In 1854, the California Supreme Court passed down a ruling which reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in People v. Hall. After a Chinese man witnessed a murder by a white man, the court established that testimony by Chinese individuals was inadmissible in court based upon the opinion that they were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point.” It went on to say that Chinese “had no right to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate “with us in administering the affairs of our government.”
Chinatown became the site of a race riot and mass murder in 1871. The area adjacent to La Plaza in downtown Los Angeles was one of several pockets where late nineteenth-century Chinese migrants to the city concentrated. On October 24, 1871, a gunfight erupted on the Spanish-named Calle de Los Negros (Street of Negros) between feuding leaders of rival Chinese benefit associations. When authorities responded, Chinese shooters allegedly wounded a police officer and killed a white rancher. The Chinese men took cover inside the Coronel Building, but soon a frenzied mob of an estimated five hundred Anglo and Latino rioters—close to one tenth of the city’s population—surrounded the building and eventually shot or lynched eighteen Chinese men in one of the most atrocious hate crimes in our state’s history.
As Chinese people were not allowed to testify against the white perpetrators, all charges were ultimately overturned despite indictments and the incident only increased anti-Chinese sentiment. Unfortunately, the events of 1871 are just some among many that demonstrate the historical social, political, and judicial disenfranchisement of people of Asian heritage in California.
Chinese immigrants initially came to California in large numbers during the Gold Rush and became a significant source of labor in the mines and later were instrumental in the building of the transcontinental railroad. Eventually, many Chinese laborers moved to San Francisco and began competing for jobs in the work force alongside white workers. Tensions and resentment grew, and white workers and labor union members began scapegoating Chinese workers, blaming them for their own inability to find employment.
Years of racism against Chinese laborers led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was the first and only major federal legislation to suspend immigration for a specific nationality. The Act officially barred Chinese immigration to the United States for 10 years and was later extended multiple times, until it was finally repealed in 1943.
California also turned on its Japanese community, a pattern that culminated in Executive Order 9066 which provided legal basis for the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. We recently published a blog for the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, you can read it here.
History allows us to confront the past in all its darkness, complexity, and pain, including spotlighting the relationship between anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment and public policy. California legislators recently introduced a bill—ACR 55—which would commemorate October 24, 2021 as the 150th Anniversary of the Chinese Massacre of 1871. The bill acknowledges these past wrongs at a moment when public rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated anti-Asian American discrimination and hate crimes against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
The California Historical Society supports ACR 55 and the call to recognize this appalling incident of racially motivated violence in the hope that it will promote a more just and inclusive future.