EMPIRE, RACE, GENDER, NATION
Gary Y. Okihiro
Originally, I had planned to speak on the “Geographies of Race” on the grand scale of world history and the racializations of the temperate and tropical zones during the age of European empire. Instead, I must confess, my more modest paper that focuses on the U.S. and now titled “Empire, Race, Gender, Nation” presents a simple and perhaps now commonplace observation that the forging of empire “abroad” is accompanied by realignments of race, gender, and nation at “home.” And those spatial poles are linked as mutually constituting formations such that colonizers and settlers, through their domestication of the empire, convert the “abroad” to “home,” and through the migration of peoples and cultures from the empire, the familiar at “home” becomes the foreign. To paraphrase U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s quip about the nation’s expansion during the late nineteenth century, Asia’s “Far East” had become America’s “Far West,” while his contemporary, the editor and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich, warned that immigration had brought to U.S. shores “a wild motley throng” from Russia and Asia bringing with them “unknown gods and rites” and “strange tongues” with their “accents of menace alien to our air.” I will examine briefly those articulations of race, gender, and nation in the U.S. during the age of empire in the late nineteenth century and in our present time.
Admittedly, this formulation is conditioned by my current, deep revulsion at the frenzied nationalism that seized the U.S. during the dark and tragic times following 9/11, and by my distress over the opportunity provided by those horrific acts of symbolism and mass murder to the regime in Washington, D.C. to reduce identities and loyalties to a Manichean “good” and “evil,” “with us” and “against us” and to pursue wars against perceived enemies both at home and abroad to remake the nation and the world. However, even before 9/11, I was impressed with the mix of race, gender, and nation at particular moments in U.S. history as I noted in my book, Common Ground: Reimagining American History, where I state: “Binaries offer coherence, especially during times of social upheaval. They preserve rule amidst apparent chaos, and stability amidst rapid change, such as during the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Those periods of American history occasioned social reconstitutions of geographies, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality that helped to define and regulate identities, the state, and the social formation.” I will elaborate upon that proposition in this paper today.
The late nineteenth century was the noonday of European empire, the foundations of which rested upon the industrial revolution and rise of cities in Britain and countries bordering the North Atlantic. During this “age of capital,” an integrated, world-system tied together production, transportation, and markets such that goods and labor flowed toward desired ends. Those economic relations fueled and indeed prompted Europe’s scramble for Africa, Asia, and the Pacific for their strategic locations, labor, markets, and products. The U.S., although an ambivalent latecomer, joined this race for empire, and secured Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii. Perhaps because of the duration and extent of their empire by the late nineteenth century, Europeans were more inclined to think of global formations as opposed to the more provincial and youthful U.S., which tended toward national chauvinism and a distinction between itself and “old” Europe.
Amidst the intense rivalries that helped to shape separate national identities and fortunes during this period of European empire, the British historian Charles H. Pearson offered a coherent perspective on those global developments in his 1893 book, National Life and Character: A Forecast. Enabled by the world’s temperate zones, he contended, whites maintained their vigor and ingenuity, while in the tropics, yellows and blacks languished. But white expansion had nearly exhausted all of the earth’s temperate zones, and with no more frontiers to tame and settle, Pearson predicted, Western civilization’s progress would be retarded and individualism, compromised in the search for social order amidst crowding. Whites, although unsuited for the tropics, desired the resources of that band, and consequently colonized those areas tutoring and bringing medicine and hygiene to the natives. As a result of that humane “manifest destiny,” Pearson forewarned, those recumbent races will stir themselves, out-produce and -reproduce whites, and expand into the white homelands, the temperate zones.
That threat posed by the empire’s fringes to their centers was on the mind of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II when he called for a transnational solidarity premised upon an alleged union of culture and religion in the face of a mutual enemy. “On a plateau of rock bathed in light radiating from the Cross—that symbol in which alone Christians win their victories—stand allegorical figures of the civilised nations,” began the explanation that accompanied a painting commissioned by the Kaiser. Women, in martial garb representing Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and “the smaller civilised States” watch with varying degrees of interest and resolve toward an approaching “calamity which menaces them.” At the head of the women stands the winged, archangel Michael who holds in his right hand a flaming sword. “His countenance is turned towards the female group, his features reflect grave energy, and his outstretched left hand, which points to the approaching horror, also emphasises the invitation to prepare for the sacred conflict.”
Beneath the rocky plateau extends “the vast plain of civilised Europe. A majestic stream gushes across it. Lines of mountains bound the horizon, and in the valley cities are discerned, in the midst of which tower churches of various creeds.” But over this peaceful landscape “clouds of calamity are rolling up,” warned the caption. “Dark pitchy vapours obscure the sky. The path trodden by the invaders in their onward career is marked by a sea of flames proceeding from a burning city. Dense clouds of smoke twisting into the form of hellish, distorted faces ascend from the conflagration. The threatening danger in the form of Buddha is enthroned in this somber framework. A Chinese dragon, which at the same time represents the demon of Destruction, carries this heathen idol. In an awful onset the powers of darkness draw nearer to the banks of the protecting stream. Only a little while, and that stream is no longer a barrier.”
