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Racialized Labor Forces in the 19th Century

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The entire point of slavery was a controllable labor force. So what happened when that labor force became free in 1865? Southern planters wanted to bring in the Chinese to replace their Black slaves!

Efforts to recruit white labor had been hampered by the low wages and dangerous conditions on the plantations. The leaders of agriculture in the South needed a quick influx of workers that would keep the plantations running without bringing in anyone who might vote against the existing order. Their solution was to look to the Far East, to bring in Chinese workers (then known by the derogatory name “coolies”).

“Emancipation has spoiled the negro and carried him away from fields of agriculture,” an editorial in a Vicksburg newspaper read. “Our prosperity depends entirely upon the recovery of lost ground, and we therefore say let the Coolies come, and we will take the chance of Christianizing them.”

Thus began one of the strangest sales pitches in American history. Southern papers, politicians and plantation owners all began to broadcast a call to Chinese men — those already in the U.S. and those in China — to come work the cotton fields of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. The goal, according to Powell Clayton, then the governor of Arkansas, wasn’t just to replace lost hands, but also to undercut the remaining Black workers by flooding the fields with cheap labor — “to punish the negro for having abandoned the control of his old master, and to regulate the conditions of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him.”

Loewen, who died last week at the age of 79, is best known for his recastings of American history in books such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America.” Those books should be read as interventions against widely accepted historical misconceptions — in “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” he corrects popular history textbooks. “The Mississippi Chinese” was his first book, and it lacks the polemic energy of those later works, but it presents a thesis about race that would go on to be replicated throughout the academy, and particularly in so-called “whiteness studies.”

This thesis, that race is a construct that changes based upon context, and can shift over time, is illustrated in the book’s epigraph, where Loewen quotes an exchange with a white Baptist minister he interviewed:

“You’re either a white man or a [epithet], here,” the minister says. “Now, that’s the whole story. When I first came to the Delta, the Chinese were classed as [epithet].”

“And now they are called whites?” Loewen asks.

“That’s right!”

What isn’t mentioned here is that in California, employers who were increasingly frustrated by the Chinese resisting slave-like conditions around 1865 wanted to….bring in free Blacks from Mississippi to replace them!

Historians have known this story for decades but it doesn’t get too much play in the popular memory of the period. This attempted exchange of labor in two places at the same time really cuts to the heart of the racialized American reality of work.

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