Transformed Color

Transformed Color

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 19-20

The Mississippi Chinese by James W. Loewen, with a preface by Robert Coles. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1988, second edition. Paper, xii, 257 pp. $8.95.)

Whatever has set off the South from other societies, set off its politics, social order, its culture even including its literature and music, has been owing to the black presence, and its subordinated status to the white race. Consequently, what to do with, how to think about, other peoples, ones neither clearly black nor white, has always been a distracting question, wherever such peoples appear. The pre-Civil War division between free persons and slave implied at least the potential of there being a class between or beside the two colors, but after freedom that possibility hardly existed; whites would not allow even some of their own offspring to have a separate status, like the “colored” of South Africa: it must be black or all-white.

But other peoples there have long been. Perhaps as widely known as any, despite their small number, are the Chinese of the Mississippi Delta, and that because of fumes Loewen’s book, which first appeared in 1971 and is now in a second edition, with a preface by Robert Coles, good photographs, and an afterword by the author that brings the story to date. It sparked a widely shown documentary film, a very instructive issue of Southern Exposure (July/August 1984), and other studies.

But as well, on the other side of their state, there are the Choctaw Indians, quietly (for the most part) living outside the currents of Mississippi history. Other Indian tribes and groups are about the region; one group of them, the Lumbees of Robeson County, North Carolina, and vicinity, is many times more numerous and every bit as interesting as the Delta Chinese. There is also a scattering of small groupings, whose origins seem more cloudy even than are those of the Lumbees and the Mississippi Chinese: twenty-six years ago, in the pages of New South, one of this magazine’s predecessors, the estimable Ira Kaye wrote of one such, the Turks of Sumter County, South Carolina.

In more recent days, other new groups have appeared, and with no mystery about their comings. The Cubans of southern Florida (unlike the long established ones of Tampa) arrived with verve and muscle. Other Hispanic and Asian peoples seem in small numbers to be everywhere about.

It is tempting to tender another contrast with South Africa. That mad country is obsessed with separateness, holding even Afrikaans- and English-speaking whites at a distance from each other, trying to hold each black tribe from the others, holding the Indians and the colored from everyone else, everybody pushed into an assigned and graded place. Our South, on the contrary, has wanted but one division and distinction–either white or black–and some inner social force drives other peoples one or the

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other way, unless they are Indians who stay on reservations.

So it has been with Jewish Southerners. Some of them resist, but blacks clearly have decided that Jews are simply white, differing from other whites no more than Catholics or Episcopalians differ from Baptists. By and large, save for a few social anachronisms, so have decided whites. And so, as Professor Loewen shows us, it has become with the Delta Chinese, and even more dramatically. When they first appeared, in the 1870s and 1880s, they were treated as Negros. By the 1970s, they were “white.” They had made the transition in a special way: by selling groceries to blacks.

How this happened Loewen, who is a sociology professor at the University of Vermont, tells authoritatively and well. I suspect many readers will, as I did, find its story of the Chinese mainly of interest as bring a prism reflecting sharper understanding of the situation of the Delta’s blacks. Thus does the old division concentrate our thoughts!

One chapter in particular tells not only a lot about the Chinese but also about whites and blacks, about the United States and blacks, about the place of the poor of our country. It is chapter five, its title is “Opposition,” and Loewen regards it as his “most important single contribution to the theory of race relations.” Its conclusion can be briefly stated, though without doing justice to its merits. The argument is that the upper stratum of Southern society determines its values, including its racial norms and practices. Against the commonplace charge that discrimination, and worse, are the fault of poor whites, never of “good people,” Loewen stands resolute. “I was not trying to prove the lower class free of prejudice. Rather, I attempted to show that status pressures impinge upon the lower white strata from the white status structure.” In short, “racism originates in the upper class.” Whether or not this is a theoretical discovery, it is a clear-eyed observation; and whether or not it can be applied to other situations in other societies, Loewen makes the case convincingly that it is a truth about our South.

As benefits of one of the protegee of that great and good man, the late Ernst Borinski (Loewen taught for a number of years at Tougaloo College), Loewen has written a book not only sensitive and keen but concerned for the humanness of its subjects. The book is sound social science. It is not a book one cannot put down, but it is one that rewards the reader who keeps at it.

LESLIE DUNBAR is the book review editor of Southern Changes.