Inscribed on the painting’s border by Wilhelm II was the legend: “Nations of Europe, defend your holiest possession.” The “yellow peril,” the imagined threat posed by Asia to European civilization and Christianity, Europe’s “holiest possession,” was probably coined by Wilhelm II and popularized though his much discussed painting, which was completed in 1895 and became one of the most influential political illustration of the late nineteenth century. The Kaiser sent oil reproductions to his European peers and to the U.S. president, William McKinley, who would soon engage the Asiatic dragon in the Philippines. The notion of a common “civilization” and religion as differentiated from their Other--Asiatic barbarism and paganism—was the basis of the Kaiser’s call for European unity. National distinctions dissolve and kinship is established in this contest for global supremacy at the height of European empire.
In the U.S., Congregational minister Josiah Strong published in 1885 his popular and highly influential tract, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. In it and especially the chapter titled “The Anglo-Saxon and the World’s Future,” Strong held that the “Anglo-Saxon race,” particularly its U.S. branch, was “divinely commissioned” to spread to the world its patrimony. The “two great needs of mankind,” Strong wrote, “are, first, a pure, spiritual Christianity, and, second, civil liberty. Without controversy,” he confidently declared, “these are the forces which, in the past, have contributed most to the elevation of the human race, and they must continue to be, in the future, the most efficient ministers of its progress. It follows, then, that the Anglo-Saxon, as the great representative of these two ideas, the depositary of these two greatest blessings, sustains peculiar relations to the world’s future, is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper.”
Nurtured by the temperate climate of North America and its abundant resources, continued Strong, the U.S. “Anglo-Saxon” branch has thrived and developed “an instinct or genius for colonizing.” That pioneering spirit was marked by “his unequaled energy, his indomitable perseverance, and his personal independence,” making him unmatched in “pushing his way into new countries.” But a final challenge awaits this chosen people. “The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited, and will soon be taken. The time is coming when the pressure of population on the means of subsistence will be felt here as it is now felt in Europe and Asia. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.” In this monumental struggle for dominance, Strong assured his readers, the superior “Anglo-Saxon race” will triumph. “Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?”
Although intensely nationalist, Strong’s themes resonate with those voiced later by the European transnationalists, Pearson and Wilhelm II, across the Atlantic. These include the imperative of new lands for population outlets, conquest, and the continued vigor of the white stock, and the sacred gifts of civilization and Christianity. Of course, Strong foresaw the expansion of his peculiarly blessed people, “Anglo-Saxons” of the U.S., while Pearson and Wilhelm II warned of threats to whites at the center when the empire strikes back. And Strong’s robust “Anglo-Saxons” were not indebted to Europe but were homegrown, made in the U.S. White Americans or America’s “Anglo-Saxon race,” he declared, were superior to their European forebears in that they were of mixed origin, were comprised of only the most vigorous that Europe had to offer, and were reared in a free and democratic environment.
The historical contexts of Strong’s exhortation for empire included the 1890 U.S. Census, which declared an end to U.S. continental frontiers, all of the land having been settled, and immigration waves unprecedented for their magnitude and diversity. “The frontier has gone,” observed Frederick Jackson Turner of the Census in a paper presented to the American Historical Association in 1893, “and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” The frontier, the borderland between barbarism and civilization, according to Turner, molded the European into the American, giving him “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inventiveness,” a “practical…turn of mind,” a “dominant individualism,” and a “buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.” Its closing meant that the generative and democratizing spaces that had shaped aliens into citizens were now gone, and that confined by borders the alchemy of nation formation promised to be troubling and intense. “This, then, is the real situation: a people composed of heterogeneous materials, with diverse and conflicting ideals and social interests, having passed from the task of filling up the vacant spaces of the continent, is now thrown back upon itself, and is seeking an equilibrium,” explained Turner in an 1896 essay. “The diverse elements are being fused into national unity. The forces of reorganization are turbulent and the nation seems like a witch’s kettle.”
