A learning experience: An obscure law puts immigration issue in perspective


“The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America” by Ben Railton, Ph.D.. published by the Palgrave Macmillan Pivot series, designed for digital copies and printed on demand, 85 pages, Available on e-read platforms including the Amazon Kindle edition ($16.50), Amazon hardcopy at $38.61.

Where to begin with this one?

For starters, you should know that Ben Railton will appear at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on Thursday, Nov. 21 between 5:30 and 7 pm to discuss his book on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a generally-unknown and ignored watershed law that has much to inform the hot topic of “illegal immigration.” He’ll bring copies of his book, “The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America.”

Railton is a well-known Island name. Arthur Railton, Mr. Railton’s late grandfather, wrote a definitive history of the Island and was the prime mover in the growth and development of the M.V. Museum, now an important Island community resource.

“I make a fair amount of appearances in connection with my books, but this opportunity to give one in a space connected to me through my granddad and my dad is a neat idea for me,” Mr. Railton, a professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University, said this week.

Why in the name of God, you may be asking, would I care about an obscure 130-year-old law? Fair question. I asked it myself. Having read Mr. Railton’s book, there are at least three reasons that you and I should care.

First, while we understand that the public discussion on immigration law is often dominated by those who make the most noise, not necessarily the most sense, we don’t often acknowledge how little we understand the factual narrative of the history of immigration.

Few of us know, for example, that public figures like Arizona U.S. Rep. Steve Montenegro and former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, wrapped in self-righteous claims that their progenitors “entered this country legally” are wrong, as Mr. Railton’s scholarship shows. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant immigration law in the U. S., and the first to target an ethnic group, he says. In fact, before 1921, there were no immigration laws to observe or flout, unless you were a prostitute, had a communicable disease, were a criminal under sentence or, of course, Chinese.

You just showed up a Ellis Island or wherever, gave your name, answered a few basic questions, and you were in.

Bottom line: the anti-immigrant “nation of laws” argument today is specious. Legality wasn’t an issue for Rep. Montenegro’s forebears or anyone else’s at the time.

Mr. Railton has written an 85-page book with three chapters that offer insights about what we can learn from the Chinese Exclusion Act, which acts in this book as a sort of pivoting fulcrum to look forward and backward in our immigrant history.

Chapter One defines the “legal” and “illegal” debate in historical terms. Chapter Two deals with diversity and multicultural aspects of America, and the third chapter deals with what has always been right in America and individual immigrant stories, both uplifting and cautionary tales.

The second reason we should care about a discussion of the Chinese Exclusion Act is the source of the information. Mr. Railton is in a vanguard of an overlooked resource of research scholars who are tailoring and submitting their work for public consumption.

In a conversation last year with Tony Horwitz on the popularity of his book on abolitionist John Brown’s pre-Civil War raid on the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the question arose about the growing popularity of historical non-fiction books.

Mr. Horwitz attributed the growth in the genre to an effort by academic scholars to satisfy the publishing requirements of academia and a growing national appetite to actually understand, to have true historical context, around present-day issues.

Mr. Railton artfully uses “The Chinese Exclusion Act” to frame our immigration policies as they actually were, as opposed to the various narratives ginned up by opposing sides of the current immigration spat.

Which brings us to the third reason why I care now about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880: I don’t know what’s true anymore. The thread of events and reasoning behind an issue du jour is instantly atomized by a hail storm of (mostly) electronically-delivered communication that quickly takes me to the “no mas” zone.

But now, aha, we have a sizable group of scholars who submit their research to close factual scrutiny and are willing to recast it in a form that mainstream readers can ingest and use. In the national interest, they should be encouraged to continue, it seems to me.

Mr. Railton seems to be enjoying his attempts to set the record straight. “We can connect with each other more communally. Yes, setting the record straight, highlighting histories and stories, that’s the primary focus.

“There is no single point that defines a perspective. We need to be better informed and see where we go from there. Most Americans are interested and just don’t know. We should separate them from the people who are misinforming and misrepresenting histories. So, yes, I am definitely trying to push back,” he said.

“I think both [scholarly and public] outlets broaden the scope of what we have to say,” Mr. Railton continued, noting that he began a daily blog (americanstudier.blogspot.com) three years ago that has impacted both his writing style and his acuity around public issues. “Writing a daily blog changed my writing style to a more democratic form of writing. This book would not have been within the scope of my thinking without the blog.”

Reading scholarly writing can be a dusty business and Mr. Railton has enlivened the discussion with droll and subtle wit. But make no mistake, it requires close reading, even rereading, to get it. The hook for me was that I was getting the straight skinny and getting more informed in the process.

Author’s Talk with Ben Railton, 5:30–7 pm, Thursday, Nov. 21, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. In conjunction with ongoing exhibit A Taste for the Exotic. $12; $8 for members. For more information, email kfuller@mvmuseum.org.

Nov. 22: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Arthur Railton is Ben Railton’s grandfather, not father.