On March 22, the University welcomed Chris Suh, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, to give a talk about his research and findings for his 2023 book: "The Allure of Empire: American Encounters with Asians in the Age of Transpacific Expansion and Exclusion.” The lecture was called “Between the ‘American Century’ and the ‘Asian Century’: Toward a New Paradigm for Understanding Racial Inequality,” with Jenny Factor and Sungkyung Cho co-hosting the meeting on Zoom. Factor and Cho are both candidates for doctorates in philosophy at Brandeis.

Suh’s book covers the first 40 years of the 20th century, combining three subfields in U.S. history. These subfields include U.S. imperial history, specifically the United States’ relationship between Japan and its colonies; immigration policy history expanding on how the U.S. became a “gate-keeping empire” and lastly, Asian American history. Suh specified that his research in Asian American history covers those of Asian ancestry in the United States and globally. 

“Like all books, my book is a product of its time,” Professor Suh said. “I was writing it in the late 2010s, and the early 2020s, where there was a lot of anxiety about whether U.S. international dominance was finally coming to an end.” He explained that the second half of the 20th Century was characterized by the United States’ Cold War victory against the Soviet Union, and that this victory gave the U.S. the foundation necessary to lead an “unipolar world order.” Suh referenced Henry Luce’s essay, “The American Century” to expand on this period of global dominance that the U.S. had built over the 20th century.

Suh explained that despite the U.S.’ past successes, the 21st Century has seen potential for Asian countries — given their rising economic, military and political power — to overtake the lead that the United States has held for the last century. He expanded on the Biden administration’s current foreign policy strategy in Asia, stating that it is “very much a resumption” of former President Barack Obama’s administration policy, known as “Pivot to Asia” and “Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific.” Suh said that the intent of these policies was to both reduce tensions in the Middle East after the Iraq and Afghanistan War and give the U.S. a way to enter “strategic alliances” with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand “in response to the rise of the [People’s Republic of China.]”

Professor Suh expanded on the history of tensions between the United States and the Pacific, specifying that they started long before former President Donald Trump’s administration in 2016. Many people lost focus of these pre-existing tensions in 2020 due to COVID-19: “We had not just the rise of anti-Asian hate, but more specifically, East Asian racism tied very closely with the idea that Chinese people were the carriers of the disease,” Suh recalled.

Suh connected these racial tensions in the United States with the accumulating worries about it losing global prevalence. He said that despite these threats to America’s unipolar order, no one is addressing the color line — or the racial divide — between predominantly white countries like the U.S. and its allied countries that also have a white majority, like Britain and Australia. Instead, the U.S. drew the color line between countries in the Pacific that are not predominantly white, such as Japan and South Korea. 

Additionally, Suh stressed that this distinction between the United States’ allies by race is a reminder that policymakers in history never thought of Asia as a “uniform monolith” and treated different Asian nations differently within their laws. He outlined the U.S.’ political relations with Japan and China to illustrate this dichotomy, starting with the Russo-Japanese War to clarify that hints of Japanese exclusion did not begin until the 20th century, whereas Chinese exclusion started in the 1880s. 

“When Japan started beating Russia, it was a problem for the whole world order,” Suh said. He specified that The Russo-Japanese War took place before Russia’s political revolution, meaning that the Russian imperial family was still tied to the rest of Europe’s leadership through shared bloodlines. Thus, other dominantly white European countries felt threatened by the Japanese.

However, Japan’s military success against Russia caused many U.S. intellectuals and politicians, like W.E.B Du Bois and former President Theodore Roosevelt. 

Roosevelt hoped that Japan’s success would continue and that it would take a stronger position among other countries around the Yellow Sea in tandem with the United States asserting itself in the Caribbean Sea: its pursuits in Latin America.

“Roosevelt is very specific about what he hopes Japan will do,” Suh said. “He hopes that the Japanese will show ‘no more desire for conquest of the weak than the United States has in the case of Cuba,’” Suh reiterated Roosevelt’s words. He explained that Cuba was a “protectorate” territory instead of a “colony” because the U.S. gave Cubans a degree of self-rule to an extent. Instead of directly ruling Cuba, Suh said the U.S. acted as a “big brother, paternalistic, imperial power.” According to him, Roosevelt wanted Japan to emulate the same type of leadership and uplift China.

Suh illustrated American society’s conflicting perspectives of Japanese and Chinese people through two political cartoons by Udo J. Keppler, “The Yellow Peril” and “A picture for employers. Why they can live on 40 cents a day, and they can’t.” The first cartoon depicts Russia as “a problem” because “it is unable to restrain its desire for the weak,” according to Suh. He said that Keppler used this cartoon to question whether Japan should have been labeled the “Yellow Peril” when Russia was persecuting minority groups like its Jewish and Polish populations. 

On the other hand, Suh showed Keppler’s “A picture for employers. Why they can live on 40 cents a day, and they can’t” to express the U.S.’ prejudice against Chinese immigrants. This illustration depicts a group of impoverished Chinese immigrants in an opium den and eating rats next to an American family in “normal household conditions,” according to the Library of Congress’ description.

