Monday, November 7, 2011

Blacks & Chinese in AmeriKKKa: How strangers are manufactured

(c) 2011 Thunder Publications, Inc.

Unknown to most, Black people and Chinese people once enjoyed an intimate social relationship in the United States dating from the pre-Civil War era. Since then, China–the perennial "sick man of Asia"– has miraculously emerged as one of the pre-eminent political and economic powers on Earth. The fortunes of humankind in the 21st century may rest on the success to which traditional European powers, especially the United States, cultivate respectful and mutually beneficial relationships with the rising Red Dragon and its billion-plus population. If the superficial ethnic identity of US Pres. Barack Obama is to have any positive value in the coming critical economic and political dialogues between the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China, then there must be firstly a rudimentary historical understanding of the relationship between Black and Yellow when the two peoples were neither separated by ideology nor the Pacific Ocean. They were not strangers.

The case of Blacks and Chinese in Mississippi offers a compelling example of how the two communities once came together as allies and were, under the ferocious regimen of Jim Crow repression, ultimately torn apart. In short, Black people came to be rejected by their Chinese neighbors–and often family members– in an unique application of the "one drop" or hypo-descent rule of racial categorization in the United States.

The historical record of the Mississippi Chinese and their racially mixed descendents (Sino-Africans) demonstrates the extent to which racial categorization is manufactured and manipulated to bolster white supremacy. Chinese and Blacks once worked together in the cotton fields as sharecroppers in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. According to Vivian Wu Wong (Somewhere Between White and Black: The Chinese in Mississippi, Magazine of History, Volume 10, No 4, Summer 1996), "The majority of the Chinese who settled in the Mississippi Delta arrived between the years 1910 and 1930. However, questions concerning the social, economic, and political future of the Chinese in Mississippi began much earlier, starting in the mid-1800s when a number of Chinese ‘coolies’ (indentured laborers) from Cuba were brought to the American South as a substitute for [B]lack labor."

Needless to say, the Chinese workers who found themselves in the Deep South’s color-coded society were at once mystified and the source of mystery to the Black and white inhabitants. "A vast social and economic gulf yawn[ed] between the dominant white and subordinate [B]lack. Yet one group in Mississippi, a ‘third race,’ the Chinese…managed to leap that chasm. Negroes [did not] consider them exactly white; Caucasians [did not] consider them [B]lack. They [were] privileged and burdened with an ambiguous racial identity ."[1]

This situation allowed the Mississippi Chinese the opportunity to employ racial identity to their advantage. To Blacks, they were "brothers". To whites, they were "not nigras". To the Chinese themselves, they were just in HELL. Make no mistake, racial identity was and remains the cultural, social and juridical property of the white master race–i.e., herrenvolk stratum. This meta-aristocracy ultimately and murderously determined its own membership requirements. Within the strict matrix of manners and terror that gripped post-Reconstruction Mississippi, the Chinese simply learned to navigate to their best advantage, given the situation.

Special Case Chinese

The Mississippi Chinese bear little resemblance to the Chinese who migrated to the Pacific Coast of the U.S. West Coast Chinese were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy, mere millimeters above the surviving Native Americans and the Mexicans. They were the target of fierce anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of whites. White laborers flew into a rage as Chinese were recruited as low wage union busters. Pogroms against Chinese and other Asian immigrant groups were not uncommon. As pawns in the labor-capital clash, the Chinese of the West inevitably found themselves socially and culturally isolated, corralled in so-called Chinatowns.

In the U.S. South, the story was quite different. The original, ante bellum Chinese population spoke Spanish, an European language, so they were not entirely alien.[2] But more importantly, The South already had a permanent racial underclass, namely the descendants of the African slaves. Nobody, for very profound social and cultural reasons, could ever vie for the African American’s station at the bottom of the racial inferno. Thus, Mississippi’s Chinese enjoyed an unique social mobility, relative to race and class.

The United States Census of 1880 listed 51 Chinese in Mississippi, mostly in Washington County. Like most Chinese immigrants to the United States, those coming to Mississippi were mainly from relatively commercially sophisticated Guandong, a province in South China. Immigrants from there were likely from the peasant and artisan classes. Traditionally, young males from that area sought work elsewhere to supplement the family income. The Chinese did not come to settle in Mississippi but to make money and expatriate it home. By 1960, the U.S. Census recorded that 14 Delta counties accounted for over ninety percent of Mississippi’s Chinese population. The Delta had the largest concentration of Chinese in the entire South. The 2010 U.S. Census found that roughly 4,500 Chinese lived in Mississippi, out of a statewide Pacific Asian population of 18,626. Despite the 50-year trend of Mississippi Delta depopulation, the Chines population there is actually growing! (Lynn Woo, et al., University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies-September 2011).

