“But how did the immigration officials know?” A student interjected into a discussion of the mechanics of Chinese exclusion in class on themes in U.S. History.We had been considering a chapter from Stacey Smith’s Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. In the chapter Smith explores California’s antecedents to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, and argues that the state’s Democrats and Republicans both used language of anti-slavery, criminality, and immorality as rhetorical tools to justify exclusion. Smith cites the text of California’s 1870 law, the Act to Prevent the Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes, which stated that only women who sought to immigrate voluntarily and possessed “correct habits and good character” would be permitted entry (206). It was this language that the student was interrogating, as she wondered how an immigration official would have been able to determine a woman’s habits and character. How could the official know, in the instance we were discussing, that all twenty-two Chinese women on a steamship docked in San Francisco in 1874 were prostitutes (206)?
This question spurred a fruitful discussion about the economic and political context during reconstruction and the anxieties that supported racialized labeling of Chinese men and women, but it also raised broader questions about the ways that the state categorizes people. In the wide-ranging conversation that followed, the class covered a very brief overview of changing immigration laws in the U.S. from Chinese Exclusion to the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 and considered how race and geopolitical calculations figured into these transitions. We also discussed the ways in which politicians used language of care or empathy in the late nineteenth century to justify racially discriminatory and exploitative practices, and some parallels to current political discourse. And finally we considered how categories like “prostitute” have been used as tools of racial, class, and gender control and exclusion, although these power dynamics are often obscured under a label of criminality. Through a close analysis of Smith’s discussion of legal texts like California’s 1870 law and the political and economic context in which it emerged, however, students began to explicate some of these hidden power relations.
As both a PhD candidate working on a dissertation on 1940s policing and the construction of gender through social deviance, and an educator being newly exposed to teaching at LaGuardia, I found this conversation exciting. Professor Karen Miller assigned a sophisticated work of scholarship that provided students with a new vantage point from which to consider Reconstruction and a number of different broad themes to engage with in class discussion. She then presented guided discussion questions to help students consider how the author used evidence to make her arguments. As the students moved through the text they asked questions about the language, the arguments, and the history that Smith referenced. This dynamic fostered an energetic conversation in which almost every student participated, and that covered big thematic research questions (including some of my own!), as well as more basic questions about the history in play.
I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues as we plan introductory history classes. We often discuss what reading materials to assign, how to manage conflicts between breadth and depth, and struggles over wanting to challenge the idea of history as one master narrative but not confuse students who lack a firm grounding in U.S. history. In previous classes I assigned both scholarly essays, and a textbook, although I felt that using a textbook undermined my goal of encouraging students to view history as a series of contested arguments about the world. To me, this class meeting demonstrated the benefits of assigning challenging works of historical scholarship, rather than a textbook, and of allotting significant time to discuss them closely. Although Smith made a set of particular arguments about political language in California during Reconstruction the process of deconstructing and analyzing her arguments fostered a conversation that allowed students to ask questions about context, methods, and broader themes.