“Keppler definitely saw the Chinese and Japanese [as a] different people even though they are both Asian.” Suh explained the early stages of American society forming different opinions of Asian countries, rather than drawing a racial line between itself and all countries in the Pacific. “Keppler, like most of his generation, began to rethink Asian people in more sophisticated ways,” he said.

Suh expressed that the U.S.’ geopolitical aims in the early 1900s reflected the nuances that American society was finding within these groups, which is why Japanese immigration was handled “much differently” than Chinese immigration was. He began to explain U.S. policy towards Chinese and Japanese people through the San Francisco School Segregation Crisis and the Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907. The San Francisco Board of Education’s segregation policy had Chinese students already attending a school separate from white students, and it wanted these provisions to include 93 Japanese students as well. According to Suh, this incident caused an “international crisis,” during which the Japanese government protested for the school board to rescind the order, which it did.

Suh explained that while the U.S.’ Gentleman’s Agreement is often taught as an instance of Japanese exclusion, that claim is “factually incorrect.” Suh explained that the first reason is the government under President Roosevelt refused to exclude Japanese immigrants in the same way it did Chinese immigrants, echoing the same sentiments shown through Keppler’s political cartoons. In addition, the U.S.’ agreement with Japan outlined that Japan would only allow people who are considered to be its “pride and joy,” to immigrate. This group included diplomats, students and merchants.

After World War I, relations between Japan and the United States were relatively more favorable than the U.S.’ relationships in the west. Suh emphasized that while the U.S. was trading peacefully with Japan and China, Germans were attacking American ships during their voyages in the Atlantic. President Roosevelt was still a strong supporter of Japan’s colonization efforts in Korea. He regarded Japanese people separately from other Asian populations because they were “colonizing Asians” who were “just as good as Americans” at colonization.

Suh asked when American society’s perspective shifted from offering “relative Japanese-Americans privilege” to them being treated no differently from other Asians. He  shifted the lecture’s focus from describing the background of the government’s inconsistent immigration policy to outlining where a decreasing lack of distinction between populations came from. 

“We see — starting in 1919, all the way through 1924 — a very serious collaborative relationship between white supremacists who hate Japanese immigrants and current immigrants who hate the Japanese empire,” he answered. 

To demonstrate this connection between white supremacists and current immigrants, Suh pointed to Valentine S. McClatchy. McClatchy was a newspaper publisher and an anti-Japanese activist who specifically feared that Japanese Americans would become “more powerful” than white settlers in the American west. According to Suh, McClatchy formulated an argument that makes him “look less racist than he actually is” because he was the first person to bring the Korean Declaration of Independence back to the U.S., and he gifted it to the nationalists trying to end Japanese colonialism. 

Since numerous Korean-Americans intended to return to Korea and resettle, they had “no qualms” in collaborating with anti-Asian immigration activists like McClatchy. McClatchy argued that Japan had a restrictive immigration policy just like the United States, and attempted to justify discrimination of Japanese immigrants because of it. In doing so, McClatchy “[embellished] the truth” because Japan’s immigration policy differed from the United States in terms of both “method and scale.” These ordinances differed because they were enacted to allow the Japanese local government to decide if Chinese immigrants can land at their respective ports, and they gave the government the right to issue passports in Korea because its people were colonized by Japan. Despite McClatchy’s inaccurate inflations, his arguments gained traction through other prominent figures like journalist Lothrop Stoddard. 

This perspective then informed the United States’ decision to authorize the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924, where “west coast senators” attached Japanese immigration exclusion to its pre-existing policies. 

However, Suh argued that the “Japanese allure” did not fade until the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 where “images of Japanese racial and sexual violence against the Chinese really reshaped the way that Americans think about the Japanese empire.” Suh added that it wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s that the full U.S. government matched the discriminatory policies that the “west coast racists” had been waiting for. 

“It’s really important to understand that just as the United States is enacting all of these racist laws and policies against people with Japanese ancestry, they’re completely shifting their position against those of Chinese ancestry,” Suh stressed. “This has everything to do with the fact that the United States is constantly searching and trying to secure allies who are not white — specifically in the Pacific world.”

Suh said that the U.S.’ continuous efforts to create allies in the Pacific caused a repeal of anti-Asian immigration laws in the 1940s and the 1950s. He said that many Asian people who were not Japanese — but victims of Japanese imperialism —  did believe that the U.S. was a “more inclusive” empire than Britain, France and Russia. This belief, Suh claimed, is why U.S. educated Asians and Asian Americans “play a really important role in securing U.S. relations with Asian allies.” Suh thinks that many Asian Americans are more likely to “tolerate the U.S. empire” because they have differing thoughts regarding the PRC’s role in Asia.

“This version of interracial collaboration is not about dismantling racial inequality,” said Suh. “It’s about modifying racial inequality so there would be Asian partners of the United States empire in both geopolitics as well as in Asian life.” 

This lecture was the second to last installment of the University’s Mandel Center for the Humanities and the English Department discussion series Challenging Racial Knowledge. This speaker series, according to its website, “seeks to foster expansive cross-disciplinary conversations around race, with a particular focus on original and unique scholarly methodologies.”

The final event in the series is about “Translating Dancing” and will be hosted on April 19 with Rachana Vajjhala, an assistant professor of musicology at Boston University.