July 29, 2007


Witnesses to Persecution: DRIVEN OUT: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans By Jean Pfaelzer (PATRICIA NELSON LIMERICK, 7/28/07, NY Times Book Review)

In “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans,” she tells the story of the “thousands of Chinese people who were violently herded onto railroad cars, steamers or logging rafts, marched out of town or killed,” from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains. Despite the forceful adjective of Pfaelzer’s subtitle, this burdensome history has not been entirely “forgotten.” Scholars have written comprehensively and memorably about it. But it is surely accurate to say that a majority of Americans live without a recognition of the degree, scale and extent of these chilling undertakings.

Most know even less about the extraordinary record of the Chinese people’s responding to persecution with boycotts, petitions, lawsuits and demands for reparations. In Wing Hing v. City of Eureka, 53 Chinese men and women joined together in asserting that the Northern California city had a duty to protect its residents and in demanding reparations and financial compensation for the violence that drove them out in 1885. Confronted with the requirement, in the Geary Act of 1892, that Chinese immigrants carry an identity card proving they were in the country legally or else face deportation, thousands refused to submit to what they called the “Dog Tag Law,” thus undertaking what Pfaelzer says was “perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States.”

Altogether, Chinese immigrants filed more than 7,000 lawsuits in the decade after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, “and they won the vast majority of them,” Pfaelzer writes. In truth, these efforts to claim the protection of American law should require historians to come up with a whole new understanding — in geography, chronology and cast of characters — of the civil rights movement.

To a surprising and heartening degree, some white Westerners championed the Chinese in their assertion of rights.

While history always repeats itself, it's a healthy sign that folks like Tom Tancredo can't crank up the cattle cars.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2007 8:35 AM
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