Thursday, September 20, 2018

On race and rice

This is a pamphlet published by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1902. At the time, the AFL was lobbying Congress to prolong the so-called Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law de facto prohibiting Chinese immigration to the United States. The AFL was the “conservative” craft-based labor union of Samuel Gompers.

By today's standards, some of the anti-Chinese arguments in the pamphlet are unabashedly racist. The goal really is to protect White or Anglo-Saxon workers, and White civilization as such, from the yellow peril. One resolution demands the exclusion of all “Mongolian” (East Asian) labor from the United States. The Chinese are disparagingly referred to as “coolies” and “Celestials”. Mixed race offspring is said to be degenerate, and assimilation of the Chinese is therefore impossible.

The more standard arguments against immigration include its effect on wages and salaries, the rise in crime (including prostitution and trafficking), the slums, and the fact that the Chinese function as a “state within a state” through their semi-secret societies. Peculiarly to modern ears, anti-slavery arguments are used against Chinese immigration. The AFL also argues that Filipino workers must be protected against Chinese immigration to the Philippines (at the time a US territory). The title of the pamphlet (which apparently gave it some notoriety) is a reference to the following statement: “You can not work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beef, alongside of a man who can live on rice. In all such conflicts, and in all such struggles, the result is not to bring up the man who lives on rice to the beef-and-bread standard, but it is to bring down the beef-and-bread man to the rice standard”. Strictly speaking, this is a quotation from “Half-Breed” Republican politician James G Blaine, who argued in favor of Chinese Exclusion in 1879.

The most interesting argument in the pamphlet is that the Chinese in many ways are *better* than the Whites, and that unrestrained Chinese immigration for *that* reason threatens the White working class. Today, merit-based immigration is seen as an acceptable alternative to open borders for everyone, but the AFL more or less explicitly rejects both. Merit-based immigration won't solve the problems (as seen by the AFL) with the Chinese presence in California and elsewhere, which include wholesale Chinese takeovers of key industries and trades.

The AFL's “class collaborationist” stances shines through the pamphlet at several points. The AFL argues that Chinese immigration threatens both workers and employers, since Chinese workers only work for Chinese businesses, and since these pay lower wages, the White-owned American businesses will be outcompeted. They mention an incident in which Chinese workers supposedly called a strike against a White employer who wanted them to work side-by-side with Whites. The Chinese threaten labor peace and the emerging brotherhood of capital and labor. The AFL also bemoans the American trade balance with China – some things, it seems, never change! Many of the resolutions printed in this pamphlet aren't specifically AFL, but much broader. However, it's safe to assume that the Gompersites supported their general tenor, otherwise why reprint them in a memo to Congress?

I wonder what Gompers would have said of the present-day AFL-CIO?

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