In Mississippi, the development of the Chinese Baptist Church, the presence of relatively more Chinese females, and the absence of clans, clubs and quasi-criminal gangs made the Chinese there more acceptable to Mississippi whites than their West Coast counterparts. The Chinatowns of the West Coast afforded Chinese immigrants a sort of social/cultural oasis. But Mississippi was as sterile as the moon for its Chinese. Consequently, the Chinese hatched their own society, what Loewen calls ‘parallel institutions,’ social organizations which were structured to replicate those of the dominant white society. These institutions, particularly the Chinese churches, showed the white community that the Chinese man ‘was already perhaps beginning to believe that American ways [were] better’ .[3]

Why Mississippi and why Chinese?

The Chinese people, primarily men, who landed in Mississippi either from Cuba, the West Coast or directly from China began as laborers, specifically "colored" laborers. They were, like their Black neighbors, sharecroppers. The Chinese relationship to the existing Black laboring masses was actually pivotal to their racial identity as Chinese in the South and the evolution of their socio-economic strategy for holding their own, and sometimes even prospering in Mississippi.

Before the Civil War, Chinese workers were merely viewed as answers to the labor shortage created by the U.S. ban on African slave importation and the relatively high cost of purchasing and maintaining Black slaves from the existing national stocks. After the war, Chinese workers were imported to Mississippi based upon a notion among some elements of the white aristocracy that somehow they would undermine the political and evolving economic power of native freed Blacks. The Chinese were employed as an instrument of white supremacy. Black people could vote. Chinese could not. In fact, the white elite believed that even if Chinese were enfranchised, then they still would not vote. There was another dollar and cents argument, namely that Chinese coolies would accept wages that the newly freed Black slaves would spit upon. [4] Chinese importation quite simply targeted ornery Black labor. Railway construction, agricultural production–cotton and rice–were the central pillars of post-Civil War southern economy, and these industries were dominated by restive Black workers. Something had to be done about that, since Blacks, recently released from chattel status, necessarily had a racial/political chip on their shoulders. Chinese were seen as the answer by many, but not by all among the white elites. Some would argue that re-introduction of the African slave trade would be preferable to bringing in the "yellow peril" to meet the labor shortage at the outbreak of the Civil War [Gen. William H. Chase, 1857].

On the other hand, another white faction–railroaders and factory owners– welcomed imported Chinese based upon reports from Cuba, Peru and elsewhere in Latin America where they were described as hardworking and law-abiding. This group was, of course, shouted down by the pro-Black faction–large agriculturalists– who argued that negroes, though troublesome at times, worked hard, too. But more importantly, they–southern whites–had several centuries of experience in exploiting Black labor. For these whites, when all was said and done, a free Black laborer could be easily terrorized by the Klan and robbed by the landowner at the commissary store–after all, the law was literally on the side of the nightriders and thieves. That was a fact. Chinese workers in the agricultural sector were just not trusted to endure that kind of abuse.

In the end, both arguments became moot. Chinese workers proved to be as costly as Black workers, especially when they were brought from China. Likewise, as the West industrially expanded it demanded more Chinese laborers, and lured them with higher wages. The campaign to break the political and economic power of Black people with Chinese coolies fell flat on its face. Chinese never became a significant demographic factor in Mississippi nor anywhere in the South, as a consequence. But their significance on the landscape of Mississippi racial politics was never a mere reflection of their numbers.

Neither Black nor White, but definitely not poor.

Like most southern folks, the Chinese of Mississippi drifted away from plantation life. King Cotton was on his deathbed by the late 1880s, bludgeoned by competition from Egyptian and Sudanese crops that were cheaper. Likewise, over-cultivation of a single cash crop had ruined the region’s soil. Black farm people began the slow migration to urban areas as a consequence. The Chinese pursued a different strategy. They became small, rural shop owners.