Among those “diverse elements” were the 25 million immigrants or more than four times the total of the previous fifty years who streamed to the eastern and western shores of the U.S. between 1865 and 1915, and who originated not in familiar Britain or northern Europe but from Italy, Greece, Poland, and Russia, and in the West, from China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines. They flocked to the U.S. Northeast and West, where barons of industry, in cities and fields, had accumulated fortunes by monopolizing land, resources, and capital. Racial, ethnic, and class conflicts boiled and bubbled in this “witch’s kettle.” In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act because, in the framers’ words, “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof.” In 1886, police killed four strikers in Chicago, and the next day a bomb killed seven officers and injured sixty-seven people. The Haymarket Square bombing came to symbolize to many Americans the menace posed by southern and eastern Europeans, immigrants, radicals, and anarchists. “These people are not American,” a Chicago newspaper reported of the Haymarket strikers, “but the very scum and offal of Europe.”
In a letter dated May 14, 1892, the writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich explained the circumstances surrounding the writing of his poem, which warned of an alien menace. “I went home and wrote a misanthropic poem called ‘Unguarded Gates’…in which I mildly protest against America becoming the cesspool of Europe. I’m much too late, however,” he lamented. “I looked in on an anarchist meeting the other night…and heard such things spoken by our ‘feller citizens’ as made my cheek burn…. I believe in America for the Americans; I believe in the widest freedom and the narrowest license, and I hold that jail-birds, professional murderers, amateur lepers…and human gorillas generally should be closely questioned at our Gates.” And he closed his lamentation on criminality, health, and evolution with an endorsement of Rudyard Kipling’s acid observation that New York City had become “a despotism of the alien, by the alien, for the alien, tempered with occasional insurrections of decent folk!”
In the absence of the open, agrarian frontier, Americanization was being reversed in the confining, industrial city. Class and ethnic and racial distinctions divided citizens from aliens, and immigrants created and settled in ghettoes, foreign enclaves within the homeland. “The rich and well-to-do are mostly Americans; the poor are mostly foreign, drawn from among the miserable of every nation,” noted Robert Hunter, a social worker, in his classic 1904 text, Poverty. In New York City, he wrote, there were “colonies” of Irish, Jews, Italians, Russians, Poles, Greeks, Syrians, Chinese, and African Americans. “To live in one of these foreign communities is actually to live on foreign soil. The thoughts, feelings, and traditions which belong to the mental life of the colony are often entirely alien to an American.” Besides introducing poverty and foreign identities to the U.S., Hunter added darkly, saturated in the language of eugenics, these “strange peoples from all parts of the world” will likely bring about “racial modifications” to the American gene pool.
Domestic spaces were also facing challenges from the “new woman” who sought to remake her self and society. Middle-class privileges allowed women to pursue higher education, albeit attenuated by degree and career constraints, and to engage in a variety of causes of social uplift. Under the banner of progressivism, these women sought to cure some of society’s ills associated with urbanization and industrialization. The settlement house movement, represented famously by Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, was an example of that attempt to improve the lot of immigrants by teaching them the middle-class values and lifestyles deemed necessary for their success in the U.S. White women played key roles in that movement and the field and profession it helped institute—social work. And economic growth and needs drew working-class women out of the home and into the factory, and the distance between private and public spheres lessened. The “new woman” sought to enhance her opportunities and reduce her dependence upon men, she participated in the public arena formerly occupied by men only, and many rallied for woman suffrage, one of the largest reform movements in U.S. history.
When it embarked upon its empire and “new frontier” in the Pacific, thus, the U.S. was reconstituting the nation, the “Anglo-Saxon race,” and white manhood. U.S. imperialists shouldered, quite emphatically, “the white man’s burden,” which involved domestic order both within the home and homeland and abroad in the empire. “Between 1880 and 1910,” the historian Gail Bederman astutely observed, “middle-class men were especially interested in manhood. Economic changes were undermining Victorian ideals of self-restrained manliness. Working class and immigrant men, as well as middle-class women, were challenging white middle-class men’s beliefs that they were the ones who should control the nation’s destiny. Medical authorities were warning of the fragility of men’s bodies…. All this activity suggests that men were actively, even enthusiastically, engaging in the process of remaking manhood.” And in its confrontation with Pacific Islanders and Asians, whiteness or Josiah Strong’s “Anglo-Saxon race” embraced a new, transnational identity as articulated by the Secretary of State John Hay who conceived of America’s imperial role in the Pacific as a trans-Atlantic alliance of the U.S. and Britain or “the two Anglo-Saxon peoples” engaged in “the same sacred mission of liberty and progress.”
British writer Rudyard Kipling published his poem “The White Man’s Burden” in 1898 to prod the U.S. into maturity and recovering its white manliness by accepting the responsibilities of empire in the Philippines:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Come now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!
The U.S. President, William McKinley, who accepted Kipling’s challenge explained his decision to colonize the Philippines in the benign language of social uplift and the social gospel. “When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps,” the president told a group of visiting Methodists, “I confess I did not know what to do with them…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came:
- That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable;
- That we could not turn them over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable;
- That we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule worse than Spain’s was; and
- That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men, for whom Christ also died.
