Book Review: Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

Book Classification : Nonfiction - History - Chinese American Immigration - Racism and Discrimination - Organized Labor


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Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans , by Jean Pfaelzer
Hardcover - 432 pages
First Edition, May 2007
Published by Random House

ISBN 1400061342
ISBN-13: 978-1-4000-6134-1

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Book Review


The Central Pacific Railroad, the western segment of Abraham Lincoln's dream of building a Transcontinental Railroad, brought many of the Chinese immigrants to America in the 1860s. Since the '49ers Gold Rush, Chinese had also been coming to the U.S. to take jobs handling dynamite in the mines.

The fatalities and injuries associated with the work would be bad enough, but that is a secondary story compared to the violence committed the racist vigilantes. And it was not unheard of for some of a lynch mob's most dangerous members to be the sheriff and the policeman. Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans is the new book by University of Delaware professor Jean Pfaelzer. Most of the book is about events in California, but other states and territories also have the dubious honor of being mentioned.

Chinese immigrants were encouraged to come to America because capitalists viewed them as a source of cheap labor. Once they got here, almost anywhere they tried to take up residence, they were rounded up by hysterial mobs, dragged out of jurisdictions and warned not to reenter, and their homes were burned. The Chinese were also ordered by legislatures and courts to get out of one town, county and state after another.

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Jean Pfaelzer ,
Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

Shockingly, but necessary to admit if we shall be true to history, the fledgling organized labor movement was the center of most of the racism. For the industrial bosses, who have always wanted to keep workers fighting among themselves so that they would be incapable of uniting, this bigotry was the bonanza that the ancient Roman Empire used to call divide-and-rule.

"In May 1894, the Del Rio Rey Vineyard in Fresno replaced its white employees with Chinese workers, and within days, dynamite bombs were found under the bunkhouses; the new Chinese workers fled."
[page 334]

The Knights of Labor, the first labor union in the U.S. to adopt an industrial union instead of a craft union structure, had been established in Philadelphia in 1868. Unfortunately, the K. of L. was devoid of any understanding of the principles of the class struggle. Not only was the K. of L. oblivious to the distinction between a capitalist and a worker, it also thought that the white workers' absolutely worst problem was the existence of Chinese immigrants.

Workers whom the American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L.) deplored and spurned as "unskilled", many mining and lumber workers among them, were welcome in its rival union, the Knights of Labor -- with one exception: Chinese people. [page 151]

The K. of L. fought this misdirected fight against fellow workers with such tactics as the anti-Chinese boycott, as the one in Wichita, Kansas in 1885 [263], and eager support for the enforcement of laws requiring the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from numerous towns, counties and states. [295].

About the Author

Jean Pfaelzer is professor of English and American studies at the University of Delaware. The author of four other books and numerous articles on nineteenth-century history, culture, women's literature, feminist theory, and cultural theory, she has served as the executive director of the National Labor Law Center, been appointed to the D.C. Commission for Women, and worked for a member of Congress on immigration, labor, and women's issues. She lives near Washington, D.C.

- From the Publisher

Employers also received threats. In Chico, California , arsonists burned several farms where Chinese were employed. Other farmer responded by firing their Chinese workers. [271] In Petaluma, California, buisnesses that employed Chinese workers found notices nailed to their doors: "Discharge your Chinamen; your life is in danger." [271]

But the worst single day atrocity was probably the massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885 [209-215]. At the coal mine in Rock Springs, tensions were already high since Federal troops were mobilized to suppress a strike. Chinese workers outnumbered the white workers. Whites lost their jobs disproportionately, and the owner hired more Chinese workers. The Knights of Labor called a strike but Chinese workers refused to participate in it. White workers called the Chinese scabs, chased them at gunpoint, and burned their houses [210]. The mob murdered 28 Chinese workers. The Chinese government later filed a protest with the U.S. State Department [211]. The U.S. Congress responded by paying the Chinese government reparations totaling $147,000. The author says, "It is unclear if these funds [were] distributed to Chinese immigrants." [282]

Another pseudo-proletarian cause was the Workingman's Party of California, founded by Dennis Kearney. The party's handbills and posters expressed its single plank: "The Chinese must go!" Kearney fought the Central Pacific Railroad, not for exploiting labor, but because it hired Chinese labor. Kearney also campaigned for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (His party was unrelated to the similarly named Workingmen's Party of the United States, a truly class conscious group that had grown out of Karl Marx's project, the International Working Men's Association.)

The law itself was the other kind of hysterical mob. Federal and state politicians alike were anxious to eliminate the "yellow peril". Chinese were the only immigrant group to be barred by federal law from applying for naturalized citizenship. In 1880 the California state legislature "made it a misdemeanor for a corporation to hire a Chinese person" [233]

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the immigration of Chinese individuals. [294] The act remained in effect until 1943 when F.D. Roosevelt signed order ending the 61-year-old policy of exclusion. The 1943 reform allowed exactly 105 Chinese individuals per year to enter the U.S. [346]

The increasing oppression of Chinese people around the same time that the U.S. was abolishing slavery, and the role of the Supreme Court in this process, makes a fascinating story. The state constitution of Indiana was amended to say that a "negro or mulatto" may not enter the state. The high court upheld it, citing state's rights. Then in 1862 California passed a law imposing an extra tax on Chinese immigrants that was not required of anyone else. The law was called the Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition With Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California. The high court cited the Indiana law as precedent when upholding the California law. [30-31]

Professor Pfaelzer says: "By 1852, in the eyes of the American legal system, the Chinese were becoming black." [30] But then the court took away from the Chinese even the few rights that blacks were granted. After the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment declared equality of rights to all "persons". The Supreme Court ruled in 1873 that the word "persons" in 14th Amendment included former slaves but did not include Chinese Americans. [60-61]

The Chinese workers fought back with courage. Whenever they lost a round, it never went by default. In 1867, two thousand Chinese American railroad workers went on strike. Their demand: that employers be prohibited from fastening chains on employees to prevent them from quitting their jobs, and further prohibited from whipping employees. [61] In 1893, Chinese workers in California called a a general strike that shut down crop harvesters, vegetable dealers, hotels and laundries [323].