There is some heated debate over why Black sharecroppers failed to follow the same course. One would assume that the level of capital accumulation and access afforded Chinese and Black agrarians would be relatively the same. Loewen argues that Black were simply too underdeveloped and devastated by the slavery experience to enter commerce, even micro-commerce. But there is a rather simple and compelling counter-argument. Blacks did not thrive as small business people just because they were Black. A Black commercial stratum never developed in the Mississippi Delta because whites would not allow it to develop. White wholesalers would not extend credit to Blacks. White banks would not extend credit to Blacks. White shippers would not ship to Blacks. And in the end, Blacks who sought to circumvent this stranglehold of naked racism were simply run out of town by the nightriders. There is little evidence that the nascent Chinese merchants faced these sorts of obstacles.

By the early to mid-twentieth century, close to 80% of the Mississippi Chinese were grocers. They were able to establish stores in the vicinity of the plantations and in the Black quarters of the Delta towns. In Mississippi–as in the rest of the South–there were no Chinatowns. But there was always a "China-mans" around, a small general store where can goods, toiletries, ammunition and remedies could be purchased. Chinese simply filled the commercial void created by the race-driven economic exclusion of Blacks. The Chinese groceries prospered for several reasons:

*1.) Chinese enjoyed virtual monopoly on retail sales to Blacks. White shops often refused to serve Black customers, and when they did the Black customer more often than not exited white establishments sans money and personal dignity.
*2.) The Blacks developed a genuine affinity for the Chinese merchants because they almost always lived in Black neighborhoods–often in a back room of their stores.
*3.) The Chinese were perceived by Blacks as sharing the same burden of racial discrimination at the hands of whites. Genuine solidarity developed between the two lower-strata communities.

Chinese commercial success commanded the respect of Mississippi whites. The Chinese managed to create a sort of structural independence from the wealth they accumulated from the Black community. To the white racists they were still "colored," but coloreds with their own money. Chinese became the "middle men" that white racism begat in Mississippi, and a relatively well-heeled market for local white merchants and banks.

The social birth and political murder of the Mississippi Sino-African.

"If the Delta Chinese sometimes fell through the cracks of segregation, those who started families outside the Chinese fold fell away from the community. With immigration laws making it extremely difficult for Chinese men to bring their wives to the United States, it was not uncommon for a Chinese man in the Delta to have a common-law wife, either [B]lack or white." [5]

The close social intercourse between Blacks and Chinese in Mississippi inevitably led to sexual intercourse and a slew of Black/Chinese children. Chinese sharecroppers were almost exclusively single men. So barring liaison with white women, their pool of possible mates was invariably Black women. The offspring of Chinese males and white females never raised much of a social issue--if there were any hackles, then they were thoroughly muted. But at one point as many as 25% of the Mississippi Delta Chinese were married to Black women. [6] This fact, of course, raised problems for both the white racists and those Chinese bent upon using their new wealth to fuel social assimilation with the herrenvolk–to essentially cement their immunity to the Jim Crow laws. Chinese as Chinese were easy to discern as middle men. But what about the Black Chinese? Would Sino-Africans be afforded the same relative privileges as "full-blooded" Chinese?

Mississippi’s Jim Crow statutes were specifically spawned to socially and economically ostracize Black people. They were never meant to apply to the economically useful Chinese. Likewise, for upwardly mobile Mississippi Chinese eager to ingratiate themselves to polite (white) society, the stain of Blackness in the family was anathema. If Chinese wanted to be honorary whites (by Mississippi legislation), then they had to stiff-arm their Black friends and the demi-Blacks in their families. Whites demanded this. The Mississippi Chinese bowed to the racist dictate.

Writes Zhou Yao Kuan (Bobby Joe Moon), a native of Boyle, of the social upheaval affecting Mississippi Chinese: "Racial climate: We could sense the growing tension between Blacks and whites as we were growing up in the late '50s and early '60s leading up to the Civil Rights Freedom Marches. Being in the white world for public schools, our parents had to donate money to the White Citizens' Council [the public arm of the Klu Klux Klan–Ed.] and yet try to be supportive of the Blacks from whom they were making their livelihoods. Again, this was very confusing for us. We were taught to hate the Blacks by being in the White world. We were taught that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Communist. I thought the South was going to have a Civil War between the Blacks and whites when Emmitt Till was lynched." [7]

Nine years before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Topeka ruling outlawing racial segregation in public schools, Mississippi lawmakers made their move. Chinese were declared white by statute, meaning that Chinese children could attend school with white students. Mississippi could crow that its schools were already "integrated". Moreover, politically speaking, the caucasianization of the Chinese assured that Mississippi’s Blacks could not rely upon their old friends as allies in the burgeoning fight against Jim Crow.

