Immigrants and migrants are often poured into the same theater of belonging. The former seeks home in a foreign country, while the latter seeks refuge in a new culture. But as history has shown, not all are welcomed. Chinese immigrants and Black women, in particular, often fall victim to otherization and foreignization. As they moved from rural America and China to unfamiliar urban environments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their presence and behavior induced a “moral panic” within the urban middle and upper classes.
In response to the increased migration of both populations, cities heightened their regulation and investigation of Black migrant women’s behavior, as well as Chinese immigrants’ living environments. While both populations have faced unique and varying challenges in America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were often exposed to similar systems of local government discrimination. Harboring a desire to regulate these migrants’ behavior and remove their presence entirely, reporters, activists, and health inspectors generated negative rhetoric that prompted increased government surveillance and control around these communities. Analyzing Hazel Carby's Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America and Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown alongside one another highlights these similarities and sheds a crucial light on the nature of these discriminatory tactics.
Chinese immigrant and Black migrant women bodies became entangled in the same system of “moral panic,” as both were perceived to be carriers of vice. According to Shah, who is a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, by 1880, California Board of Health (CBH) officials who periodically investigated its public health conditions declared Chinatown it to be “the site of filth, disease, and inhuman habitation.” To add to these allegations, journalists and health officials such as Thomas Logan (then-secretary of the CBH) reported both Chinese bodies and Chinatown as “dangerous,” “unhealthy,” “dense,” and posing “threats of illness.” Middle class commentators and physicians used bad science to legitimize these claims, directly connecting Chinese cultural practices to bad sanitation, and perpetrating a “scientifically proven” reason to be horrified by the environment of Chinatown and “perceive the unsanitary living conditions as both evidence of moral turpitude and as an incubator for fatal epidemics.” (Shah)
Black women were similarly diagnosed with moral vices, specifically ones regarding their “sexual immorality.” The social reformer Frances Kellor’s words in the early 1900s reflect this perception of urban Black women that led to the “moral panic.” Kellor describes the social body of middle class white women as conditioning Black women into “increasing inefficiency and desire to avoid hard work,” exploitability, and helplessness, leading Black women to accept “odd” jobs in “questionable” houses. Kellor claimed that such questionable employment agencies often led Black women into the very “immoral habits, vice, and laziness” that middle class white women claimed they inherently possessed. Black women caused “moral panic” within the Black community, too. As Carby, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, argues in “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context,” this was largely due to Black women being viewed as carriers of these social vices, able to “infect” the urban Black community as they did the white urban population.
“Simplistic mythologies” was one reason why these populations were wrongly but easily perceived to be vice carriers. The Chinese, as a whole, were simply viewed as aliens rather than citizens. City governments took numerous political actions that further alienated Chinatown residents, and the rhetoric of the health committee officials, Shah says, “shifted from attributing the health threat to collective Chinese behavior to denouncing the Chinese as the very embodiment of disease.” Thus, the theoretical cause of the “disease” in Chinatown shifted from one of social behavior to inherent biological attributes. In response to this newly spreading simplistic mythology, city council required Chinese merchants to build a hospital for Chinese immigrants outside the city limits due to its distrust of the Chinese medical system.
Further contributing to this simplistic mythology were members of the middle class, health officials, and media commentators who often alienated and animalized the image of Chinese immigrants. Just as the US media constructed the image of Filipino savagery through powerful rhetoric, language was key to this violent system of discrimination. Chinese immigrants were referred to as “cattle,” “hogs,” “sick animals” and “opium smoking pig[s].” According to Shah, these phrases functioned to “amplif[y] the danger of Oriental ‘barbarism’ in the midst of the civilized…white Americans.” The official health report on Chinatown cited white travelogue writers and visitors who created sensationalized narratives of Chinatown filth. The state’s affirmation of this animalized rhetoric fed what Shah calls “a perception not only of Chinese immigrant’s inferiority but also of their inhumanity.” This idea that Chinese immigrants are alien and barbaric was passed around in varied forms of media which “both established ‘knowledge’ of the Chinese race and aided in the making and remaking of Chinatown.” As a result, Chinatown was seen as an alien, dangerous, and exclusive part of the city that could never integrate –– thus justifying city surveillance, control, and constant health inspection.