And then I went to bed and went to sleep, and slept soundly….”
No longer the bold but blushing immature empire builders of the late nineteenth century, the U.S. emerged the lone superpower in the late twentieth century and at the dawning of the twenty-first century. The nation had lost its innocence over the course of several wars during the twentieth century all, except for World War I, waged in Asia beginning with the war of colonization in the Philippines at the century’s start, and continuing with the current “war against terror” being conducted both at home and abroad. As in the nineteenth century, national and transnational visions guided U.S. debates and conduct, and the contexts included restructurings of race, gender, and nation. Obviously not the totality of social forces implicated by empire, those formations are among the more prominent as referenced by my brief synopsis of the late nineteenth century. And because of the completely unruly cast of characters in this story threatening disruptive spin offs toward diasporas, globalism, and the new empire of hybrid identities and expanding frontiers, I must discipline myself to focus on some of the transformations occasioned in the U.S. around and since 9/11.
From this perspective and time, Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and not the earlier literature on economic and military conflict, might well be the tract for the moment. Thoroughly familiar in its rescripting of a well worn template, The Clash sees divergences where the modernization literature sees convergences, cultural differences instead of homogenizations, and while capitalism might have triumphed across the globe, its core values of individualism, freedom, equality, and reason rooted in Western civilization have failed to win the non-West. The book’s currency includes its organizing binary of the West and the rest, its identity politics and essentializations, and its classifications of “civilizations” or cultural identities based upon religious traditions such as Islamic and Confucian “civilizations.” And although Huntington recommends accommodation on the part of the West instead of conflict, his formulation is encrusted with the residues of Orientalism in a culturally static and regressive East--both racialized and gendered attributions--and the noise generated by his “clash” of civilizations amplified by history’s “yellow peril” and the present threat of “terror” mutes his call for peaceful coexistence.
Needless to say, Huntington’s lumping of the West as Europe and North America with its South American appendage advances a racialization of a different color and hue, a whitening based upon an imaginary common culture and shared values set against those who not only refuse to adopt but who oppose that “civilization.” And thus the West’s dynamism and its liberalism, rationality, social equality, and individualism contrasts with Islamic and Confucian civilizations’ stasis and their illiberalism, irrationality, social inequality, and collectivism. In that light, Huntington is indebted to his intellectual progenitors who articulated an essential unity based upon a shared culture and religion--a “civilization”--especially when measured against its inferior but threatening Other. And Huntington’s nod to Western civilization’s empire is his characterization of the non-West’s refusal of cultural hegemony as a backlash.
The remaking of a new world order is clearly on the U.S. agenda as announced without apology by the George W. Bush regime with the release of its National Security Strategy document dated September 2002. A response to the attacks of 9/11 that some saw as a backlash against U.S. global supremacy, this remarkable document asserts the “Bush Doctrine” that extends U.S. hegemony from the Americas, as was claimed by the nineteenth-century “Monroe Doctrine,” to the world. And despite its disavowal that “the war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations,” the document espouses “a struggle of ideas,” the bases for Huntington’s “civilizations,” that divides the world between us and them, friends and foes, civilized nations and the “enemies of civilization.” And the hallmark of civilization, this document declares, is adherence to the ideas of “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” which are claimed by the U.S. as its defining attributes and, like Josiah Strong, its “great mission” to the world.
That assertion of global supremacy through pre-emptive strikes if necessary, an expansion and restructuring of U.S. intelligence and the military, and the spread of “free markets and free trade” was accompanied by a stiffening of Mr. Bush’s manhood and spine, made all the more titillating by the realization that a black woman, Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, had a hand in massaging that transformation. Before and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Bush indeed cut a slight and limp figure. As the New York Times/CBS News poll shows, Mr. Bush’s approval rating plummeted and disapproval rating climbed in the summer of 2001. And Newsweek noted that Mr. Bush’s initial reaction to the attacks was to “flee,” seek the “safest place,” and require “air cover.” “It was a melancholy flight: the leader of the free world, in the air and on the run, in his own country,” the reporter wrote. “George Walker Bush has never wanted to be a hero, only president. Now he has to be the former to succeed as the latter. Bush must rise to an occasion as daunting as any faced by any president before him, and do so with less experience than almost all who preceded him,” the writer noted kindly. “He does not like to make a spectacle of himself, or to be challenged by lofty expectations, or to make grand statements or to reach for greatness. Now he must try to do all these things.”