The task of "cleansing" the Chinese of Black blood was given to the Chinese themselves. This fact makes the case of Mississippi unique. Upwardly mobile Chinese pulled the trigger on their own people, with abandon. Wong writes, Mississippi’s Chinese were stampeded away from their old Black friends by the pro-assimilationist camp "pressuring Chinese men to end their relationships with [B]lack women and to abandon their bi-racial children, or forcing [B]lack-Chinese American families to leave the community." Put simply, Chinese who persisted in hanging out with Black folks forfeited their right to be Chinese.

Reverend Ted Shepherd, the white pastor of Greenville’s Chinese Mission Baptist Church recounts how severe the post-WWII racial rift within the Chinese community had become.

"Let me give you an example, "explained Shepherd to Emilee Erwin during a 1999 interview for the Mississippi Oral History Program (F341.5 .M57 vol. 748, pt. 2) "Arlee Hen was an elderly Chinese woman in Greenville who was half Chinese and half [B]lack. A very wonderful person. I enjoyed talking with her a great deal. Her husband was J. S. Hen, a pure-blood Chinese. And because he had married a half Chinese, half black, this is what they did at his funeral. Joe Ting handled the whole thing. And he went to the police department and got six policemen to carry that man's casket. And brought his casket there and placed it under the tent. And they allowed Arlee Hen to come in and sit. But Joe Ting would not [quote] ‘disgrace any Chinese men by asking them to be pallbearers of one who had married a half Chinese and half [B]lack’ [ unquote]"

In this regard and maybe thousands of other incidents of rejection, a new inter-cultural, interracial ethnicity was literally strangled in its cradle. The Sino-Africans of Mississippi vanished.


The story of the Mississippi Chinese demonstrates that formal ethnicities, as defined by culture and statute, are little more than political playthings of the white elite. As long as the Mississippi Chinese kept their places as the commercial middle men in the rural economy they were accorded certain liberties afforded only whites. The Chinese never bucked the system, except to insist that they were constitutionally entitled to enjoy the same backwards relationship to Black people as white Mississippians. In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Lum vs. Rice , the Chinese plaintiff, a girl barred from a white school simply because she was non-white, argued, "If there is danger in the association [with Negroes], it is a danger from which one race is entitled to protection just the same as another…The white race creates for itself a privilege that it denies to other races; exposes the children of other races to risks and dangers to which it would not expose its own children. This is discrimination." [Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78, 80 (1927)]

In LUM v. Rice, the Mississippi Chinese were inclined to invoke the 14th Amendment to argue that if, under the Mississippi Constitution, schools were segregated to protect white children from the threat of Black children, then Chinese children deserved equal protection from that threat! It was one of the most heartbreaking moments in the modern civil rights movement. Why? Because, under the Mississippi Constitution, Chinese children had absolutely no right to public education until 1944. (They could not attend white designated schools nor Black designated schools because Mississippi schools were ONLY for white or Black students). LUM ( Martha Lum [age 9], daughter of Gong Lum) could have argued against that, but she argued that she should have white privilege. 

But Blacks did rebel, demanding an end to the Jim Crow horror and equal justice under the law. This political challenge forced a re-organization of the Chinese socio-political status in Mississippi. In the heat of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century there could be no "middle men". The majority of Mississippi’s Chinese clearly chose sides in the battle for Jim Crow’s survival. They chose the losers.

This article merely scratches the surface of the Black/Chinese relationship in Mississippi and elsewhere in the U.S. South. Hopefully, future writers will more thoroughly explore the narrative contours of what it meant for Blacks and Chinese to literally part ways on the social landscape. For example, what did it really look like for a Chinese father to abandon his children? What became of the Black women and these children? How did Chinese impose de jure whiteness on their community? Who led this movement in the Chinese community? These are potentially explosive questions that must be answered in order to get to the feverish heart of U.S. racism and its psycho-cultural maiming of all social strata.

When President Barack Obama walks into the conference room with the leaders of China, he must necessarily carry, among other things, the story of Mississippi–Black and Yellow–in his vest pocket.

[This article is partially excerpted from William Pleasant’s upcoming book, Mélange: The social contours of interracial coupling in America. It is scheduled for release in August 2012.]

1. James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 2.
2. Lucy M. Cohen, Chinese in the Post-Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1984), 57.
3. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 84.
4. Shih-shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 56.
5. Somini Sengupta. Published: November 1, 2000, New York Times.
6. Loewen, Mississippi Chinese, 74.
7. Zhou Yao Kuan (Bobby Joe Moon). USADEEPSOUTH.COM ( 2004.


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