On a cross-country road trip more than three decades ago, I visited the Jackson County museum in Oregon. I remember one display in particular about the Chinese community there.
An exhibit card apologized for the forced removal and intimidation of its Chinese citizens. That community acknowledged the racist attitudes and behaviors of the late 1800s, later legislated into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In this part of Oregon, Chinese were quickly supplanting white miners. The Chinese often worked played-out gold mines sold to them by white miners and some worked deserted diggings after the easy-to-obtain gold was gone. What seems to have mattered was the number of Chinese.
Local attitudes grew harsh and even murderous. The editor of Jacksonville’s Oregon Sentinel reflected the white attitudes of 1866: “These people bring nothing with them to our shores, they add nothing to the permanent wealth of this country.”
Just as working-class immigrants today, in the 1870s the Chinese laborers in southwest Oregon worked in laundries, as packers and as cooks.
Jackson County had high numbers of Chinese residents during the peak mining years, but Caucasians remained the region’s overwhelming majority. It had 4,778 residents in 1870. Of that number, 634 were Chinese. In 1900, with a population of 13,698, the county retained only 43 Chinese residents.
From the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains, thousands of Chinese were “violently herded onto railroad cars, steamers or logging rafts, marched out of town or killed,” Jean Pfaelzer explains in her new book, “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans”
If not a war, what do you call it? A pogrom? Ethnic cleansing?
The Chinese people had an extraordinary record of responding to persecution with boycotts, petitions, lawsuits and demands for reparations. Lesser known, but extremely important, more than 7,000 lawsuits were won against persecution after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In one lawsuit, Wing Hing v. City of Eureka (Calif.), 53 Chinese men and women asserted the city had a duty to protect its residents and demanded reparations and financial compensation for the violence that drove them out in 1885.
What happened back then should be cautionary history to us today. It should remind us of philosopher George Santayana’s words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
By fighting back through the courts, undocumented immigrants, facing similar pogromlike persecutions, won in court last month against Hazleton, Pa., a town 100 miles north of Philadelphia. U.S. District Judge James Munley struck down as unconstitutional the local law designed to fine businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and penalizes landlords who rent rooms to them.
The ruling deals a blow to similar laws passed by other towns and cities across the country. The attempt to drive residents out did not succeed because the legal process showed these approaches are inconsistent with “the American way.”
Elsewhere, anti-immigrant violence appears to have increased in recent months. In San Diego, Minutemen harassed Latino immigrants and human-rights activists. In Kentucky, two convicted Klansmen savagely beat a teenage boy of Panamanian descent at a county fair. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in the victim’s behalf.
The law center has documented a 40 percent increase of hate groups since 2000, fueled by anti-immigration furor aimed mainly at Latinos.
We can’t wait 120 years, as was the case with the Chinese, to have top-most in our minds what it means. Hateful communities arise when hateful acts are tolerated.
Santayana is known for warning us not just about repeating our mistakes. He also wrote: “Our character is an omen of our destiny.”
We gotta clean up our act.
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com. For more stories or to comment, visit scrippsnews.com.)