The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Hidden History of Chinese Lynching

Nov 8, 2021

On October 24, 1871, Los Angeles witnessed its most deadly incident of racial violence. A small sidewalk plaque was installed in Downtown Los Angeles in 2001 to commemorate the victims of this massacre. Members of the Asian-American community, who started a campaign to create a proper memorial to the victims of the massacre, point to the fact that up until recently the event had been completely erased from the history books.

This deadly silence shows the depth of the terror the massacre planted. On that notorious night in 1871, a mob of about 500 men (about eight percent of the city’s population at the time) attacked the 200 or so Chinese immigrants in their own neighborhood, lynched at least 18 people, looted businesses and set the neighborhood on fire. And they did it with practically complete impunity. Only eight men were tried and found guilty, but their convictions were overturned on a technicality. The message for Chinese immigrants was clear: it can happen again, so keep your mouth shut.

And it did happen again, over and over. Besides Los Angeles, several other massacres took place, the biggest one in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where in 1885 white miners murdered at least 28 Chinese people and wounded 15. The federal government enacted laws that attacked Chinese immigrants as well—the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned immigration from China and stayed in effect until 1943.

The lynching in Los Angeles in 1871 against Chinese workers came at a time of economic crisis and mass unemployment. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the California economy crashed, with widespread bankruptcies and mass unemployment. These layoffs coincided with the migration into California of former soldiers from the Civil War and former slaves, as well as small farmers and workers, who had hopes of finding good jobs and prosperity. Those laid off included the 10,000 Chinese immigrant workers who had been largely responsible for building the railroad in the first place.

But the bosses and politicians pushed propaganda that blamed Chinese immigrants for the unemployment of the other groups and used it as the excuse to drive down wages for everyone. This set the stage for one of the ugliest episodes of racist mass violence in American history.

The parallels to today are obvious. We are in the midst of an economic and social crisis in which politicians, and notably wealthy right-wing sponsors, blame Chinese people and immigrant workers for the pandemic. This has provoked a big increase in violence against Asian Americans. In L.A. County, for example, violent attacks on Asian Americans increased by 76% during the last 12 months alone.

Dividing the working class along lines of ethnicity and nationality is one of the oldest tricks the capitalist class has up its sleeve. The consequences can be horrible—and the massacres of Chinese Americans is only one example of it. The capitalists, politicians and government officials that represent them work to hide the bloody history of the divisions they sow.