Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Evolution of Race Relations in Antebellum California

D. Michael Bottoms’ book, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890, makes me angry. It is an interesting look at the evolution of race relations in 19th century California, engagingly written, in which Bottoms delves into social, legal and legislative analysis, demonstrating their importance to the evolution of racial constructs both separate of and in relation to each other. Despite Bottoms’ careful study, though, I'm angry at the injustices that my 21st century sensibility finds in this otherworld. With both hands quickly held up in supplication, I say that I know I am not to judge people then based on modern values. From the historian’s perspective, I understand that is a no-no. But from the human perspective, the one that feels the slings, humiliations and privations of the persecuted, I assert my right to fume. I shall now descend from my soapbox.

Bottoms is fuming too – it is easily discernible in his tone. That does not detract, however, from the success of his work. Rather, it lends to it a fellow-feeling of compassion with which his reader can identify. We feel the mortification of African Americans whose children the state repeatedly abuses with regard to their education. We are livid at the inhumanity of the treatment of the Chinese. His conclusion that California’s handling of the extensive racial diversity that made it unique in the antebellum era foreshadowed the way that the nation as a whole would handle the same challenges in the late 19th century and well into the 20th is well argued and worth considering.

Yet An Aristocracy of Color is not without its problems. Although California was a Mexican state until mid-century, Bottoms gives little more than lip service to the Hispanic population’s shifting position among the various races. His whole focus is almost exclusively on African Americans and the Chinese. Yet despite this laser focus, he periodically fails to provide details that would underscore his points. For example, he mentions the queue, that long pigtail that Chinese men wore, noting that white tormenters were encouraged to shave them off in an act that caused serious distress to their victims. Yet he does not explain why the queues are worn or why their loss is so emotionally destructive.

Similarly, while he notes several times that Chinese emigrants continue arriving in California, he does not pause to explain why they continue coming despite outright American hostility, few legal protections, and the degrading living conditions that await them. Surely those already in California, who clearly traveled back to China periodically and conducted business with their home country, surely they must have written letters home that conveyed the reality of their lives in California? So what was the situation in China that made America attractive despite all that? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Ultimately, however, these are minor dissatisfactions. In toto, Bottoms’s work is a remarkable look into Californians’ increasingly contortive efforts to maintain white supremacy in the face of a rapidly changing nation.

Bottoms, D. Michael, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890, Race and Culture in the American West, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.


  1. You raise a great point about the role of Californios in the story. Bottoms hints a little bit that their position went down later than his chronological scope. But indeed, that would make for a really interesting story as well, and one that would complicate this history even further. Maybe other scholarship covers that? Then again, Dan said that he had a hard time finding works about that story in California... Perhaps that would have added too much to the research needed? Great question.

  2. You have an interesting point about why did the Chinese continue to move to America even with the horrible rules and taxes trying to stop them. One would think that if you got a letter from a relative telling you the books were stacked against you making a decent life in America, you would not move across the Ocean. Wonder if there are any Chinese newspaper articles which discuss the laws and taxes which the Chinese must live by if they move to California. Also great post about your family's farm. Really interesting story and pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I agree this was a remarkable book. Good question about why Chinese immigration continued. I would suspect the circumstances are similar to Mexican farm workers in California today. This is back-breaking labor for low pay and the living conditions are pretty bad, but I guess it beats what is available in Mexico. I was surprised to read that Californios received equal status under the law at first in California--given some of the racial notions of the Mexican-American War on how the industrious Americans were entitled. This seems to go off track in California, however, with fights over the property of the Californios after the transition. My impression is many long established land claims were ignored.


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