- A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South by Stephanie Hinnershitz
A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South opens with African American civil rights activist Amzie Moore's scathing dismissal of Chinese Americans in Mississippi for their lack of solidarity with the black freedom struggle. Stephanie Hinnershitz seeks to rebut Moore's reproach by documenting Asian American efforts to assert their own rights in the South throughout the twentieth century—efforts, she contends, that had an impact on African American civil rights movements. In doing so, she provides a welcome addition to a flourishing body of scholarship on the experiences of Asian Americans and other immigrant groups in the U.S. South. This scholarship has challenged assumptions that the South was largely excepted from national histories of immigration, and it complicates understandings of racial identity in the region.
The book is organized around a series of illuminating case studies. Its first three chapters recount the struggles of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants in the Jim Crow era to claim their rights to own property, to send their children to white schools, and to engage in marital or sexual relationships with white people. Throughout, Hinnershitz challenges previous contentions that these groups were reticent to respond to discrimination or that their response to Jim Crow was to adopt a white identity. Asian Americans, she argues, were politically vocal and used the courts to fight for their legal rights. Rather than embracing whiteness, they inhabited an "'interstitial' identity" between black and white (p. 5). They also occupied an outsider status, especially in the wake of the 1906 Naturalization Act, which prevented Asians from becoming citizens. They deployed both their status as noncitizens and their in-between racial identity to contest discriminatory laws.
Their legal actions, however, did little to challenge the racial apartheid of the South. These cases, Hinnershitz maintains, did not represent an organized panethnic movement to oppose segregated schools or antimiscegenation laws; rather, these litigants sought to assert their individual rights within the existing system. Often that meant distancing themselves from African Americans. For instance, Chinese immigrants who brought suit to ensure their children could attend white schools argued that, as Chinese nationals, they were not "colored." In other words, they emphasized their national identity, rather than a racial identity. Similarly, defendants accused of breaking antimiscegenation laws argued that, as noncitizens, they were not bound by the racial legal structure. Hinnershitz's analysis of these cases and of her subjects' motivations is smart and compelling. Yet it does not substantiate an assertion that these cases contributed to the black freedom struggle by setting precedents for legal challenges to Jim Crow; in fact, it negates it.
The last two chapters focus on the experience of Vietnamese refugees in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s and Indian American hotel owners in the 1980s and 1990s. The latter chapter is particularly fascinating. Hinnershitz explains why Indian Americans came to dominate the motel industry in the South and how they battled discrimination from banks and insurance companies and from [End Page 207] American-born competitors. They did so not through the courts but through the formation of professional advocacy organizations. These hoteliers did not see themselves as civil rights activists but as entrepreneurs banding together to help their businesses. In this regard, it is difficult to see how their attempts at self-preservation refute Amzie Moore's perception. Is it even accurate to identify their actions as civil rights activism? But that question makes this well researched and insightful study all the more interesting.