racially inferior— that were developed earlier to negatively frame African and Native Americans now being used to racialize Asian Americans. Somewhat new emphases can be seen in this anti-Asian subframe, especially vigorous accents on alleged foreignness and deviousness. These negative images reached the highest-class levels. In the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld the Jim Crow segregation of black Americans, the one dissenting white justice, John Marshall Harlan, gratuitously penned this racist framing of Chinese Americans:

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.

More than a decade earlier, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed by the U.S. Congress, a nativist anti-immigrant law effectively cutting off most Chinese immigration to the United States until its partial repeal in 1943.50

Excluded Chinese workers were soon replaced in western states with imported Japanese workers, who were also economically exploited and viewed negatively from the dominant white racial frame. They too were stereotyped as docile, servile, and devious. Around 1900, a white San Francisco mayor attacked Japanese immigrants as “unassimilable” and as threatening white jobs; a Sacramento newspaper editor asserted that Japanese Americans were “for various reasons unassimilable, and a dangerous element.” Other newspapers generated campaigns against the white-termed “yellow peril”—that is, Japanese and other Asian Americans. Such racist agitation pressured the U.S. government to negotiate with the Japanese government to get them to voluntarily prohibit Japanese immigrants. Clearly, in these cases the racist framing of Asian immigrants had exclusionary consequences that shaped the demographic contours of U.S. society then and later. Indeed, U.S. society now has far fewer Asian Americans than would have been the case without this extensive anti-Asian discrimination.''1 Notice too that in their early usage certain terms for immigrants like “unassimilable” and “lack of assimilation,” which are still in widespread use today, had ver}' negative connotations in white discussions of non-European immigrants.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the importation of Japanese and Filipino workers to U.S. areas was linked to U.S. imperialistic expansion in the Asia-Pacific area. In the 1890s the U.S. military defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War and added the Philippines to its growing empire, with white officials framing this as indicative of the “manifest destiny” of whites to expand control and economic exploitation globally. These invasions were, as later in U.S. history, justified from the white racial frame. In 1899 the British official and prominent U.S. visitor, Rudyard Kipling, celebrated the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and whites’ philanthropic “burden” to westernize so-called uncivilized peoples in his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” The first lines demand action: “Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed.... To wait, in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.”’2 Such poetic framing of Asians and other people of color as heathen, demonic, and childlike by an important European official and its publication in a major U.S. magazine indicated widespread acceptance of this racist imagery in the

U.S. and European elites, imager}' closely linked to U.S. government moves in an imperialistic direction. There is no better example of elite whites celebrating the virtuousness of whites and white authority—still the center of the white racial frame—than this imperialistic poem.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century the contrast between the way in which Asian and Mexican immigrants were exploited, subordinated, and racialized in the dominant white frame, and the way millions of new European immigrants to the United States were treated and constructed, is rather dramatic. Actually, for a generation or so, major new immigrant groups from southern and eastern Europe were viewed by native-born whites as inferior “races” well below the “Anglo-Saxon race” on the U.S. racial hierarchy. However, this view changed in a relatively short period of time. For example, entering during the 1830s and 1840s, poor Irish immigrants were viewed from the prevailing racial frame as an inferior “race,” and “not white,” by many of the then dominant British Americans. Most of the Irish soon adapted to the dominant white culture and were taught how to conceive of themselves as fully white by their ministers, priests, business people, and politicians. They were pressured and manipulated by the white elite, including their leaders, into accepting the already-dominant racial framing denigrating blackness and privileging whiteness. Most came to operate out of this traditional white frame—such as by attacking or excluding free black workers from competing for desirable jobs in northern cities.

Later, at the turn of the twentieth century, the aforementioned southern and eastern European immigrants and their children—after a period in which nativist whites then viewed them too as inferior “races”—conformed to the dominant white culture and bought into the dominant white racial frame, thereby firmly identifying themselves as “white” and slowly getting out from under the negative racial imagery. These European immigrants and their descendants pressed for a privileged place in the socially constructed “white race,” whose racial privileges eventually included such things as greater personal liberty, better-paying jobs, and access to an array of government programs just for whites (e.g., homestead lands, better public schools, and, later, home mortgage and veterans programs) than were available to Americans of color. They also secured a protected right to vote.” At the same time, as part of this being “white,” they actively framed African Americans and other Americans of color as racially inferior and discriminated against them. Over time the dominant racial frame has been reproduced and transmitted within numerous immigrant groups and across many generations of Americans.

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