And rise to the occasion he did. Mr. Bush stood erect and tall, and took on all comers mincing no words. Either you’re with us or you’re against us, he announced. About a month after the attack and with smoke still rising from the rubble, Mr. Bush wrote on a wall at the World Trade Center site the simple words: “Good will triumph over evil. May God bless us all.” Indeed, Mr. Bush has said, like President McKinley on the eve of empire, that he was simply fulfilling God’s will in his global war against evil and his crusade in Iraq. And the New York Times/CBS News poll tracked his rapid ascent up the approval ladder to its highest rung by the end of 2001. About a year later in February 2003, with his manliness reconstituted, underscored by the aircraft carrier that loomed behind him on a U.S. Navy base in Florida, the site of the original crime, Mr. Bush could chide the United Nations, like Rudyard Kipling’s poem about a century earlier, to show some “backbone” in facing down Iraq. “I believe when it’s all said and done, free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society,” Mr. Bush said. It was as much a warning as a call for action from a man to a woman.
Other men similarly found their manhood in the melancholy debris of the World Trade Center. An embattled and oft vilified New York City mayor and police department rose to heroic dimensions in the period following 9/11. In the mundane world before 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani saw his marriage dissolve and his personal life of adultery revealed, and was embroiled in a controversy of his own making over pornography and artistic expression in condemning a Brooklyn Museum exhibit and announcing his intention to form a “decency” panel to oversee the expenditure of public funds for the arts. His critics called the idea “laughable and misguided,” and advised that the “mayor would be better served if he created a committee on the First Amendment.” But in October 2001, in an act of Anglo-Saxon solidarity, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II named Giuliani Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his “outstanding help and support to the bereaved British families in New York,” and Time Magazine named Giuliani its “Person of the Year” for 2001, calling him a “Tower of Strength,” an allusion to the fallen Twin Towers, and depicting him dominating the reordered Manhattan skyline. The commendation read, “for not sleeping and not quitting and not shrinking from the pain all around him, Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of the World.” He has since taken on the mantle of “great leader,” giving high-priced advice on courage and leadership--manly virtues--on the lecture circuit. An admirer gushed: “People call him a mythical figure? He’s a magical figure. He transcends politics, he transcends ideology….”
About a month after 9/11, Giuliani reported that applications to the city’s police force had gone up ten percent. “All of these people are legitimately more patriotic and more willing to serve now than they ever were before,” the mayor declared. As the report noted, before 9/11, the police “had been having trouble getting new recruits and keeping experienced officers on the job.” But the bravery displayed by the twenty-three police officers killed in the World Trade Center destruction had attracted new recruits to the department. Additionally, police recruiting posters sprang up in African American and Latina/o neighborhoods, places where the police had extremely negative reputations because of police abuse and brutality among peoples of color. A prime example was the cruel police killing of the innocent vendor from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, in 1999 and the simmering anger that lingered through 2001 after the police commissioner and mayor refused to discipline the officers involved. The interim executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union called that refusal “an insult to his [Diallo’s] memory, to his family and to all New Yorkers, especially African-Americans who have been prime targets of racial profiling by the N.Y.P.D.”
New York City’s firemen, more than its police officers, were lionized after 9/11, having suffered 347 firefighters lost in the World Trade Center tragedy. Heroes because they protect people, a CNN report noted, “since September 11, firefighters—especially New York City firefighters—have become the subject of a newly pronounced public devotion, reverence, near-worship.” Explained the president of the Institute for American Values, “You know, what these guys do, there’s no moral ambiguity to it. They just go in and get the innocent people. They go in and save them—its like Superman.” And the artist who has been drawing Spiderman since 1980 described his work on a new comic book showing Spiderman at Ground Zero: “Spiderman is secondary. The real heroes are the firemen. These people are everyday people doing superhero-like things.” Indeed, in January 2002, Marvel Comics published, Heroes, as a benefit for the families of the victims of 9/11, and to which well-known comic book artists contributed. The images show resolute, brawny men straining to recover broken, mute, and lifeless victims.
Reconstituting manliness has had various incarnations in different times and genres. But the task takes on a special urgency during instances of crises and anxieties over its inadequacies and failures. Protecting the motherland and her people is certainly one of those burdens of manliness. Little wonder, thus, that some of the most enduring images emerging from the gray and choking dust of the Twin Towers are of muscular men bent on saving innocent, helpless victims, or that the U.S. war in Afghanistan was framed in part as a rescue mission to liberate Afghan women or “white men, seeking to save brown women from brown men….” And the war on terror, like other imperialist projects, enables an aggressive, active manliness along with a passive, recumbent womanliness in a “post-feminist” U.S., and a reformulation of the white man’s burden and reworking of the U.S. racial formation.
