Apr 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Lynchings: An untold piece of Asian American history

Photo of a person holding a sign that says "Asian people, the sampler platter of racism"

People hold signs during a Nationwide Day of Action rally against anti-Asian violence in the Flushing neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York on March 27, 2021. Photo: Emaz/VIEWpress via Getty Images

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

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

  • An 1871 massacre wiped out 10% of the Chinese community in Los Angeles. It was one of the most brutal mass lynchings in U.S. history.
  • These riots were part of a massive campaign across the U.S. now known as the Driving Out, which saw mobs regularly attack Chinese immigrants.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the anti-lynching bill and is a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told Axios he himself didn't know about the 1871 massacre until he helped prepare the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act two years ago. "It was never taught to me and it's not talked about to most people," he said.

  • The Asian American experience can't be compared to the Black experience, but "we absolutely have to tell the full truth of our country, both the good and the bad," he noted. "That is how we make our country stronger."
  • The U.S. must educate people on how lynching was used to "demand subordination" not just 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."

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

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

During the 1871 massacre, a mob of roughly 500 white and Hispanic men tore through Chinatown with hatchets in hand. They dropped firebrands into homes and set residential neighborhoods ablaze.

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

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

Cartoon showing two white men nailing a caricatured Chinese man between two plans that read "anti-Chinese"
Illustration of James Garfield and Winfield S. Hancock nailing a Chinese man 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 became the target of mob beatings that successfully forced the entire South Asian population out of Bellingham within 10 days.

Between 1929 and 1930, anti-Filipino riots broke out along the West Coast as white people felt threatened by growing interracial relations.

What they're saying: These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historic examples of anti-Asian violence, according to Choy.

  • "What distinguishes lynching as a form of violence is that it is precisely done in a way to make the violence public and to instill fear in the community," Choy noted. Perpetrators largely went unpunished.
  • A lot of it was effective, Princeton historian Beth Lew-Williams told the podcast "The Takeaway" last year. "I study how groups expelled large numbers of Chinese immigrants out of more than 165 communities across the American West. These expulsions erased that history."
  • The law can "make a powerful statement about that particular form of violence … especially if the relational histories accompany it," Choy said.
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