While lauding itself as the outside contender of the Established Political Elites, the Trump Administration’s first year in office has proven to be largely ineffectual at delivering the bold promises from the campaign trail. If anything, our base institutions of democracy have proven to be serious road blocks to their hard-right reactive agenda, from Sally Yates’ dissension last January against the travel ban to Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But in spite of the Administration’s intention to “drain the swamp”, the reflexive xenophobia and white nationalist sympathies are anything but new in the discussion of U.S. domestic or foreign policy. Whether its the repealing of DACA or implementation of the Travel Ban, the notion that the intellectual platform of Trump diverges from the status quo of American politics is ahistoric.
It is forgivable to view this new wave of staunch nationalism to be a regression— a throwback to the darkest chapters of American history that is only given weight by a dying breed of historical revisionists and their sycophants. And by certain metrics, it is hard to refute that the arc of history does not point towards justice; redlining is not as bad as racial segregation which is not as bad as lynch mobs which is not as bad as slavery. Thus, the popular narrative adopted by the left is that progress has come to a sudden halt with the election of Trump — and is a slight setback to the centuries-long gradual wind-up that climaxed in the election of Barack Obama.
But for Asian Americans viewing the debate on DACA and the Travel Ban, progress isn’t exponential. Rather, the struggle is rhythmic.
In December of last year, Karen Korematsu, daughter of Japanese Internment resister Fred Korematsu wrote in the Washington Post on her father’s incarceration and its similarities with Trump’s Travel Ban. Critics are quick to point out the large logistical differences between Japanese Internment and the Travel Ban, particularly focusing on the absence of anything as extreme as concentration camps in the invocation of Trump’s executive order. And while Roosevelt’s exclusion did implicate the deportation of both Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, the Travel Ban is specifically directed at non-citizens attempting to enter the country and isn’t implicitly targeted at American citizens of Islamic faith.
Similar parallels are drawn between Internment and the repealing of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) with many of the same criticisms being leveled at the comparison. However with DACA, the logistical comparisons are not as distant. The long and expensive process of deportation often keeps deportees locked away in privatized prisons managed by the GEO Group and CoreCivic. The prolonged incarcerations are motivated by profit, with inmates providing criminally cheap labor that encourages more deportations and longer stays. And unlike Japanese Internment, this process is unending and has been going on for decades.
But while the logistical comparisons weave in and out of harmony, the geopolitical legacy of U.S. domestic policy brings all these instances in tune with each other, and the best place to examine this legacy is in the history of agricultural labor on the west coast.
The growing population of Asian-Americans at the turn of last century is deeply tied up with American agriculture. Chinese immigrants arrived as early as the 1820s, being the driving force for California Gold Rush, constructing the Transcontinental Railroad, and laying the foundation for industrial agriculture on the west coast. Much to the chagrin of their European-descendant counterparts, Chinese migrant labor was not unskilled. Many hailing from the Pearl River Delta where the inaccessible valleys made farming difficult, Chinese labor excelled at taming the central Californian river deltas into fertile crop land.
The response to this agricultural success was brutal. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented the immigration of all Chinese labor to the United States, an action that was replicated and enforced until 1943. With the growth of Chinese-American communities stifled, this led to a “driving out” period, where anti-Chinese white laborers systematically terrorized neighborhoods where Chinese-Americans lived in a successful attack to uproot them from their rural agricultural and mining jobs. These racist sentiments climaxed in the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 and the Snake River Massacre of 1887. Chinese labor was burned, stabbed, shot, and starved out of the industry they cultivated.
These attacks had unintended consequences for white America. Though no longer under the threat of being uprooted by skilled Chinese labor, there was a drop in the number of workers able to propel the industry. Industrialist heads thus saw Japanese labor as the logical replacement to fill this new void. Like Chinese labor, Japanese immigrants were skilled horticultural workers and found tremendous success in picking up the land that the Chinese were chased from. And despite the best attempts of white farmers and the U.S. government through the Immigration Act of 1924 and alien land laws, many Japanese-Americans were successful in becoming land owners just prior to the second World War. Their growing successes became a grave threat to white farmers left behind, who saw their less productive farms plummet in value.
