John Dewey’s Century-Old Thoughts on Anti-Asian Bigotry

John Dewey’s Century-Old Thoughts on Anti-Asian Bigotry

Charles F. Howlett

(Reprinted with permission from the History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/179923)

Whether or not one agrees with Pulitzer-prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter’s observation that the famous philosopher John Dewey’s “style is suggestive of the cannonading of distant armies: one concludes that something portentous is going on at a remote and inaccessible distance, but one cannot determine just what it is” or the noted Harvard pragmatist, William James, who opined that his writings are “damnable; you might even say God-damnable,” it remains hard to ignore Dewey’s social and political views regarding American attitudes toward Asian Americans. After all, Dewey was more commentator than philosopher in many respects.  The organization Stop AAPI Hate identifies 3,800 reported events of anti-Asian hate incidents in the US over the past 12 months (a total that represents a fraction of all such events).

A century ago, John Dewey commented on the issue of race prejudice in the wake of another global crisis — the aftereffects of World War I. Today, we are experiencing another world crisis, COVID-19, and there are similar parallels when it comes to how we are treating our Asian American citizens.  The global pandemic that has consumed and overtaken our lives has led to a fresh wave of hatred against those of Asian descent but particularly Chinese Americans. The recent attacks at massage parlors in Atlanta and random assaults on the streets of New York and other cities are stark reminders of what can happen when people feel confined, angry, and compelled to blame someone else for their own current predicament. Scholars at Cal State San Bernardino estimate that in 2020, attacks against Asian Americans increased by one hundred and fifty percent from the previous year, a trend which seems to be intensifying in 2021.

The current spate of hate crimes and prejudice against those of Asian descent is particularly worrisome but should not come as a complete surprise. We have a long history of nativist resentment towards those who do not look Western European. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1885 killing of twenty-eight Chinese coal miners by a white mob in Rock Springs, Wyoming, The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, and most famously, the establishment of Internment Camps during World War II, which witnessed Japanese American citizens being torn from their homes and jobs on the West Coast under the pretext of national security (measures not imposed on Germans or Italians in other parts of the country), are just some examples of how Asian ethnic groups have become targets at moments of national tension.

As he was America’s most noted philosopher of the day, Dewey’s post-World War I trip to Asia remains instructive.  Fresh from a two-year sabbatical to the Far East from 1919 to1921, Dewey returned to resume his duties at Columbia prior to his retirement in 1930. He had been battered and intellectually bruised by his former student, Randolph Bourne, who soundly criticized him for supporting America’s entry into the war without carefully thinking about its associated consequences. Indeed, the resulting petty bickering at the Treaty of Versailles and failures to implement all of Wilson’s Fourteen Points resulted in Dewey issuing his own public apologia, “The Discrediting of Idealism.” He heartily welcomed this needed hiatus when invited to the Far East by a number of his former Chinese students at Teachers College—he was encouraged, especially by Hu Shih, to present his ideas on progressive education to coincide with the wave of nationalism and modernization as China emerged from its feudalistic past.  

The two years he spent, first lecturing in Japan for six weeks and then teaching and lecturing at the University of Nanking and other colleges in China while traveling about the countryside during the remainder of his sabbatical, gave Dewey a newfound appreciation for the Chinese and their culture. While he found Chinese thinking difficult to penetrate he was uplifted by their willingness to entertain certain aspects of Western democracy and industrialization.  

But what he did not count upon when he arrived back in his own homeland was the virulent xenophobic nationalism that had surged in his absence. Symptoms included the Red Scare of 1919, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, rural suspicions of expanding urban centers, and growing calls for a stricter immigration bill. The pinnacle of white Anglo-Saxon nativism was the 1924 National Origins Act, which imposed strict quotas to restrict immigration by those not from Northern Europe. The historian John Higham neatly captures the reasons for this nativist hostility in his excellent work, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism.

Naturally, Dewey had hoped that upon his return to the United States attitudes would be different. Unfortunately, it was not to be the case. Perhaps he should have seen this coming as a result of the war hysteria and anti-German feelings exhibited between 1914-1918. Although the war had discredited his own idealism, he still found it very difficult to understand why his own nation not only refused to abandon its wartime intolerance but focused it on new enemies; he viewed with dismay and disappointment the nativist mind-set sweeping across the American landscape in the new decade.

Determined to speak out and challenge Americans to try and understand their reasons for treating Asian Americans the way that they did, as well as satisfy Chinese doubts about the sincerity of Western intentions, he presented a powerful and moving speech in 1921. He then fine-tuned it with force and conviction for his American readership. It appeared in a 1922 issue of the Chinese Social and Political Science Review appropriatelytitled, “Race Prejudice and Friction.”

What is most interesting about this speech and why it needs retelling today is how Dewey defined race and prejudice. In this article he insisted that racial prejudice is a social disease, one that comes before judgment; it cuts short our thinking, relies simply on desire or emotion thereby forcing people to see things only in one light and slanting one’s beliefs. What is shocking to our customary habits, Dewey observed, is the manufactured creation of a mentality that nurtures intolerance and hatred.

The anti-foreign sentiment Dewey experienced upon his return led to his further exploration of the nature of the causes for such attitudes. In re-reading this essay I decided to dig deeper into the philosopher’s thinking only to find out to my surprise that he hit upon the obvious: what leads to such reaction is a current crisis. In our case, today, it is the pandemic; what exacerbates the attitudes we are witnessing currently against Asian Americans have been fanned by those who chose political expediency and blame rather than accepting responsibility for their own inactions from the very beginning of this crisis here in the United States.

