Sunday, September 7, 2014

On "The Mississippi Chinese" by James W. Loewen ***

Years ago, when I was doing grad school in Mississippi, I went to visit my office mate during the summer, whose home of origin was on the Delta (Cleveland, Mississippi to be exact). It was a fun two-day visit, though mostly because it was spent with him rather than because I liked the locale at all. There was a lot of poverty--mixed among quite a few well-to-do places. Restaurants were largely fast food. There was little to do, even though there was a college in town (where my friend's father taught). But there was the Mississippi River, which I got to go visit and walk into (what muck!). And there was the Delta itself, that long, flat expanse. Eating out at Burger King or something like it, we saw a young, pretty Chinese woman visiting the restaurant as well. And that's when my friend mentioned the Delta Chinese. It was nothing more than that, a mention ("you never heard of the Delta Chinese?"), but it sparked an interest.

Loewen's book is about these Chinese. I was somewhat disappointed, toward the beginning, as I was hoping for a history, whereas Loewen's study is more of an sociological one, though history takes a part to be sure. And having been written in the early 1970s, the study is dated, as Loewen himself admits it's going to be (changes in civil rights were changing the findings drastically). And yet, I left the book feeling anxious, angry, sad, and intrigued, for the book is really about racism as it existed then, which caused me to reflect on how racism continues into the present--and the part I play in it.

As for how Chinese ended up migrating to the Delta, that is in itself an interesting story. There were never a lot of them, but relative to other areas, the number was significant enough that they are a known factor. In post-Civil War Mississippi, planters needed to find a way to replace their slave labor. Most continued to use black laborers, taking them on a sharecroppers, who they thoroughly exploited. But because some former slaves weren't too keen on staying within the system, some landowners began bringing in Chinese, who had been working in New Orleans, on the river, or for the railroad. They promised great riches--and delivered to them the same as they delivered to their black counterparts--that is, very little.

The Chinese were generally men, there to make money to send home to China. And rather than be exploited as sharecroppers, they often set about becoming merchants--grocery store owners, to be exact. They would set up small grocery stores in black neighborhoods, and sell to the locals. In this way, they began to become wealthy. (Why blacks couldn't do the same themselves is something Loewent discusses. For the Chinese had an advantage: not being truly local, they didn't have a community that expected them to support them when times got tough; hence, a Chinese merchant could more easily cut off bad debtors than a man who might have to cut off a cousin or niece or friend and who would suffer social consequences as a result.)

The wealth, in turn, transformed the Chinese. Once placed at the black end of the spectrum in Mississippi's biracial society, they began to move into the white end. Indeed, Mississippi's segregated world had a hard time figuring out where to put them at times. Some cities were able to have separate Chinese schools, but most insisted Chinese children go to negro schools; one Chinese family even sued to attempt to get their children into a white school. In time, however, Chinese made the leap--and became almost white.

As Loewen was writing, however, much of this was breaking down, as schools were integrating and society industrializing. African Americans were moving out of the Delta to find city work. Those who stayed were often more well to do and thus had access to transportation to be able to visit larger supermarkets. Thus, Chinese groceries were beginning to disappear--and the Chinese were beginning to migrate out of the South as well.

Loewen spends much time talking about the racial system of Jim Crow Mississippi. He shows how racism can pervade even one's feelings about one's self or one's own race: blacks sometimes kept each other down based on a system that valued whiteness even in the black community (pride, for example, in shopping at a white-owned store rather than a black-owned one). He shows how the blame for racism and prejudice didn't rest solely with lower-class whites, unlike what many social theorists and what many higher-class whites would claim. While violence might pour out from lower-class whites toward blacks, often the two groups had more to do with one another--were more integrated--than higher-class whites were with either. In fact, it was more often, as Loewen shows, these higher-class whites who would vote on school boards and so forth to keep blacks or Chinese out of their schools--but then blame it on lower-class whites not allowing it. That's not to say that lower-class whites escape blame. People in Mississippi at the time were in castes of a sort, and generally people wanted to move out of their caste or maintain the higher caste they were in--and thus racist maneuvers were undertaken to maintain power, prestige, or status quo. It was these chapters that were hard, at times, not to be angered by--the way people treat one another. And they often left me thinking about how far we've really come, which is probably not far at all. There may no longer be Jim Crow laws, but on some level, voluntary segregation still exists (how often, really, after all, does my social circle involve people of other races?), and by extension, even our rhetoric regarding poverty programs in this country could still be tied to highly coded racism (as the rhetoric revolving around race, even in the 1960s, was often coded in terms of wealth or education). The problem is, of course, that while some people are poor because they really are lazy (as some would claim), others are there by circumstance (as others would claim), just as some are rich because of how hard they have worked to earn what they have (as some would claim), while others have simply inherited it (as others would claim). We can't generalize social policy, and yet because social policy is aimed not at the individual but at society as a whole, we have no choice but to do so, and thus the class (and race) prejudice that results. We all continue to suffer for it.

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