In many ways, Japanese exclusion’s argument that by being of Japanese ancestry, one was biologically prone to treason against the U.S. was a smokescreen. Though national paranoia fueled by racial prejudice was at the forefront for justification and reasoning, the insidious maneuvers of the American farm lobby to stifle Japanese-American agriculture successfully propelled the implementation of Japanese Internment. Once again, one of the most successful sectors of U.S. agriculture was obliterated by the American desire for white hegemony.
And just as with Chinese labor in the 1880s, agricultural labor was at a new low without Japanese-Americans. Exacerbated by the growing demand for food during the war effort, the need for a stable agricultural sector fueled the second deployment of war time Victory Gardens, but also the far more sinister Braceros Program. Conceived in 1942, just six months after the signing of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that ordained internment, the Braceros Program was a series of agreements between the U.S. and Mexico to expedite the entry of Mexican and Guamanian migrant workers into American agriculture. It promised adequate living conditions and a minimum wage for workers, but migrants were instead met with dilapidated housing with no personal space that was so unsanitary that diarrhea became rampant.
Despite Japanese-Americans returning from internment after the war, the Braceros Program persisted and grew. Although detrimental to the wage inflation rates of their white counter parts, the program was encouraged by the U.S. Department of State as a means of combating the threat of communism in Mexico. This unmitigated growth soon became unmanageable, and pressured again by the growing distrust and resentment from white farmers, Immigration Nationalization Services (INS) fought back with the aptly named Operation Wetback. The messy execution of the operation resulted in many people being deported to the middle of nowhere with no food or water, with some instants ending in the death of the deportee. This wasn’t targeted at undocumented immigrants so much as anyone appearing of Mexican ancestry who had the misfortune of being seen by border security without proper documentation.
The Braceros program was terminated in 1964, however its specter lives on today in the H-2 guest worker program. And while Operation Wetback remains an artifact of regressive immigration strategy, it was cited by Trump as a success of the Eisenhower Administration during the 2015 electoral debates, clearly with the intention of letting it inform his future immigration strategy.
This dynamic between Asian-American labor and Mexican migrant labor has been both contentious and complimenting throughout the history of American agriculture. The social relations of worker, owner, striker, and scab have found both racial groups pitted against each other by the strategy of divide and conquer. But it is because of this shared history of racism that these comparisons to Interment are drawn in our present. For Asian-Americans to witness the Travel Ban and DACA is to be reminded of the painful scars caused by white supremacy in our past. It is not a question of the logistical similarities but a traumatic reminder of the accepted platitudes this country continually reproduces, and counters the hopeful notion that the arc of history extends towards justice.
It is well-documented that the invitation for Asians to participate in the Great American Experiment has been extended and withheld when convenient for the growth of white America. Yet even with this long history of discrimination and attempted assimilation, Asian-Americans are still perpetually viewed as alien to this country. One doesn’t have to look far down the news cycle to find a prime example. It is as if the history of discriminating against immigrants is a scarlet letter for all Asian-Americans to hold, regardless of how many generations separate them from migration.
While the mandate of alienation is widely held by many Asian-Americans, the experience of ‘Asianess’ is far from singular. The vast geographical expanse that is suggested by the word Asian is consistently failed by the label of Asian-American, as it attempts to force Korean, Iranian, Malaysian, Indian, Taiwanese etc. ethnicity under one umbrella. China alone has 56 ethnic groups and 299 documented spoken languages and yet the term Asian-American attempts to aggregate what it means to be Chinese into the greater body of Asian diversity. The difference in experience of class alone between these nations is astronomical, with GDP index violently dropping and rising from border to border.
