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Power, Cruelty, and Race in “White Borders”

Power, Cruelty, and Race in “White Borders”

In the short story “The Dog of Tithwal”, by Saadat Hassan Manto, the titular dog’s stomping grounds are bisected overnight by the newly created border separating India and Pakistan. While the dog doesn’t realize anything has changed, the soldiers on either side become increasingly paranoid that the mutt is a spy, with ludicrous and tragic results. That’s to be expected: borders are a fiction imposed on reality. They can’t help but lead to horrors.

With his new book, White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, Reece Jones explores the tragic, ludicrous, and endlessly violent creation and maintenance of America’s borders. These borders, as Jones shows, are both lines and states of mind. The border has never just defined political geography. The border is the relentless program of white supremacy that controls who gets to be an American, and who doesn’t. 

Jones, the author of several other searing books on how borders lead to violence and create misery in the name of security, takes a truly radical approach to this telling of American history: dry, restrained, and straightforward. There is little editorializing, but there is little need for it. A telling of the facts tells a clear and unsettling story. 

It might not surprise many readers that immigration laws in the United States have always been rooted in overt racism. After all, the country’s borders were constantly moved westward, wave after overlapping wave that destroyed existing nations like a blood-red tide. 

The final act of border creation was the ginned-up war against Mexico, started under transparently false pretenses and waged with horrible fury. The war—which Ulysses S Grant called “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”—greatly expanded the territory of the United States. In doing so it also created another fiction. 

The fiction was that this newly-held land was “American”, and belonged to “Americans,” regardless of the reality on the ground. Laws were passed to enforce the rights of white settlers to find gold, claim water, and to live and work, essentially, wherever they pleased. (Of course, these laws favored rich whites more than poorer workers, but poor whites still saw the gains of these lawas over everyone else.) 

One aspect of this history which isn’t told anywhere near enough is the constant aggression against people from East Asia, especially from China and Japan. These settlers had been coming to California in fairly small numbers for years, and the numbers started increasing when the railroads were being built. The increase in workers from China led to an explosive backlash of punitive laws against them. 

This is where the straightforward storytelling style Jones employs works to perfection. By laying out law after law—ordinance after ordinance—Jones shows how the violence and discrimonation against the Chinese was never an aberration, but rather a feature of Americanization. In one table, he lays out over over 20 laws passed just against the Chinese in a 30-year period in California alone. 

“An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition With Chinese Coolie Labor,” one example cited by Jones, charged taxes on Chinese people working in fields other than rice, sugar, tea, and coffee. San Francisco ordinances banned Chinese people from city hospitals and their children from public school. One ordinance, the “Anti-Queue Law” threatened arrest to any Chinese man who didn’t cut off their braid. While that was ruled ultimately unconstitutional, it’s initial enactment showed that, from the beginning, cruelty and mockery was the name of the game. 

But Jones doesn’t just show the beginning. It would be an easy relief for some readers to shudder at the excesses of the past while remaining a safe distance. Jones demonstrates, however, that these laws continued, and continue, into the present day. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was renewed by the Geary Act in 1891, which authorized its renewal every 10 years. This continued into the 1940s, when everyone realized that it was awkward to ban Chinese people when we were allies against the Japanese empire. This didn’t fully end the “Asiatic Barred Zone” (1917), but it was a start. 

That is not the distant past, and immigration and race obviously continue to be an animating force of American politics. While Donald Trump’s campaign was a cocktail of overlapping toxicities, the primary force of it was a rejection of the attempt to redefine “American” as anything other than white.  

Perhaps Jones’s greatest contribution is to show the forces that really drove the Trump campaign. Modern anti-immigration hysteria is a logical extension of America’s history, but there’s a reason why it rears its head in public in an era where overt racism is considered declasse. 

Jones traces the movement to a handful of people in overlapping groups, funded by the impossibly rich recluse Cordelia Scaife May. The groups, all part of what is known as the Tanton Network (after energetic organizer and racist Michigan opthamologist John Tanton), started out as a fringe and slowly gained clout, helping to promote anti-immigration politics and supporting more and more extreme politicians. 

The people who were members of these groups are a rogue’s gallery of racists and hyper-nationalists (which, in this case, are the same thing). The network is what connected Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller to Jeff Sessions. It’s where the “ideas” behind Trump were formed. And when that snarling carnival barker burst onto the scene, selling their brand of anger, they found their tribune. 

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The ubiquitous chant of “Build The Wall”, which, along with grim threats and slapstick aggression, was the hallmark of every Trump rally before and after his election. But while there was the desire to build a physical wall, it was more of an idea. The wall was more metonymy than mortar; it was the belief that anyone who wasn’t a “Real American” should be shut out, locked up, or suppressed. It was a paranoid, angry incantation. The wall is fear and hatred made concrete.  

What’s perhaps most interesting in Jones’s book is how much of the modern movement started out as an extension of the ecological awakening in the 60s and 70s. Fear of pollution easily mutated into a Mathusian nationalism, with sick fears that more immigrants will lead to more filth. Immigrants, as they had been portrayed since the dawn of history, were filled with diseases and were bringing trash. We had to shut the borders to protect ourselves. 

Trump was no environmentalist, but he tapped into the same ideas. He and the Fox ilk continue to do so, with luminaries like Ted Cruz blaming refugees for spreading COVID, a charge that is factually incorrect and morally abhorrent. It is easy to see how, as the realities of climate change become undeniable—even while the causes are covered up—white supremacy will turn into more overt eco-fascism. We need to keep white America safe from the hordes, stealing the rest of our water. Thus will history continue. 

In the end, Jones shows that borders are ideas. Much of this nation’s history has been trying to define what it means to be an American. While there never has been (and maybe never will be) one answer, for many, it means “not Mexican” and “not Chinese” and frankly white. That is the idea that the border, and all the attempts to control it physically and mentally, is meant to protect. 

Borders are fictions. They are imaginary lines drawn on maps, but they cut apart people’s lives. They shoot through the landscape like whirling blades, tearing apart families, shattering dreams, and bisecting the fortunate from the miserable. The wall, as much as it was built, is ruining floodplains and destroying habitats, making it clear that this is an arbitrary line drawn over indifferent geology. It’s an imposition. It’s a fiction. But as Jones makes clear, it is a fiction for which some will kill, and because of which many others will die. 

White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall
By Reece Jones
Beacon Press
Published October 12, 2021

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