Op-Ed: Start atoning for past racism, L.A. — build a memorial to victims of the Chinese Massacre
On a chill fall night in 1871, a frenzied mob of Angelenos massacred 10% of the city’s small Chinese population. Some historians regard it as the largest mass lynching in American history. Although eight of the rioters were convicted of manslaughter, they all walked free on a technicality the next year.
One hundred and fifty years later, justice still eludes the 19 victims of the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre. The only public acknowledgement of the atrocity is a modest plaque embedded in the pavement on Los Angeles Street.
A fitting memorial to the victims of the Chinese Massacre — and to anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles County more generally — is long overdue.
The recent surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans adds urgency to reconciliatory projects of this kind. A memorial won’t, of course, stop some from hating. But it would signal that Los Angeles is ready to acknowledge past wrongs and to build a better future for an Asian American community that has shaped the city for more than a century and a half.
California’s history of anti-Asian violence runs deep. As soon as the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Gold Country around 1850, they faced abuse from white miners and state lawmakers. California’s first Legislature imposed an onerous tax on Chinese and other foreign miners to keep them from the gold diggings. By mid-decade, Chinese immigrants — along with African Americans, Native Americans and “mulattos” — had been barred from testifying against whites in California courtrooms.
Sinophobia intensified in the post-Civil War period, which saw the emergence of the first formal anti-Chinese clubs in California. The stated purpose of groups like the Central Pacific Anti-Coolie Assn. was to prevent immigration from Asia and competition with white workers. To achieve their ends, members used threats and, if necessary, violence.
California turned anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiment into a national movement.
In the postbellum South, paramilitary groups attacked Black people and their white allies; in the West, they attacked Chinese immigrants. California newspapers from the late 1860s contain numerous reports of assaults committed by self-identified members of the Ku Klux Klan. Vigilantes bludgeoned Chinese ranch workers, threatened their white employers, and even set fire to a church that catered to the Asian community in San Jose.
Curiously, scholars of the KKK have largely overlooked this period in California history. Perhaps that’s because the early Klan is so closely associated with anti-Black brutality in the South. Therefore, contemporaneous attacks on Asians in the West aren’t seen for what they were — part of a national wave of violence against people of color. Although Western Klansmen were far fewer in number than their Southern counterparts, they achieved a similar result: the violent assertion of white hegemony.
Two decades of anti-Chinese fervor climaxed in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1871. A racist press prepared the way. The city’s first daily newspaper, the Los Angeles News, routinely thundered against the relatively small Chinese population in the region. The editors portrayed Chinese residents as “an alien, an inferior and idolatrous race,” who left “a foul blot upon our civilization.”
If the Trump era has taught us anything, it’s that language has consequences, and that violent words often provoke violent actions. So they did in Los Angeles all those years ago. Decades of racist rhetoric had convinced many Angelenos that their Chinese neighbors were less deserving of life.
When news spread that a white police officer had been killed in a shootout with purported Chinese gang members, a furious mob of roughly 500 assembled in the city’s Chinese quarter. The rioters stormed several buildings where petrified Chinese residents had taken refuge. Some of those residents were shot and stabbed to death; others were hauled to a makeshift gallows to be publicly hanged and mutilated. The mob left 19 mangled bodies in its wake, including those of a respected doctor and an adolescent boy.
The massacre brought national disgrace to Los Angeles, for a while. But that hardly stemmed the tide of anti-Asian abuse. In the mid-1880s, an orgy of collective violence expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the American West. In Pasadena, rioters destroyed the Chinese business district and drove off dozens of its residents.
A public installation in Los Angeles would be a belated acknowledgement of this troubled and troubling past, as well as an act of symbolic justice. City officials should embrace the memorial as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Fortunately, many of the resources necessary are already at hand.
A number of experts — including Scott Zesch, author of an in-depth study of the massacre, and Paul Spitzzeri, director of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum — possess the historical knowledge to advise on the memorial. With its resources and collective expertise, the Chinese American Museum in downtown Los Angeles should be central to the effort.
A poignant prototype for the memorial already exists. Artist Jerry Ma designed it in 2019 for a course on monument design at Art Center College of Design, using adobe bricks to “visualize the relationship between the mob” and the “Chinese who were lynched,” he wrote.
No buildings need be destroyed to make way for the memorial. The ideal venue sits across from the Chinese American Museum on Los Angeles Street. It is a parking lot, encased in a semicircle of trees, on the site where the massacre took place.
By erecting a memorial there, Los Angeles would transform a site of trauma and tragedy into one of reconciliation and healing. It might also visualize for visitors the most important lesson of this story: The mob ultimately lost. The perpetrators inspired terror and destroyed lives, but they failed to drive the Chinese from Los Angeles, as they desperately hoped they would. Instead, many of the survivors remained. And 150 years later, the dynamism and diversity of Los Angeles bears witness to their legacy.
Kevin Waite, a Pasadena native, is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in Britain and author of the forthcoming book “West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire.”
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