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'Did You Ever See a Chinaman?' | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

'Did You Ever See a Chinaman?'


Wangs Laundry, a “Western”-themed storefront at Great America theme park. (Rick Perlstein)

Even in a country that suffers from an official cult of optimism, where the dominant response to revelations that the entire nation is being spied upon is “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t have anything to hide,” where racism is supposed to be over because we’ve elected a black president even if the number of death threats against him reportedly dwarf those against previous presidents, it can useful to count victories, to record how far we have come—if only for the sake of our sanity.

A friend of mine recently showed me a page of a book she dug up, an ancient Rand-McNally Grammar School Geography from 1911. With voice-of-God confidence, it defines the various “races.” Indians? “Few of them have ever attained the stage of civilization. Agriculture and the arts are rudimentary, and letters and science are generally wanting.” (There is a regional slur, too: “South of the United States the majority of the population are still of Indian blood.”) Then the “Black or Ethiopan Race”—those words in bold. “The head is long and narrow, with projecting jaws” (projecting jaws?). “Among them are found the lowest savages; some have advanced [advanced!] to barbarism; but no people of the black race ever became civilized without help from some other race.”

Study questions: “Look among your acquaintances for persons who display, in the greatest perfection, one or more of the characteristics of the Caucasian race. What colors of hair and eyes are generally found in the same person? Which is more common, straight or wavy hair? What color of hair is most common. Did you ever see a Chinaman? Describe him…”

Did “you” ever see a Chinaman? If you are reading the book you are are, definitionally, not a Chinaman.

It’s an old book, granted. But not innocent because of that fact: it is, after all, a grammar school book, which means that it shaped the world-pictures of grownups for generations later—for instance, the respondents to a Newsweek poll around the time of the 1963 March on Washington. “I don’t like to touch them,” one said. “It just makes me squeamish.” “It’s the idea of rubbing up against them,” said another. “It won’t rub off, but I don’t feel right either.” Majorities thought black people “laugh a lot,” tend to have less ambition” and “smell different.” When I was a kid my parents had a book in their library called Training You to Train Your Dog (1965). It observed that everyone knew people with dark skin shared an “excitable nature.” QED.: “If this be true, there is no reason why color of coat and pigmentation should not affect dogs as well.”

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People aren’t like that any more, or mostly. They’re also not like this. Imagine you’re a man applying for a traveling sales job in 1964. This September Ig Publishing will be coming out with a new edition of Vance Packard’s book on privacy, The Naked Society, which came out that year; I’ve written a new introduction. In the book, Packard witnessed the following stunning colloquy between a polygraph operator and said job applicant:

“Ever fired for cause?”

“‘Never.”

“Ever drink to excess?”

“I’ve been loaded a few times, but I guess that’s not ‘excess,’ so I’ll say no.”

[…]

“Have you ever done something that you are really truly ashamed of?” Bill shook his head. My guide whispered, “That question will sometimes smoke out the homosexual.”…

Bill was unharnessed…. The examination seemingly was over, and Bill was looking for his hat. Then Mr. Probe said pleasantly, “Bill, one more question before you leave. There is nothing personal or offensive about this, but because of the kind of business you are going in and the fact you have been in the summer theater work, I think I should ask it. Are you inclined to be a homosexual?”

Bill looked startled. He said, “No.” But the question so unsettled him that he felt compelled to explain his situation. “I have of course been surrounded by them in my work in the theater in the MIdwest, and I’ve been exposed to this a lot in some of the bohemian areas where I’ve liked, and I have been approached. But the answer is no.” Mr. Probe didn’t explain why sexual status had any significant relevance to the job for which Bill was applying.

And that, today, is unimaginable.

Are we out of the woods? Hell to the no. Yesterday I accompanied a group of 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys to Great America, the theme park halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. Among the things those kids could have learned that day, in addition to the fact that the Raging Bull roller coaster features a 208-foot first drop and top speed of seventy-three miles per hour but is really not all that scary after all, and that there are places in the world where a single cup of Coca-Cola costs five dollars, is that if they ever see a Chinaman, they can infer that he probably runs a laundry, and doesn’t quite grasp English grammar.

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