These simplistic mythologies also applied to Black migrant women. Carby notably points out the misconception that Black migrants were “rural,” and “without the necessary industrial skills, untutored in the ways of the city, ‘green’ and ignorant,” even though Black people as a whole were becoming increasingly urbanized even before they left for Northern cities. Simply viewing all Black people as rural produced the perception that they were collectively naïve and easily exploitable in urban areas. The perception of Black women combined sexual politics into this notion, causing them to be “regarded as easily victimized subjects who quickly succumbed to the forces of vice and degradation.” Kellor recognized that Black women often turned to prostitution because of sketchy career agencies, but believed that these women lacked “any moral fiber or will of their own that can be mobilized in the defense of their own interests.” Black women are seen as the root cause of the “problem.” Urban communities, especially middle class ones, panicked over the dangerous situations that Black women could fall into and the “filthy” environment that Chinese immigrants lived in. Simplistic mythologies allowed intellectuals to pathologize Black women and Chinese immigrant behavior, which implied the need for corrective measures, which in turn justified institutional control and surveillance over them.
The middle class ideal of appropriate behavior became the pinnacle of normalcy used to justify state control over these populations’ perceived deviances. Black migrant women and Chinese immigrants were seen as alien, inhuman, and in conflict with middle class moral standards. San Francisco’s government held the living style of white people as the norm, and thus rendered all Chinese living styles as deviant. Compared to the white American middle class standard, Chinatown bedrooms were “crowded,” the Chinese immigrant population was “excessive,” and air ventilation was absolutely absent. These conditions were deemed alarming as they violated the health standard set forth in the “Miasma theory of disease” mentioned by Shah, a theory cited frequently by US health officials. Specifically, he describes the theory’s premise that “festering waste would breed disease in enclosed rooms, and natural ventilation could air out rooms with windows.”
Beyond health aspects, the Chinese filial structure was also measured against the vision of white middle class domesticity and morality. Compared to white families, which generally functioned under specific nuclear structures and classifications, Chinese immigrants raised their kids such that they were, according to Shah, “herded together with apparent indiscriminate parental relations, and no family classification.” The way the Chinese people collectively brought up their kids also threatened the white understanding of family, posing moral threat not only to their standards of health, but also to the basis of their entire social structure.
Just as Black migrant women were criticized and neglected by other members of the urban Black population, the inhabitants of Chinatown were also discriminated against by middle class Chinese merchants, and their living conditions were compared to their standards. Specifically, middle class Chinese merchants wanted to separate themselves from the negative rhetoric generated by working class Chinese immigrants who lived in the crowded boarding houses of Chinatown. They wanted to develop distinctions within the Chinese population, positioning themselves as morally superior to the working class. They claimed that their businesses were more respectable and suggested that the government should instead target illicit business like gambling houses. Unlike the working class, they proactively showed willingness to collaborate with city officials by developing, as Shah notes, “a series of resolutions intended to ‘remove the causes of complaints which have been made recently against the Chinese.’” They encouraged city intervention by inviting outside officials to further regulate those members of the community who appeared not to abide by those standards. The intraracial divide also justified and encouraged city intervention as Chinese middle class merchants attempted to categorize and separate themselves from the negative stereotypes projected on their entire racial group by defining the “bad immigrants” and the strategies that were needed to “deal with” them.
Intraracial separation was not unique to Chinese communities. Black migrant women were also compared to the White middle class standard, which was also upheld by members of the Black middle class, including, as Carby notes, Jane Hunter, a leading Black female activist. According to Carby, both Hunter and Kellor held “fears of a rampant and uncontrolled female sexuality; fears of miscegenation; and fears of the assertion of an independent Black female desire that has been unleashed through migration,” categorizing Black migrant women as morally inferior within the Black population itself, as well as in the city’s population as a whole. Hunter took Kellor’s three recommendations to alleviate the situation of Black women in urban area, running “controlled system of lodging houses,” and sending her girls to “training schools.”