Yet it is this alienation and aggregation that transforms our experience into a collective. Our togetherness is forged not by blood, customs, or culture, but by our relationship with whiteness. The very idea that views ‘people of color’ as a single body is predicated on the notion that being white is a hub for which all other races are spokes to revolve. The absurdity of this dynamic is abundantly clear for Asian-Americans, who are constantly disserviced in representation by the white construction of the Asian Monolith. For our experiences are not only vast and diverging, but conflicting and inequitable. This is the project of White Nationalism — to break the land around itself and indulge in its greatest fantasies of tribalism, where those who are not white are eternally ‘outside’.
That brings us to our current presidency, where the tenants of the White House struggled to fully condemn the actions of White Supremacists in Charlottlesville, VA last summer. It is only speculation that can conclude Trump’s personal feelings on White Nationalism, but regardless of intent, the mutual benefit between him and this particularly virulent section of his base has a bitterly polarizing effect on the nation. On the one hand, it vindicates the legitimacy of the Alt-Right on the grander political stage. On the other, it adds to the list of actions committed against people who are not white, further entrenching our identities in a coalition that only sense of traction begins from centering whiteness. More than black, brown, or yellow, we are secondary.
It is not that there isn’t any value in the comparative experiences of being not white. The mobilizing power of being a reaction can be a very effective spring board for not only developing counter-strategy, but perhaps more importantly opening windows of self-reflection. Spaces like Plan A Magazine are the exact medium in which discussions that move past the idea of being secondary can bloom. However, the sustainability of these spaces becomes increasingly diminished without making connections to perspectives outside of ourselves — the growth of ‘white feminism’ and the critique of the pussyhat at the Women’s March is but one example of this reflective deficit that exist throughout the left.
However the most prominent leftist figure that has fumbled with the issue of race is Bernie Sanders. His momentous ascension during the 2016 election cycle was propelled by his message of closing the gap between rich and poor. And while his caution of identity politics is well-founded, Sanders’ platform focusing solely on class did not resonate with many non-white voters. He suggested that by solving the insurmountable task of income inequality, the effect would also solve the major issue of poverty in communities of color. Yet for Asian-Americans who of all minority groups have had the most success ascending the economic ladder, this ‘color-blind’ approach to race is opaque in its vision. The realities of the glass ceiling and pay gap between Asian-Americans and their white counterparts suggests that in Bernie’s America, people who aren’t white will be left behind.
White Supremacy is still very much alive. And while this new confidence and visibility it now possesses has been emboldened after Trump’s election, what we must confront is that it has been a central factor in the construction of the United States that we know today. Racism is not relegated to a imaginative notion held by a small, aggressive minority adorned in white robes, but rather is a series of tangible actions designed to plunder and destroy its targets in the interest of consolidating power. This series of actions is our history. What hurts so deeply is not that our president or anyone in his closest circles is potentially a racist, it is that the Travel Ban and DACA hoist a mirror in front of us that perfectly reflects the long-established pattern of violent gatekeeping that we would too soon like to forget.
In 1903 Oxnard, CA, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) had just won a tremendous victory fighting against the depreciation of wages for non-white beet farmers in the face of violent suppression from their white counterparts. Their next step was to be officially chartered as the Sugar Beat Farm Laborers Union (SBFLU) by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). However the AFL stipulated that while it would recognize the SBFLU, it would not initiate any laborers of Chinese or Japanese ancestry as part of the union. Union secretary J.M. Lizarraras responded:
“In the past we have counseled, fought and lived on very short rations with our Japanese brothers, and toiled with them in the fields, and they have been uniformly kind and considerate. We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of Unionism if we, now, accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them. We are going to stand by men who stood by us in the long, hard fight which ended in a victory over the enemy. We therefore respectfully petition the A. F. of L. to grant us a charter under which we can unite all the Sugar Beet & Field Laborers of Oxnard, without regard to their color or race. We will refuse any other kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudices and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves.”
In the face of a new but familiar foe, it is imperative that we emulate this sentiment.