The Formation of Asian American as a Racial Identity: A Critical Rhetorical Approach


Chinatown, San Francisco, c. 1890 (via)

by Linh Dich

Race, Nation, and Refuge: The Rhetoric of Race in Asian American Citizenship Cases
Doug Coulson,
Albany: SUNY Press, 2017. 318 pp

Race, Nation, and Refugee weaves together rhetoric, history, legal studies, and Asian American studies to examine how the formation of Asian American, as a racial identity, has always been intertwined with social and legal struggles for citizenship, belonging, and global-historical events. Doug Coulson’s project to interrogate Asian American identity formation through the lens of a critical rhetorical approach allows him to bring depth to legal cases that have informed how race has been defined, not only for Asian Americans but also in relation to whiteness and thus, America and what it means to be American. Following in the footsteps of scholars like Catherine Prendergast and Kent Ono, Coulson situates his legal case studies in the crosscurrents of broader cultural and global contexts that reflect what Michael Omi and Howard Winant termed “racial projects” that “connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning” (p. 56).

Coulson’s introduction establishes a needed critical rhetorical approach to law in order to better understand how language, in the context of legal performances, shapes “identity, power, and legitimacy” (p. xv). Rather than look at what symbols are, Coulson is interested in what they do. In other words, Coulson’s project examines how legal discourses and judicial opinions reflect and reproduce racial categories, starting with cases from the mid- to late nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth century. Such cases, Coulson argues, appeal to shared, external threats that function to include or exclude people and populations seeking naturalization. As Coulson goes on to show in his subsequent chapters, racial eligibility discourses for naturalization were inconsistent and at times even in conflict with previous judicial opinions and rulings. To demonstrate this, Coulson focuses on grammatical transitivity in legal cases to highlight how racial eligibility discourses construct “harmful threats” as a rhetorical appeal. This framework dominates his analysis for the rest of the book, which is organized as a chronological examination of key legal cases centered on “Asian” applicants seeking US citizenship.

Coulson establishes the broader historical context for the formation of “Asian” as a race in America by pointing to immigration patterns that created economic competition in places like California. After railroad construction in the late nineteenth century, the Chinese were no longer needed as cheap labor and their presence sparked the representational production of the “Yellow Peril” stereotype as a force and population threatening to the United Sates. Within this context, Coulson examines legal cases that highlight Asian racial formation as a highly contested legal definition that also hinges on the formation of whiteness.

By examining cases such as Ozawa v. United States (1922), Coulson underscores the challenges and inconsistency of using race as a legal method for determining naturalization. To this point, some legal discourses depended on skin color as a standard for naturalization, while other judicial opinions considered “European” ideals, standards, and values to decide whether an applicant was “white” enough to be naturalized (p. 23). Such judicial opinions show how the phrase “free white people” became a clear referent in determining naturalization, but the meaning of this phrase has been subject to interpretation throughout US legal history.

In the remaining chapters, Coulson applies his transitivity theory to specific court cases to demonstrate how transitivity as a rhetorical strategy in legal language practices has shaped the perspectives of others and impacted court rulings. For example, in chapter 2, Coulson examines the case United States v. Thind (1923), in which Bhagat Singh Thind and the courts argued the meaning of “free white person” as a critical component for naturalization status. Indeed, what this and other cases demonstrate, as Coulson claims, is that the legal system’s use of racial classification to determine a person’s legal status was inconsistent and intentionally exclusive of populations deemed unruly. The use of transitivity helped developed categories of people who were raced and thus unfit for citizenship, which contrasted with whiteness as an indication of one’s potential for being accepted as a citizen.

Ultimately, Coulson’s book suggests that racial eligibility discourse can be studied through linguistic features, specifically through the lens of grammatical transitivity that functions to align threatening imaginaries with racial groups. In fact, such use of grammatical transitivity to amplify external threats raises questions about how representations of others continue to influence our current understanding of race. By examining significant court cases around naturalization and citizenship, Coulson provides a linguistic methodology for understanding racial formation in legal contexts. But just as important is Coulson’s ability to historically situate racial formation as a continuing legal development. Such work has implications for scholars studying more current legal cases inflected by racialized discourse and issues.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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