Thus, in the days following 9/11, the nation rallied around the victims and the flag as if one—“united we stand” was the motto and mandate—but also members of the union erected and patrolled borders that separated “us” from “them.” Thousands of Arab and West, Central, and South Asian Americans reported instances of racial harassment and intimidation, including threatening gestures and speech, shootings, and the vandalizing of homes, businesses, and mosques. A Hindu temple was burned to the ground in Canada, and a white man drove his car into a mosque in the U.S. in Ohio. Whites attacked an Asian Indian and his white friend in San Francisco, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was killed in Mesa, Arizona in a hate crime, and Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani, was killed in Dallas. As two men beat Sikh American Surinder Singh Sidhu with metal poles in his Los Angeles store, they reportedly exulted, “We’ll kill bin Laden today.” Nervous crews and passengers removed dozens of Muslims and Sikhs and Arabs and West, Central, and South Asians from flights, and many students left colleges and universities. Hundreds of “suspects,” including immigrants generally, were summarily arrested, questioned, and detained.
Nationally between September 11 and December 11, 2001, there were 243 reports of bias crimes committed against Asian Americans, according to a study released by the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. New York and California led the way each with 42 incidents. Normally, hate crimes against Asian Americans run between 400 to 500 a year. And bias against Muslims and Sikhs and Arab and Asian Americans continue, albeit in different guises like discrimination in the workplace or in housing and education. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received so many allegations of discrimination against Muslim and Sikh and Arab and Asian Americans that it has created a special category called “Code Z” to track these complaints, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations has received more than 1,500 reports of bias in the workplace and schools, airport profiling, and physical assaults.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken a few days after 9/11 showed that fifty-eight percent of Americans backed intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who were U.S. citizens, forty-nine percent favored special identification cards for “such people,” and thirty-two percent supported “special surveillance” for them. A year later, encouragingly, another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that sixty-two percent of those surveyed said government efforts to thwart terrorism should not violate basic civil liberties, even as the U.S. Attorney General has pursued and was granted by the courts in November 2002 expanded use of wiretaps and e-mail monitoring under the U.S.A. Patriot Act (2001). While cities have passed resolutions urging the federal government to desist from violating citizens’ civil liberties, the administration investigated Iraqis and Iraqi Americans in preparation for its current war on Iraq, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has photographed, fingerprinted, and in some cases detained men from Muslim countries in Asia, Arabia, and north Africa, along with men from North Korea, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, to monitor them and in the anticipation of deporting the detainees.
And Mr. Bush has targeted Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—“Oriental despotisms”—as the “axis of evil.” In February 2003, at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I watched bored passengers view with fascination (and possibly horror) a CNN airport “news” special “documenting” the spectacle that is North Korea. Row upon row of anonymous and regimented youth, like Mao’s millions, waved red flags, performed choreographed exercises, and shouted praises to “the great leader,” larger than life—an Oriental despot of the Saddam Hussein variety. With the war with Iraq all but certain, the network appeared to be preparing its viewers for the coming conflict with the second member of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil.” And so it goes, the U.S. empire, on and on, to Iran, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and the world, as outlined in the administration’s National Security Strategy.
The war in which Asians (“Orientals”) comprise an undifferentiated terror and “evil” draws its efficacy from the longstanding idea of the “yellow peril,” and it inspires racial realignments in the U.S. Race changes, of course, have histories that hinge upon the elasticity of the category “white” and rigidity of the category “black,” and white privilege allows for the withholding and conferring of “whiteness” upon African and Asian Americans and Latina/os when confronted with threats of its dominance. Asian Americans thus became “model minorities” and “whiter than whites” during the 1960s at the height of militant black revolt in U.S. cities, and Asian Americans and light-skinned Latina/os and middle-class African Americans assumed a whiter cast when the U.S. Census in the year 2000 confirmed predictions of massive demographic shifts toward peoples of color who were, in an earlier time, classed as “nonwhites.” Whites might now be a numerical racial minority in Hawaii and California, but “whiteness” as an alliance of common ideology and interest—an “ethnicity”—might still prevail. And when confronting the “yellow peril” or the alien menace, whites stand shoulder to shoulder with blacks. I am thinking here, perhaps playfully, about movies such as Rising Sun (1993) and Men in Black (1997) in which the white hero and his black sidekick take on invasions of the alien and hence threatening other. Their differences dissolve and united they stand thanks to their common enemy.
And African Americans and Latina/os play key roles in white justifications of racial profiling in the present war against terror. A front-page New York Times news item on September 23, 2001 titled “Americans Give in to Race Profiling” begins with: “Ron Arnold understands racial profiling. ‘I’m a black American, and I’ve been racially profiled all my life,’ said Mr. Arnold, a 43-year-old security officer here, ‘and it’s wrong.’ But Mr. Arnold admits that he is engaging in some racial profiling himself these days, casting a wary eye on men who look to be of Middle Eastern descent. If he saw a small knot of such men boarding a plane, he said: ‘I’d be nervous. It sickens me that I feel that way, but it’s the real world.’” For good measure, the reports adds a Latino who, like Mr. Arnold, opposes racial profiling but admits that flying with “Arab-looking men” made him anxious. Mr. Arnold and Mr. Estala, the Latino, were given whiteness in that they were with and just like “us,” whites who were nervous about Middle Eastern and “Arab-looking men.”
