Friday, August 10, 2007

Ethnic Cleansing in the Northwest

Jean Pfaelzer, American Studies professor at the University of Delaware and author of Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans is interviewed this episode of the KUOW talk program The Beat. (Interview begins at 14 minutes.) This is a fascinating interview about an important topic. "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," according to the publisher page for Driven Out. "Driven Out unearths this forgotten episode in our nation’s past. Drawing on years of groundbreaking research, Jean Pfaelzer reveals how, beginning in 1848, lawless citizens and duplicitous politicians purged dozens of communities of thousands of Chinese residents–and how the victims bravely fought back."

Every Northwest historian is familiar with ugly events like the Tacoma (1885) and Seattle (1886) riots. But too few have seen this for what it was--part of a larger regional movement of ethnic cleansing (a term Pfaelzer is not afraid to use). There were over 200 violent anti-Chinese riots in the late 19th-century American West. Especially poignant is Pfaelzer's description of the Chinese women caught up in the riots. They had been kidnapped in the first place in China, forced to work often as prostitutes in the American West, and ultimately driven back to China by the ethnic cleansing of the American West.

Pfaelzer offers a valuable perspective that could be further expanded by examining other ethnic minorities in the West. To broad sections of 19th-century white America, the West was explicitly a land of opportunity for whites only. Other examples include the attacks on black Exoduster towns in Kansas, the deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans in the 1930s, and of course the confining of Indians into reservations.

At the same time it is important to tell the stories of these minority groups in ways that makes them historical actors, not just passive victims. Pfaelzer shows how many Chinese victims of riots used the court system to sue for reparations--and sometimes won. Chinese fought back, and that is part of the story as well.

(The KUOW website has an admirable search feature, and a search ofThe Beat archives for the keyword "history" reveals a wealth of intruiging programs.)

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