Monday, June 8, 2009

Charlotte Brooks' "Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends"

Charlotte Brooks is an assistant professor of history and the co-chair of the Program in Asian and Asian American Studies at Baruch College, CUNY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California, and reported the following:
In one way, page 99 of Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends is not particularly representative of the book as a whole. Much of it consists of a 1939 quote from “My Day,” the newspaper column that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote for many years. In this particular column, Mrs. Roosevelt mentions a private social research organization’s report detailing the terrible housing conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 1939, racial segregation confined almost every one of the city’s 20,000 Chinese Americans to the overcrowded and terribly substandard neighborhood. Eleanor Roosevelt’s inadvertent leaking of San Francisco’s dirty little secret-­-that its biggest tourist attraction was also a slum­--prompted widespread soul-searching among white city residents, who eventually came to support the construction of a public housing project (albeit a segregated one) for Chinese Americans in Chinatown.

While page 99 thus focuses on a specific public relations disaster and its aftermath, it also hints at the central argument of the book: that white Californians’ view of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners was central to the residential segregation of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans before World War Two and to their increased integration by the 1950s. To white Californians, the Cold War changed the meaning and repercussions of discrimination against Asian Americans because so many whites equated them with Asians in Asia, where the U.S. was attempting to win hearts and minds and prove the superiority of capitalism.

Page 99 shows that attitudes towards Chinese Americans had already begun to shift by the late 1930s. The widespread support in San Francisco for a publicly-funded Chinese American housing project was extraordinary in a city with an almost century-long tradition of anti-Chinese activism. As the book shows, however, Mrs. Roosevelt’s column came at a crucial moment: Japan had invaded China in 1937, and white Americans, even in San Francisco, began to fear Japan’s ambitions and to express great sympathy for the beleaguered Chinese and their presumed surrogates, Chinese Americans. Page 99 thus highlights one instance of a common pattern: events overseas played more of a role in determining Asian American housing opportunities than did need or justice or the entitlements of citizenship.
Learn more about Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue