A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South
By Stephanie Hinnershitz (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2017, 296 pp., $39.95, hardcover)
In “A Different Shade of Justice,” Stephanie Hinnershitz details the struggles for equality by ethnic Asians in the American South. For more than a century, Asian laborers and (more rarely) merchants who moved to the Southern states encountered incidents of legal discrimination. Hinnershitz uncovers an archive of legal cases in which Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian and Vietnamese ancestry encountered and fought injustice.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first details the property restrictions in Southern states such as Florida and Louisiana. Hinnershitz’s second chapter deals with school segregation. It centers on the case of Martha and Berda Lum, the two children of a Chinese immigrant merchant in Mississippi’s Delta region who were forbidden entry to the local white school in the 1920s, in a case that ultimately went up the U.S. Supreme Court. As Hinnershitz describes it, “Although Gong Lum would not win his case, here was a ‘Chinaman’ who challenged segregation through the legal system and accidentally became involved in the racial politics of the South.”
Her next chapter contrasts two very different cases where Asian Americans were prosecuted for intimate contact with white women. In the case of Fortunato Annunciato, a Philippine American yo-yo expert accused of touching a white teenager in 1930s Atlanta, his trial took place amid a wave of Southern paranoia about rape of white women. Two decades later, Han Say Naim, a Chinese sailor in Virginia, married a white woman, Ruby Lamberth, a marriage the courts refused to recognize. The final chapters cover recent decades, after the Civil Rights Movement and the 1965 immigration law.
Hinnershitz deserves praise for unearthing these different stories of discrimination and the Asian Americans who opposed it, in some cases displaying great courage. The chief difficulty of her book is her tendency to oversell her conclusions. In her opening pages, (pp. 3) she declares, “Similar to African Americans, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans, and later Vietnamese Americans and Indian Americans faced legal and social discrimination under Jim Crow and its aftereffects. Like African Americans, they often used the courts and advocacy organizations to fight for justice(.)” Well, no they didn’t, not really. Southern African Americans faced systemic legal exclusion from public institutions, a system maintained not only by all-white juries and courts but by lynching and other acts of terrorism. Despite episodes of prejudice, Asian Americans in the South managed to operate businesses with white clientele. Asian students attended public and private universities. Asian Americans with birthright citizenship were not blocked from voting. In the cosmopolitan cities things were even more open. In New Orleans, the Nisei Hinata sisters taught in white public schools in the 1930s. Hinnershitz fails to discuss the most glaring episode of anti-Asian discrimination, in the form of the movement in Louisiana during 1945 to prevent Japanese Americans from in the War Relocation Authority camps from resettling in the state.
Meanwhile, Hinnershitz goes too far when she says that cases brought by Asian Americans “paralleled, and in some cases anticipated, the landmark African American civil rights cases of the twentieth century.” (pp. 20). There is little evidence that African Americans were inspired or aided by such legal efforts. To her credit, Hinnershitz notes (pp. 21) that Asian Americans attempted to distance themselves from “blacks” or “coloreds,” knowing the repercussions of being identified as either in the South. Yet in explaining the white paranoia over interracial rape that surrounded the 1932 Fortunato Annunciato case, Hinnershitz unaccountably fails to mention the influential case of the Scottsboro Boys, who had been arrested just months before for allegedly raping two white women.
Despite its flaws, Hinnershitz’s work enriches our understanding of the place of Asian Americans in Southern life. It deserves to be read by a broad range of scholars and policymakers.