For the U.S., even as the twentieth century dawned upon the ostensible uplift of “our little brown brothers,” the twenty-first century has broken with the alleged boost for another brown people called “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Those occasions for purportedly compassionate empires have enabled racial reformations that involved the creations of more expansive yet exclusionary categories of “self” or “whiteness” and “other” or “nonwhiteness” at the end of the nineteenth century and in our time. The historian Nell Irvin Painter, writing of the U.S. pursuit of empire in the late nineteenth century, observed “a vastly increased emphasis on race” that aligned white America and the European colonial powers against African Americans and other peoples of color in the colonized world. Divisions at home in the U.S. and expansion abroad, she wrote, demanded “an identity as well as an identity of interest” that was created against racialized, gendered, and classed others, and that helped compose transnational identities of white and nonwhite. As we have seen, Josiah Strong’s “Anglo-Saxons” made in the U.S. were not the empire builder John Hay’s “Anglo-Saxons” who consisted of “the two Anglo-Saxon peoples” of the U.S. and Britain embarked on “the same sacred mission of liberty and progress.” Likewise the thick whiteness advocated by Charles Pearson and Kaiser Wilhelm II arose in the confrontation with the threatening Other in the formation of empire.
Since 9/11 a New York Times report noted, African American and Latino young men in a section of Brooklyn no longer saw the police, most of whom are white, as enemies. One of the youth recalled that the police were among the first to rush into the burning World Trade Center buildings. “We’ve become a little more at ease with the policemen,” he said. “We realize what they’ve done. Now we look at them more as heroes, instead of…enemies.” Several Haitian American groups, which had protested against police brutality over the last several years, sent a letter to a local police chief expressing admiration for the officers. The police profiling of African Americans and Latina/os, it seems, was no longer an issue. It used to be that “driving while black” described police racial profiling, but since 9/11, it was “flying while brown,” a reference to the airline profiling of Muslims and Sikhs and Asian Americans. The “whitening” of African Americans and Latinos by police surveillance of others prompted a Trinidadian immigrant to observe: “They [the police] used to watch me from the time they see me, they watch me till I leave. But now they don’t really bother us. They, like, stop everyone that has Middle Eastern features. They stop them. They ask them questions like that.” Another youth summed up the new order: “I just thought of myself as black. But now I feel like I’m an American, more than ever.”
Empire has occasioned assertions of manliness in the wake of women’s rise and gender’s refigurings. Feeling threatened by women and immigrants in the public sphere at the end of the nineteenth century, some white middle-class men found their manhood in westward expansion and the burden of empire. And the 9/11 rescuers—firemen and policemen—signaled for many the “return of manly men.” Gone was the “casually dressed dot-commer in khakis and a BMW,” an essayist noted. “The operative word is men. Brawny, heroic, manly men. After a few iffy decades in which manliness was not the most highly prized cultural attribute, men—stoic, muscle-bound and exuding competence from every pore—are back. Since Sept. 11, the male hero has been a predominant cultural image, presenting a beefy front of strength to a nation seeking steadiness and emotional grounding.” Added the social critic Camille Paglia, “I can’t help noticing how robustly, dreamily masculine the faces of the firefighters are. These are working-class men, stoical, patriotic. They’re not on Prozac or questioning their gender.”
Empire has remade the nation through reinscriptions of “citizen” and “alien,” and of borders that delimit spaces and categories. “Terrorism” and the “yellow peril” are conceived of as external and internal threats to the nation’s purity and integrity. They justify empire abroad and segregation at home by distinguishing those who are members of the community from those who are not. Long before the empire’s palpable threat to the home on 9/11, the alien within posed a vague but undeniably threatening figure. Like Robert Hunter’s nineteenth-century text on poverty and the alien in New York City, contemporary writer Gwen Kinkead’s Chinatown is a smelly, filthy corner of Manhattan, a “booming, chaotic little piece of China, overflowing with new immigrants…a remarkably self-contained neighborhood—virtually a nation unto itself.” Although within the U.S., Chinatown was foreign and hence invasive of and troubling to the national body. And since 9/11, immigrants generally have come to signal terrorism’s potential. “How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked?” asked Congressman James A. Traficant, Jr. (D-Ohio) when calling for military patrols to bolster the force along the borders with Canada and Mexico. “What do we stand for if we can’t secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?” The March 1, 2003 transfer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Justice Department to the post-9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security, affirms that resolve to see immigration and the porous borders as matters of national defense, and is inflected with anti-immigrant sentiments, and that, in a “nation of immigrants.”