Perhaps a good way to frame Dewey’s line of thinking and applying it to our present situation is based upon the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, a fallacious determination that, in Dewey’s own words, “since one thing happens after another it happens because of it.” Since things did not go well once the pandemic hit, Asian Americans have now become objects of blame, contempt, and anger. The same analogy can be applied to Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11. Indeed, the anti-foreign animus, which Dewey experienced after World War I, continues to resonate within a certain element of Americans who see only Darth Vader among those U.S. citizens of a different color skin, religion, and physical appearance. We can even make the same argument when it comes to immigration from south of our border. We doubt, however, that there would be the same reaction if a bunch of French-speaking Canadians crossed the St. Lawrence River, and invaded Maine; they might even encounter a friendly moose or two as they set up camp.

For Dewey race is an abstract idea and in terms of science is primarily a “mythical idea.” What we, as Americans, must learn from Dewey’s own words is that race “in its popular usage is merely a name given to a large number of phenomena which strike attention because they are different.” We must consider those factors complicating the relationships in our “melting pot” while paying close attention to those cultural aspects found in our “salad bowl.” When and if understanding of the mythical nature of race becomes common, it may counteract the tendency to regard ethnic Americans as strange, unwelcome, or threatening. More importantly, it may allow the embrace of Asian Americans as equal participants in Dewey’s ideal of democracy as a way of life, rather than a mere political construct.

And speaking of political realities, perhaps the most important lesson Dewey gave us in this speech and later published is that race, unfortunately, has been tied too closely to the notion of nationalism, which in turn has “become almost exclusively political fact.” Let Dewey’s words speak for themselves. “The political factor,” he wrote, “works in two ways. In the first place, the fact of political domination creates the belief in superiority on one side and inferiority on the other. It changes race prejudice into racial discrimination.” The second aspect, he argued, is one that engenders a “psychological effect of rule upon the dominant political group”—one that inevitably fosters arrogance and contempt. Seeking cover for its own missteps, certain public officials made all those of Asian nationality responsible for America’s misfortune—it was a calculated-driven attempt based on a tone of self-righteous superiority and indignation.

In reading Dewey’s words we can only wonder if anything has really changed about the true nature of American nativism: “The same man who is sure of the inherent superiority of the white race will for example hold forth on the Yellow Peril in a style which would make one believe that he believed in the inherent inferiority of the white race, though he usually tries to save himself by attributing fear to superiority in numbers.” Race prejudice, Dewey maintained throughout his life, is nothing more than an instinctive dislike and dread of what is different. It is a prejudice “converted into discrimination and friction by accidental physical features, and by cultural differences of language, religion, and, especially at the present time, by an intermixture of political and economic forces [just think today of the political and economic consequences of our current pandemic].” Need Dewey to have said more?

Yet Dewey’s philosophy was not so much about ideas in and of themselves but how they could work out our common social problems. Civic or public involvement captures his philosophical view of democracy in action. A democracy is only as good as the people who make it, apart from the political structure in place, he once proclaimed in The Public and Its Problems. What he sought to do in his writings and speeches was offer a method of inquiry for revising those ideas preventing people from understanding exactly which social and political problems required thought and action, which were necessary for remediation and correction. He was truly a public philosopher whose works were aimed for audiences outside of the academy—an important virtue that has rapidly declined over the years.

By applying his own method of inquiry upon his return to America, he recognized the critical importance of getting at the root of racial prejudice and, in his case, how we treat Asian Americans. What needed correction, then and now, is how those “who have claimed racial superiority and who instigated and used race prejudice to maintain their state of superiority” were allowed to get away with it and why education in schools lost sight of its democratic/civic purpose. How is it possible, Dewey asked, to separate the governing constructs of democracy from the social and cultural patterns of the way we live?

So, what did Dewey suggest? Dewey argued that the nation needed to do a better job to promote a clear understanding of foreign cultures. Despite global communication networks available to encourage understanding, we still remain ill-informed and even less willing to work on this proposition individually. Many of us receive information passively with the goal of being given certainty of knowledge and guidance on how to act on it, or selectively with the goal of confirming pre-existing prejudice (problems Dewey certainly recognized). What still persists is an ongoing reluctance to examine critically and question vigorously what needs to be understood for overcoming long-held misconceptions and built-in biases regarding cultural differences.

But perhaps more importantly, Dewey did provide a vital clue in his own time that continues to resonate and make sense. What society has never fully come to grips with is dealing with the problem of what he called, “acute nationalism.” To solve animosity toward those of non-Western European heritage, we need in Dewey’s words a “degree of political internationalism.” In other words, what he argued a century ago was that the biggest obstacle to cultural assimilation is actually not one of race but a reluctance to adjust to different types of culture. This can only occur when a new state of mind is created that is favorably inclined to encourage fundamental changes in political and economic relationships—one which breaks down those cultural barriers currently steering many white or native-born Americans to blame and anger over a supposed “Chinese virus” instead of the embrace of shared humanity in fighting the global pandemic. An appreciation and willingness, Dewey insisted, which would forego nationalistic predilections by entrenched political systems existing solely for the preservation of the status quo. Indeed, in his concluding words, he warned his readers that “the problem of the mutual adjustment to one another of distinct cultures each having its roots deep in the past is not an easy one at the best. It is not a task to be approached in either an off-hand or a querulous mood. At the present moment the situation is not at its best; we may hope in fact that it is at its worst.” Unfortunately, despite what he observed and what he encouraged a century ago, the way we are treating our Asian American citizens today would not make Dewey very happy. His message still remains unheeded.    

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