The desire to fight back also led to some senseless crimes, particularly anti-American violence in China. One such instance was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when foreign embassies in Beijing were attacked [325]. There were also assaults in China directed at Chinese converts to Christianity, of which one hundred had been reported by 1904 [325].

The trend of workplace-related fatalities and injuries, so-called "accidents" on the job -- if the tolerance of hazardous conditions in the pursuit of augmented profits may be called an "accident;" -- must be mentioned for completeness, thought it is not the central subject of the book. In general, the performance of labor in the United States in the 1800s was an "accident" waiting to happen, but among Chinese immigrants the hazard was multiplied. Refering to the Central Pacific, which began carrying locomotives in 1868, the author says: "Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese had died building the railroad."[168]

There was even one type of job that featured the dual danger of either falling or being blown up, Professor Pfaelzer explains. In this occupation, there were "falls from ropes or wicker baskets suspended from the cliffs over the American River Canyon as they loaded dynamite into the rocky walls of the gorge" [168]

During the construction of Wrights Tunnel, which permits transportation from Santa Cruz to Los Gato and San Francisco, 31 Chinese American workers were killed. The author adds: "During the tunnel's dedication in 1880, no one mentions their sacrifice." [257]

I suppose most of us already knew by now that history as we learned it in school had left out some important chapters. The arrival of this book, in this nation that was settled and built by immigrants to an extent probably greater than in any other country, is overdue and welcome.

Book review by M.L. for crimsonbird.com

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Book Description from the Publisher's Press Release

The brutal and systematic "ethnic cleansing" of Chinese Americans in California and the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century is a shocking -- and virtually unexplored -- chapter of American history. Driven Out unearths this forgotten episode in our nation's past. Drawing on years of groundbreaking research, Jean Pfaelzer reveals how, beginning in 1849, lawless citizens and duplicitous politicians purged dozens of communities of thousands of Chinese residents -- and how the victims bravely fought back.

In town after town, as races and classes were pitted against one another in the raw and anarchic West, Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and field-workers, prostitutes and merchants' wives, were gathered up at gunpoint and marched out of their homes, sometimes thrown into railroad cars along the very tracks they had built.

Here, in vivid detail, are unforgettable incidents such as the torching of the Chinatown in Antioch, California, after Chinese prostitutes were accused of giving seven white boys syphilis, and a series of lynchings in Los Angeles bizarrely provoked by a Chinese wedding. From the port of Seattle to the mining towns in California's Siskiyou Mountains to "Nigger Alley" in Los Angeles, the first Chinese Americans were hanged, purged, and banished. Chinatowns across the West were burned to the ground.

But the Chinese fought back: They filed the first lawsuits for reparations in the United States, sued for the restoration of their property, prosecuted white vigilantes, demanded the right to own land, and, years before Brown v. Board of Education, won access to public education for their children. In order to starve out towns that tried to expel them, Chinese Americans organized strikes and refused to sell vegetables. They ordered arms from China and, with Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers, defended themselves. In 1893, more than 100,000 Chinese Americans refused the government's order to wear photo identity cards to prove their legal status -- the largest mass civil disobedience in United States history to that point.

Driven Out features riveting characters, both heroic and villainous, white and Asian. Charles McGlashan, a newspaper editor, spearheaded a shift in the tactics of persecution, from brutality to legal boycotts of the Chinese, in order to mount a run for governor of California. Fred Bee, a creator of the Pony Express, became the Chinese consul and one of the few attorneys willing to defend the Chinese. Lum May, a dry goods store owner, saw his wife dragged from their home and driven insane. President Grover Cleveland, hoping that China's 400,000 subjects would buy the United States out of its economic crisis, persuaded China to abandon America's Chinese in return for a trade treaty. Quen Hing Tong, a merchant, sought an injunction against the city of San Jose in an important precursor to today's suits against racial profiling and police brutality.

In Driven Out , Jean Pfaelzer tells the unknown story of immigrants who, under assault, stood up for their own civil rights and the civil rights of others. This is an account of racial pogroms, purges, roundups, and brutal terror, but also a record of valiant resistance and community. This deeply resonant and eye-opening work documents a significant and disturbing episode in American history. It is a story that defines us as a nation and marks our history and humanity.

Book Reviews

"Jean Pfaelzer has pulled back the veil on one of the most horrendous, frightening, violent, and little-known moments in American history. This is the most comprehensive history of this period I have ever read, and Pfaelzer has written it with sensitivity and a keen eye for the horrifying, heartbreaking, and often uplifting and triumphant details. Driven Out couldn't be more timely or important."

-- Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan : A Novel

"Thanks to this gripping narrative, Chinese immigrants to the Far West -- so long overlooked -- now stand front and center in the saga of the struggle for civil rights in these United States."

-- Kevin Starr, author of California : A History

"A meticulously researched and very readable recounting of America's systematic effort, from the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth, to purge all Chinese immigrants. The methodical and ruthless nature of this ethnic cleansing was matched only by the resistance from the Chinese -- sometimes with guns, knives, and fists, and sometimes with savvy recourse to government representatives as well as petitions, public confrontations, and lawsuits. This is a valuable addition to our understanding of the making of modern America."

-- Franklin Odo, director, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program,
and author of The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience

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