In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian violence and racism due to the misinformed media, Professor Beth Lew-Williams was invited to speak on Zoom about her book on the history of this racist violence on September 29, 2021.
As the author of her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, Lew-Williams was able to speak about the history of anti-Asian violence and how it is still continuing today, despite attempts at reparations and reconciliation.
Lew-Williams began her talk by going back to the origins of anti-Asian expulsions in the United States, tracing it back to the 1849 California Gold Rush, when tens of thousands of Chinese made the trek across the Pacific to San Francisco and other cities on the West Coast. The racist expulsions ranged from covert methods of coercion, threats, and verbal abuse to outright assaults, including bombings, shootings, and setting fires to force the Asian population to leave.
“This form of violence, you know, is racial violence in what I think of as its most brazen and basic form,” Lew-Williams explained. “And by that, I mean physical force motivated by racial prejudice and intended to cause bodily harm.”
These attacks were mainly born out of the fear and insecurity of the American population. In their eyes, more Chinese in the workforce meant fewer jobs for Americans, as well as an “Asian takeover” of the U.S. United States citizens couldn’t imagine the Asian population assimilating to their culture and being a positive addition to a country that is already made up completely of immigrants.
“While other newcomers in America were able to claim a place in the United States and in American memory, this violence is one of the reasons that the Chinese were pushed to the outer recesses of the nation and of national memory,” explained Lew-Williams.
Over the course of her talk, Lew-Williams continued to return to the incident at Tacoma, Washington in 1885. During this horrific event, the white population of Tacoma drove out the Chinese 8 miles, on foot, to a railroad depot during the pouring rain, causing two Chinese people to die of exposure in the extreme elements. These “Tacoma’s Twenty-Seven” citizens were photographed in high esteem after the expulsion. The photograph included the mayor and other authority figures, who believed the citizens were exerting the will of the people and acting as the hand of justice, despite their actions being blatant crimes.
Since this incident, there have been attempts at reparation and reconciliation by the people of Tacoma. Reconciliation Park, constructed in Tacoma in 2010, is a weak attempt to reconcile with those who had been wronged over a century ago. But this park doesn’t even come close to repairing the damage inflicted on the Chinese in Tacoma.
“It’s a problematic form of remembrance,” Lew-Williams added. “I think that reconciliation is a tall order when you have no Chinese descendants left in the city, and also they haven't had any descendants of the vigilantes participate in this reconciliation either… It's sort of a third-party attempt to remember this history.”
Tacoma is not the only place where Chinese expulsions were a horrific success. There are now cities all over the country that are devoid of Asian diversity, due to the xenophobia and racism of the past.
Despite all the xenophobia, violence, and anti-immigration laws, undocumented migration continued as Chinese fled to the United States, the “land of opportunity.” They crossed the Pacific Ocean to Canada, where they then crossed the northern U.S. border by canoe or foot.
Even with the passing of decades and decades since that time, anti-immigration fears remain the same. With the passing of the 14th amendment, stating that citizenship is to be granted to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” questions arose about who would be outside of these citizenship rights. During the time that the amendment was passed, the construction of its wording had the specific purpose of alienating the Chinese, as well as other immigrants.
“In response to Chinese migration, the laws, and violence, and Supreme Court rulings set out a series of legal disadvantages that still play on citizens to this day,” claimed Lew-Williams.
Lew-Williams showed exactly how much of today’s xenophobia and racism against Asians is based on the historical events that have been happening since the 1800s.
Today, we see a resurgence in anti-Asian hate crimes facilitated by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the misinformation spread by the media and racist politicians. In her talk, Lew-Williams was able to shed some light on the deeper historical background to this hate, as well as help her listeners and her readers understand the struggles of Asian immigrants in the U.S.