Those binaries of space, race, gender, and citizenship, as I contended in my book, Common Ground, offer coherence amidst apparent chaos, stability in moments of change, homogeneity in the face of confounding diversity. And empire is similarly constituted in its imperious drive to define and regulate identities, the state, the social formation, and the world. Those intimacies of race, gender, and nation during periods of empire point to the necessity of broadening any discussion of racialization and the racial formation to the locations and articulations of power in an historically situated and astutely apprehended social formation, comprised of, among others, race, gender, and nation. We can only “reckon” with race when we resist its sole salience and solitude and see it instead in its fullness.
I acknowledge with gratitude the research assistance for and critical readings of this essay provided by Diana H. Yoon and Richard Jean So.
See e.g., Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002).
From Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s poem, “Unguarded Gates,” quoted in Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930), 58.
I use the word “empire” in both senses of formal extra-territorial colonies and the exertions of political, economic, and cultural power over nations and peoples outside a state’s borders.
Gary Y. Okihiro, Common Ground: Reimagining American History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001), xiv.
E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (New York: New American Library, 1979).
For a contemporary version distinguishing the U.S. and “new” Europe from “old” Europe (France and Germany), see the U.S. defense secretary’s remarks and their rejoinders, Washington Post, January 24, 2003.
Charles H. Pearson, National Life and Character: A Forecast (London: Macmillan, 1893).
See The Review of Reviews (London), December 1895, 474-75, for a reproduction of the painting and its explanation. Another version of Wilhelm’s inscription was: “Nations of Europe! Join in Defense of Your Faith and Your Home!” Richard Austin Thompson, The Yellow Peril, 1890-1924 (New York: Arno Press, 1978), 1-2.
Thompson, Yellow Peril, 1.
Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1885), 159, 161.
Ibid., 173, 174-75.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1920), 1, 2, 3, 23, 30, 32, 37.
Cheng-Tsu Wu (ed.), “Chink!” A Documentary History of Anti-Chinese Prejudice in America (New York: World Publishing, 1972), 70.
As quoted in Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 511.
Parrington, Main Currents, 58-59.
Robert Hunter, Poverty (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 261, 262-63, 268.
Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 15. See also, Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1998).
As quoted in Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (New York: Meridian, 1980), 267, 268.
Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1885-1926 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927), 373-74.
From a report of an interview with William McKinley at the White House on November 21, 1899, written by one of the interviewers and confirmed by others present. Published in The Christian Advocate, January 22, 1903, reprinted in Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy (eds.), The American Spirit: United States History As Seen By Contemporaries, vol. 2 (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1984), 579-80. History contradicts McKinley’s version as pointed out by Drinnon, Facing West, 279-80.
See e.g., George Friedman and Meredith Lebard, The Coming War With Japan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); and Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict With China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). For a useful review of this literature, see Robert B. Reich, “Is Japan Really out to Get Us?” New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1992.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, iv-vi, 5, 6, 9-11, 31.
On the other side of the divide, it is noteworthy that women, from traditionalists to radical feminists, have led the swelling anti-war movement in the U.S. See, e.g., Liza Featherstone, “Mighty in Pink,” Nation, March 3, 2003, 23-25.
New York Times, February 14, 2003.
Howard Fineman, “A President Faces the Test of a Lifetime,” Newsweek Magazine, September 13, 2001.
As reported in the New York Post, November 12, 2001. On Mr. Bush’s rise, see the hagiographic David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (New York: Random House, 2003); and Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).
Jackson Lears, “How a War Became a Crusade,” New York Times, March 11, 2003.
New York Times, February 14, 2003.
New York Post, March 31, 2001.
New York Post, October 6, 2001.
Time Magazine, December 31, 2001-January 7, 2002.
New York Magazine, September 2002.
New York Post, October 23, 2001.
New York Times, April 29, 2001.
Beth Nissen, “Firefighters: America’s Real-Life Superheroes,” CNN.com, November 1, 2001.
New York Times, November 18, 2001; and Gayatri Chakvravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 101.
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, March 11, 2002.
Washington Post, March 4, 2002; and Council on American-Islamic Relations, April 30, 2002.
USA Today, November 22, 2002.
New York Times, November 17, 2002; Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2002; and New York Times, December 23, 2002.
In his State of the Union address, January 29, 2002.
On the “model minority,” see William Petersen, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966; and “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites,” Newsweek Magazine, June 21, 1971. On the elasticity of “whiteness,” see Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Cf., Clara E. Rodriguez, Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 168, 390.
New York Times, October 10, 2001.
Patricia Leigh Brown, “Heavy Lifting Required: The Return of Manly Men,” New York Times, October 28, 2001.
Gwen Kinkead, Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 3. On the alienating of domestic spaces, see Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster (New York: Random House, 1995).
Washington Post, October 15, 2001.