An untold piece of Asian American history

As the nation enacts a historic new anti-lynching bill, experts say increased attention needs to be paid to a dark and largely unrecognized piece of Asian American history: the lynchings that terrorized communities.

The big picture: Under the new law, which comes after more than 200 failed attempts to codify federal anti-lynching legislation, a crime could be prosecuted for lynching when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or grievous bodily harm. Some of the earliest anti-Asian crimes that might fall under this definition were recorded in the 1800s at the height of white economic anxiety.

  • A Massacre of 1871 wiped out 10% of the Chinese community in Los Angeles. It was one of the most brutal mass lynchings in US history.
  • These riots were part of a massive campaign across the United States now known as Driving Out, which has seen mobs regularly attack Chinese immigrants.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California), who co-sponsored the anti-lynching bill and is a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told Axios that he himself was unaware of the 1871 massacre until he helped draft the COVID-19 hate crimes law two years ago. “It was never taught to me and most people don’t talk about it,” he said.

  • The Asian American experience cannot be compared to the black experience, but “we absolutely must tell the whole truth about our country, both the good and the bad,” he noted. “This is how we make our country stronger.”
  • The United States must educate people about how lynching has been used to “demand subordination” not only among black Americans but also other racialized groups, according to Catherine Ceniza Choy, author of the forthcoming book “Asian American Histories of the United States”.

The context: The stereotype of the model minority has long made invisible The story of the marginalization of Asian Americans. The rise in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic — and the Atlanta mass shootings in particular — has brought new awareness.

  • COVID-19 is a new disease, “but the theme of violence perpetrated against Asian Americans who are degraded as un-Americans and as less human…has a much longer history,” Choy told Axios.

During the massacre of 1871, a mob of about 500 white and Hispanic men tore through Chinatown with hatchets in their hands. They dropped firebrands into houses and burned residential areas.

  • The mob lynched at least 17 to 20 Chinese people that day. Many were hanged when they were already dead and mutilated.

In 1885, a similar arson in Wyoming killed 28 Chinese miners, many of their bodies left mutilated and decomposed.

Illustration of James Garfield and Winfield S. Hancock pinning a Chinaman between two “anti-Chinese” boards, published in Puck Magazine on July 14, 1880. Photo: Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1907, in Washington State, Indian migrant workers have become the target of the mob’s blows who succeeded in forcing the entire South Asian population out of Bellingham in 10 days.

Between 1929 and 1930, anti-philippine riots erupted along the West Coast as white people felt threatened by growing race relations.

What they say : These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical examples of anti-Asian violence, according to Choy.

  • “What distinguishes lynching as a form of violence is that it is practiced precisely in such a way as to publicize the violence and instill fear in the community,” Choy noted. The perpetrators have gone largely unpunished.
  • Much of it was effective, Princeton historian Beth Lew-Williams says the podcast “The Takeaway” Last year. “I study how groups deported large numbers of Chinese immigrants from more than 165 communities across the American West. These deportations erased that history.”
  • The law can “make a powerful statement about this particular form of abuse…especially if the relationship stories come with it,” Choy said.

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