Perhaps because editors thought it would be appropriate to print a full obituary on Labor Day weekend, I only became aware today that historian, laborer, novelist and activist Alexander Saxton passed over on August 20. He was 93, and “died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound” because, as daughter Catherine Steele wrote, Saxton believed that “the terms of his life were his to decide.”
Read Paul Vitello’s story about Saxton here.
Like fellow historian David Montgomery, Saxton became a scholar when McCarthyism ended his career as a novelist and a labor organizer. He was one of the first historians to think seriously about how racial whiteness coalesced as an identity for European-descended working-class men in California; and how the demonization of immigrants from the Asian diaspora by nativist elites served the politics of capitalism in the Western United States.
I read Saxton’s The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (University of California: 1975) in the late 1970s when I was in college. This book — assigned for Montgomery’s labor history survey at Yale – had a powerful effect on me, both intellectually and personally. I was just beginning to encounter the study of race in college; furthermore, I had never self-consciously grappled with being “white” as an identity position. Needless to say, the idea that whiteness was a category that had been shaped by history, politics and the institutionalized oppression of racial others was constructively startling to the young Radical as well.
Saxton’s achievements were preceded, matched and then lapped by a steadily growing number of scholars who built the fields of Ethnic Studies and Asian-American Studies at the end of the twnetieth century. Something called “whiteness studies,” which Saxton’s work also partly inspired, briefly promised to cohere as an interdisciplinary field in the 1990s, but seems now to have scattered itself into — and substantially enriched — other intellectual locations like women and gender studies, American studies, history and the social sciences.
Despite its age, Saxton’s work remains relevant and it is a crucial introduction to the study of race the United States. Both the Indispensable Enemy and Saxton’s subsequent book, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (Verso: 1991) retain their critical power even as hundreds of other monographs have improved on, elaborated, complemented and moved beyond Saxton’s arguments. Sketching briefly through both volumes, I think they have renewed resonance for students in a time when anti-immigrant politics and racist exclusions are once again being cynically deployed by the Tea Party leadership and their GOP fellow travelers to mobilize working and middle class white voters on behalf of big business.
On a final note, Saxton’s decision to choose the time and place of his own death is admirable. Even more admirable is his family’s dignified decision to announce, rather than obscure, his suicide, and to make plain the reasons for it. In a day and age when all kinds of oppression are being presented as “freedoms” by the political right, this was a courageous choice.