The phrase “mass lynching” generally reminds us of thousands of violent acts of racial terror committed against African Americans, mostly in the Deep South, between the end of the Civil War and the late 20th century.
But one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of the United States, which occurred 150 years ago Sunday, happened in Los Angeles and targeted Chinese immigrants. On Oct. 24, 1871, a mob of White and Hispanic Angelenos rampaged through the Chinese quarter of the city, burning buildings and attacking residents. When the dust settled, 17 Chinese men had been lynched in a fit of racist violence that presaged the coming Chinese exclusion laws and pogroms across the American West to drive out remaining Chinese residents.
The treatment of the Chinese in the late 19th century is often forgotten today, but without it, one can’t fully understand the era or its lingering legacies. The violence of white supremacy in the United States, which was grounded in anti-Blackness, also upheld the color line against other groups, including Native Americans and non-White immigrants. Revisiting the history of Chinese exclusion, the broader extent of white supremacist violence in the 19th century becomes clear.
In 1830, the U.S. Census recorded only three Chinese people living in the entire United States. However, after the United States gained control over significant Western territory after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the discovery of gold in 1848, opportunity seekers from China joined the global migration to California. There were no national rules about who could immigrate from abroad to the United States, so the Chinese, along with all others, were free to come. In 1851, 2,716 people arrived from China, while the following year, that number shot up to 20,026. However, what they found in the wilds of California was not an open and welcoming country.
Already by late 1849, the California gold fields were crowded with prospectors and depleted of treasure. Frustrated miners from the eastern United States blamed their lack of success on increased competition from Chinese miners, while laborers, including unlucky miners, accused Chinese workers of undercutting their wages. White residents blamed Chinese immigrants for bringing vices such as prostitution and opium, and they fretted that newcomers might be the vanguard of a Chinese “invasion” of North America.
Pushed by nativists, the state and local governments of California instituted laws designed to discourage Chinese immigration beginning in 1852 and continuing through the 1880s, even as the constitutionality of those laws was questionable. In 1849, the Supreme Court had struck down immigration laws imposed by Massachusetts and New York in a ruling known as the Passenger Cases, finding that only the federal government could impose restrictions on immigration.