- Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship by Edlie L. Wong
Union victory in the Civil War altered the national debate over race as nearly four million former slaves gained their freedom. With the influx of immigrants in the postwar era, this dialogue extended beyond the serious issues that confronted freedpeople. Analyzing the politics of exclusion, Edlie Wong argues in Racial Reconstruction that “the Reconstruction Amendments and the extension of nominal citizenship to black freedmen did not break the constitutive link between whiteness and citizenship” (1). As a study of race, identity, and citizenship, this book highlights the “sociolegal constructions of race and racial power” and the “varied mechanisms by which citizens and immigrants were assigned and invested with race and racial identities” (9–10). Examining the formation of race within a “comparative and transnational” framework, Wong provides an impressive survey of the debates and politics of exclusion and the ways in which African Americans and Chinese Americans reacted to this rhetoric (11).
Racial Reconstruction is organized into four chapters with race and exclusion as the common unifying theme. In chapter 1, Wong explores the ways that Americans imagined the “meaning of postemancipation freedoms, often in relation to colonial Cuba, where experiments with Chinese labor appeared closely connected with … black chattel slavery” (17). Americans in Cuba came into contact with Chinese contract laborers (coolies) for the first time, and their travelogues illuminate varying perspectives [End Page 153] on the labor system slowly replacing chattel slavery. Many viewed this system as wage slavery, though most agreed that the contract signed by the laborer distinguished the coolie from the slave—interesting commentary and one that deserves more analysis, as similar bound-labor systems emerged in the postwar South. If “coolieism was more reprehensible than black chattel slavery was [because] it was coerced servitude legitimated through the legal artifice of contract” (35), then one wonders if similar outrage emerged over sharecropping in the South. Although their ability to contract themselves created a fundamental difference between coolies and slaves, the Chinese laborers themselves saw the underlying irony of their situation—legally free yet bound indefinitely—and the notion of the “‘coolie slave’ came to dominate public discussions over black political rights and Chinese immigration after emancipation” (68).
In chapter 2, Wong traces the political rhetoric of Chinese exclusion and the ways that Chinese and African Americans rejected the practices of exclusion. Chinese exclusion, Wong argues, “provoked black periodicals … to think more expansively about black identity formation in a comparative racial context” in which the rhetoric once used against African Americans was “revived and recycled to disenfranchise the Chinese” (77–78). Challenges to the practices of exclusion that emerged among these communities focused on the ways that “California lawmakers analogically translated racial restriction laws from East to West and from blacks to Chinese” (84). The language of exclusion fused “race with status,” and the designation of Chinese as nonwhite allowed lawmakers to justify the former’s “subordinate political status” (85). In response, African American and Chinese writers utilized nineteenth-century print culture to challenge popular stereotypes, calling for equal rights regardless of ethnic or racial background.
In the final two chapters of Racial Reconstruction, Wong takes the reader on a broad journey through lesser-known literature that appeared during the postwar period, with a particular focus on a fascinating series of alternate histories of the “Chinese invasion” and the subsequent ways that Chinese immigrants challenged the politics of exclusion. Novels addressing America’s imagined future under Asiatic control “expanded readers’ sense of the possible while intensifying the incoherence at the heart of U.S. fictions of race and nation” (173). Appearing during a period of intense xenophobia, this literature often drew links between the alleged “Negro domination” of the postwar South and the potential that “Chinese political assimilation to the U.S. [would serve] as a precursor to invasion and colonization” (162). In her final chapter, “Boycotting Exclusion,” Wong illustrates the ways that Chinese opposed American...