I wrote the letter because: (a) I had recently read three thought-provoking books about racism in America during the early years of the 20th century and (b) the magazine’s profile of Clarence Darrow overlooked an important and defining episode that checkered the man’s career.
The first book, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley, deals with Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, highlighting the central role of paternalistic racism in American decision-making.
In the summer of 1905, Roosevelt, seeking to extend American hegemony into Asia, sent a huge diplomatic legation eastward from San Francisco on the passenger ship Manchurian. It was headed by Secretary of War William Howard Taft and, as this was still the era of monarchies, decorated with Roosevelt’s 21-year-old daughter Alice, America’s own “princess.”
The three-month journey across the Pacific also included seven senators, 23 representatives, and about 40 aides, servants, and hangers-on. In the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s stunning victory over Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War—the first victory of an Asian (non-white) power over a European (white) power in modern history—Roosevelt wished to “show the flag” to Hawaiians and demonstrate authority to America’s Filipino subjects (referred to more than once as “Asian niggers” on the floor of Congress). The Philippines, after gaining independence from Spain in the Spanish-American War, was still in turmoil seven years later over its annexation by the U.S.
Roosevelt justified western control as necessary (what Kipling had called in 1898 the “white man’s burden”) because Taft, governor of the Philippines at war’s end, had assured President McKinley that “our little brown brothers” would need 50-100 years of close supervision “to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.”
The second book was Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. It deals with the reality upon which Chan’s character was based (real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana) and the racial implications of an intelligent Chinese hero in American fiction. I’ve already posted about it.
The third was David Stannard’s Honor Killing, an exhaustive, historical examination of Honolulu’s Massie Affair, a racially explosive case of alleged rape (1931) that led to a hung jury and the murder of one of the Hawaiian defendants (1932) by the mother and husband of Thalia Massie, a 21-year-old white woman whose rape story had failed to convince the jury.
Thalia’s father was the illegitimate son of Theodore Roosevelt’s brother; her mother’s grandfather was Alexander Graham Bell (even though Jill Lepore’s article stressed Darrow’s dedication to the oppressed, The New Yorker edited these facts out of my letter…for “space considerations”). Calling on wealthy friends, Thalia’s mother collected enough money to hire Clarence Darrow, whose defense of the accused murderers included creating a fictional scenario that attempted to prove temporary insanity.
The shorthand version of what happened is in my letter.
Most stories of racism in America are about African Americans. This one isn’t.
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