Whose Frontier? the Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast in the 1920s

By Toy, Eckard | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Whose Frontier? the Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast in the 1920s


Toy, Eckard, Oregon Historical Quarterly


THERE WERE FATAL FLAWS in President Woodrow Wilson's belief that fighting a war against Imperial Germany in 1917 would make the world safe for democracy. The Great War of 1914-1918 had already set in motion events that would undermine Wilsonian idealism and overwhelm movements toward political and social reform. Even as the United States and its allies celebrated victory on November 11, 1918, hope and exultation dissolved into pessimism, materialism, and social conflict. While the United States and Japan gained prestige and international influence, World War I contributed to the collapse of European empires and spawned the Bolshevik Revolution. The millions of dead and displaced victims of war, revolution, and a deadly, worldwide flu pandemic further undermined international stability. Peace did not end conflict. American forces continued to conduct "Gunboat Diplomacy" in the Caribbean and China, U.S. soldiers fought against Bolshevik revolutionaries in northern Russia and Siberia, and U.S. Marines faced years of guerrilla warfare with insurgents in Nicaragua.

Americans had difficulty adjusting to their new role in world affairs. The suppression of dissent in wartime and the lengthy illness and political decline of President Wilson contributed to the postwar Red Scare and American rejection of the League of Nations. While international problems renewed concerns about unregulated immigration, a series of race riots, challenging economic problems, and growing labor unrest, including a General Strike in Seattle, added to the postwar anxieties at home. The inauguration of President Warren G. Harding in 1921 represented a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans, but it did not end the uncertainties. Prohibition, the automobile, and motion pictures spurred new social trends, challenged old moral codes, raised religious controversies, and spawned a series of culture wars in the "Roaring Twenties." A revived Ku Klux Klan exploited these discontents and grew rapidly into a large, nationwide movement during that decade. Unsettling as these factors were, the sudden death of President Harding in the summer of 1923, as rumors of personal and political scandals swirled about him, added another discouraging indicator of a nation seemingly adrift.

But there were countervailing trends. Significant strains of idealism persisted in the remnants of prewar progressivism and the movements for women's rights; and the prewar Social Gospel, though challenged, did not succumb fully to the pressures of religious fundamentalism in the 1920s. Early in the fall of 1923, as Congress debated the merits of a more restrictive immigration quota system and the exclusion of immigrants from Asia, the Institute of Social and Religious Research (1921-1934) approved a proposal for a Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast. Looking westward from New York City, Institute directors described the ambitious project as "the first unpartisan, scientific survey of the Oriental situation on the Pacific Coast" and called for a cooperative research endeavor stretching from British Columbia to southern California. Their goal was "to find all the facts, economic, biological, social, moral, religious, legal, and political, that condition the life of the Asiatic in America and his inter-relations with the American and Canadian people." (1)

The Institute's stated scientific goal was laudable, but the desire of the directors to use the Survey to reduce racial tensions conflicted with the social practices, cultural influences, and economic conditions of the early s and made the timing of the proposal questionable. Anti-Asian attitudes were commonplace, and facts alone were unlikely catalysts for change. Additionally, the perceived motivations of the Survey's eastern sponsors alienated potential allies on the Pacific Coast, and Asian Americans played only a minor role in organizing its administration. As Henry Yu writes in his highly praised study of the institutional and intellectual history of the Survey, the missionary-allied organizers and the social scientists conducting it were sometimes at odds but, together, represented "the historical transition from gentlemanly to institutional Orientalism. …

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