Hunter was a middle class Black woman who positioned “herself as a part of the Black bourgeoisie,” thus separating herself from members of her own race, including many Black migrant women. She dominated over working class Black girls who migrated to the city and stayed in lodging houses, utilizing forms of matriarchal control. Hunter imposed upon the girls a moral code that defined strict boundaries of respectable sexual behavior. She condemned dance halls, imposed “hyper surveillance such as ‘lurking in the hallways to eavesdrop on their telephone calls and marching off into the night accompanied by the police to have their lovers arrested.’” She justified the surveillance as a prerequisite to the redemption her association provided the girls for their moral vices. Nonetheless, Hunter’s bourgeoisie morality legitimized the policing and regulation of Black female sexuality as a whole, making all Black women “the primary targets for the moral panic about urban morality.” Within the Black and Chinese communities, the middle class got to define what is respectable behavior and suppress working class behavior. The “immoral” behavior of the working class was seen as a threat to the progress of the race. The class divide within one race acted as a surveillance system that legitimized state control over these populations.
Governments and their apparatuses are often too quick to expand control and surveillance, and too slow to realize the systematic racism and class struggles certain members of their population face. Chinatown was inhabited by a variety of people, but health officials perceived it through a racialized lens and thus chose to only investigate the areas that yellow bodies inhabited. There was also frequent police extortion, a marked absence of city services, and limited access to healthcare in Chinatown. Chinese immigrants were not born “diseased” –– but they were forced to suffer through the symptoms of systemic barriers. On the same note, throughout the late 19th century and beyond, white supremacy also set Chinese immigrants back. In 1887, a white working class mob threatened to torch Chinatown in a riot. The 1882 “Chinese Exclusion Act” disenfranchised Chinese immigrants and excluded them from many economic opportunities, forcing segregation upon Chinese bodies. The city of San Francisco completely ignored these events that further alienated Chinese immigrants and caged them to the alien Chinatown, making it impossible for them to move out and assimilate into white neighborhoods.
Black migrant women, like Chinese immigrants, were forced into certain housing areas, with their choices were often restricted to red light districts, and their career opportunities likewise limited. As Carby states on page 34 of Cultures in Babylon, “Between WWI and the onset of the depression, over 40% of white women workers but only 5% of Black women workers who entered the labor force obtained ‘clean work’” such as secretary or department store jobs. Hunter and Kellor ignored that some Black migrant women chose to become performers because it was the only way to achieve geographical mobility without having to buy train tickets. Working for a vaudeville show or performing in a nightclub was also “a rare opportunity to do clean work and to reject the life of a domestic servant.” Hunter and Kellor nonetheless conditioned Black women into the social position of the domestic servant, even though that is not everybody’s path to redemption. Hunter and Kellor saw dance halls and clubs as dangerous places where young Black migrant girls can be deceived. But, as Carby points out, dance halls and night clubs were places where important racial mixing, economic mobility, and cultural renaissance were achieved. Additionally, performers usually earned much more money singing at clubs rather than at concert halls. And not to mention, Black, women blues singers, musicians, and performers were doing important cultural work as they are “the central figures in the emergence and establishment of an urban blues culture.” Women blues singers also performed political work, as blues was often used as a way for performers to express their social situation. It was a means of communication that depicted the Black urban life. These blues singers also provided a new way to think about social change, as well as inspiration for Black women to improve their living condition. They eradicated the limitations that Black women faced in these urban areas, such that they were not limited to being a domestic help. Some of the blues women were role models and activists, and experienced freedom on stage that a Black woman could not experience in other places. Many Black female singers who started singing in night clubs, like Nina Simone, became important civil rights activists. Despite all of this, racial equality activists largely ignored how Black women were able to accomplish cultural expression in performance spaces.
Chinese immigrants and Black migrant women were both victims of misperceptions and misrepresentations. Their social behaviors were only analyzed on a surface level by health officials, activists, and the middle class. These middle class commentators did not realize the economic and racial issues that were tied to Chinese immigrants crowding tenements, and Black women’s choosing to be performers. It is the reduction of behavior analysis that produced false knowledge about these populations and allowed for the pathologization of their behaviors. But it is exactly the close reading done by Shah and Carby on how these social situations came to be that unveils the truth behind the reduced surface, and provides us with a model through which we can further understand racial and social inequality in America.