One of the core things uniting almost all the ethnic groups featured in the book is the core role they played in (literally) building the nation. Of course, this is a well-known fact about immigrant groups in America, and part of the mythology of the American nation. However, Takaki diverges from conventional accounts of ethnicity and labor in his emphasis on the struggle different ethnic groups faced to achieve decent conditions. Takaki shows how this struggle was waged against a (usually white) class who profited immensely from the labor of ethnic populations while subjecting them to unconscionable exploitation. According to Takaki, while it is true that the US’s ethnic populations built the nation, this is not a romantic, inspiring story, but rather a brutal history of exploitation and injustice.
To begin with, many of the workers who came to the US and who contributed the most to building the nation did not even have the most fundamental of all human rights: freedom. Takaki shows that the unfreedom of American workers existed on a scale. Those who were least free and most exploited were enslaved black people who were born with slave status and, in most cases, had no chance of seeing freedom in their lifetimes. Indentured servants, meanwhile, were exploited in a similar manner to enslaved people with the distinction that their servitude was usually only for a fixed period. After serving their time, indentured servants were then free to engage in wage labor.
Yet Takaki also shows that in many cases, the conditions of wage laborers—while always fundamentally different than the dehumanizing brutality of slavery—were so bad that in certain ways they resembled a form of slavery. This was particularly true of those who engaged in domestic service and sex work, because these involved the “exploitation of the whole person.” Indeed, Takaki argues that Chinese women brought over as indentured servants and forced to work as prostitutes were “virtually slaves,” while quoting a Jewish garment worker who also claimed that she and the other women in the factory were treated “like slaves.”
Takaki illuminates the terrible conditions of workers in order to de-romanticize the image of different ethnic groups building the American nation. Yet he also shows that members of these groups did not simply allow themselves to be exploited; at every step of the way, they fought back. Takaki’s detailing of this struggle means that A Different Mirror is as much a history of the labor movement in the US as it is a chronicle of “multicultural America.”
Perhaps the most important tactic of struggle Takaki identifies is strikes. Throughout the course of American history, workers of different ethnic groups used strikes as a tactic to achieve just working conditions. In some cases, these were formally organized by established unions. However, Takaki also points to many examples of informal strikes, including those by enslaved people for whom refusing to work was a life-risking activity.
Another way in which Takaki de-romanticizes the story of different ethnic groups building the nation is by showing how this construction was often a brutal, destructive endeavor. The colonization of the continent involved seizing land from Indigenous people, destroying their ways of life and murdering huge percentages of their population. Meanwhile, the expansion of US territory—for example in the border war with Mexico over Texas—involved similarly merciless behavior. Takaki notes that “American soldiers themselves documented the atrocities committed against the Mexican civilian population”—this included killing and raping Mexican civilians for their “own amusement.”
Despite all the ways that Takaki de-romanticizes traditional narratives about labor and the construction of the nation, he also emphatically honors the work, struggle, and achievements of all those who participated in this enormous project. Yet he is also keen to show that an organized labor movement is vital to ensure that the profits of workers’ toil—and particularly workers from marginalized ethnic groups—do not remain in the hands of a white elite who grow rich from exploitation.
Labor, Profit, and the Building of the Nation ThemeTracker
Labor, Profit, and the Building of the Nation Quotes in A Different Mirror
The planters had come to a crossroads. They could open economic opportunities to white workers and extend political privileges to them, but this would erode their own economic advantage and potentially undermine their political hegemony. Or they could try to reorganize society on the basis of class and race. By importing and buying more slaves, they could reduce their dependency on an armed white labor force and exploit workers from Africa, who could be denied the right to bear arms because of their race.
President Abbott Lawrence Lowell viewed the Irish favorably and highlighted Harvard's role in assimilating them into American society. “What we need,” he had explained earlier, “is not to dominate the Irish but to absorb them. We want them to become rich,” he added, “send their sons to our colleges, and share our prosperity and our sentiments.” In his opinion, however, such inclusionism should be reserved for certain groups. The "theory of universal political equality” he argued, should not be applied to "tribal Indians," "Chinese," or "negroes under all conditions, [but] only to our own race, and to those people whom we can assimilate rapidly." Lowell added that the Irish were unlike Jewish immigrants: they were Christian as well as culturally similar to Americans of English origin. The Irish could, therefore, become "so merged in the American people that they would not be ‘distinguished as a class.’”
Justifying this racial hierarchy, mine owner Sylvester Mowry invoked the images as well as language used earlier by slavemasters to describe the affection and loyalty of their slaves. "My own experience has taught me that the lower class of Mexicans…,” Mowry declared, “are docile, faithful, good servants, capable of strong attachments when firmly and kindly treated. They have been ‘peons’ for generations. They will always remain so, as it is their natural condition.”
But, like the enslaved blacks of the Old South, Mexican workers demonstrated that they were capable of defying these stereotypes of docility and submissiveness. Demanding self-respect and better wages, they repeatedly went on strike.
What enabled businessmen like Crocker to degrade the Chinese into a subservient laboring caste was the dominant ideology that defined America as a racially homogeneous society and Americans as white. The status of racial inferiority assigned to the Chinese had been prefigured in the black and Indian past.
Though they imported workers along with supplies, planters were conscious of the nationalities of their laborers. They were systematically developing an ethnically diverse labor force in order to create divisions among their workers and reinforce management control. Complaining about the frequency of strikes on plantations where the workers were mostly from the same country, plantation managers recommended: “Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit.”
In their demand for a higher wage, the strikers explained: "We have decided to permanently settle here, to incorporate ourselves with the body politique [sic] of Hawaii—to unite our destiny with that of Hawaii, sharing the prosperity and adversity of Hawaii with other citizens of Hawaii." Significantly, the Japanese were framing their demands in “American” terms. They argued that the deplorable conditions on the plantations perpetuated an "undemocratic and un-American" society of "plutocrats and coolies." Fair wages would encourage laborers to work more industriously and productively. The goal of the strike was to create "a thriving and contented middle class—the realization of the high ideal of Americanism."
For many Mexicans, the border was only an imaginary line between Mexico and the United States—one that could be crossed and recrossed at will. Living in El Norte, they created a Mexican-American world called the barrio.
In a letter to the NAACP, a soldier wrote: "I am a Negro soldier 22 years old. I won't fight or die in vain. If I fight, suffer or die it will be for the freedom of every black man to live equally with other races." Scheduled to be drafted into the army, a black youth declared: “Just carve on my tombstone, ‘Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man.’”
“There's one other great incident of humanity that I'm very familiar with, the three hundred years of slavery in my own country, where people for generations were not allowed to be free, subject to the dictates of another race. Held in bondage, forced to work, and forced to do what another person wanted you to do. And if you didn't obey, there were no laws against killing you and destroying your family. So I said, ‘As you talk, I see there's a close parallel between the history of my people in America and what's happened to the Jews in Europe.’”