(January 25, 2017) During his YouTube lectures on Reconstruction, Professor Eric Foner cites the 1891 mob execution of “nineteen” Italian immigrants in New Orleans as America’s biggest lynching. As shameful as the event was, it was not America’s largest lynching. Moreover, Foner’s inaccuracy and failure to provide context creates a misleading impression about the presence of xenophobia and racism outside the South.
First, eleven—not nineteen—victims were lynched in the New Orleans episode when the city’s population was about 242,000.
Second, assuming a lynching is defined as vigilante justice without a court conviction, America’s biggest lynching happened in Los Angeles in 1871 when eighteen Chinese were murdered. A spontaneous mob retaliated to avenge a white resident who was killed during the crossfire between two Chinese gangs. Since the town’s population was only about 6,000 at the time, the Los Angeles affair was sixty-five times larger relative to the applicable population than was the New Orleans incident twenty years later.
Dr. Foner’s failure to acknowledge the Los Angeles incident is puzzling for four reasons.
First, it was undeniably a racially motivated injustice, which is normally his foremost interest.
Second, the California law prohibiting the Chinese from testifying in court violated the three-year-old Fourteenth Amendment. Dr. Foner teaches that the Amendment was partly, but specifically, intended to overrule all state laws that restricted a person’s right to testify on the basis of race. Therefore, it is surprising that California’s violation did not merit the professor’s attention, especially considering that the state long delayed ratifying the Amendment until 1959.
Third, there was little consequence to the perpetrators of the lynching. Although eight men from the lower classes were originally convicted of manslaughter, the convictions were overturned on a technicality by the state Supreme Court.
Fourth, the federal government helped Californians discriminate against residents of Asian descent for generations thereafter. California racists did not need to defy federal law or resort to “terrorism,” because the federal government was complicit in their racism. The first racially discriminatory immigration law was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which did not affect peoples of any other race. It suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. It would be followed by a series of acts that are commonly labeled the “Chinese Exclusion Acts.”
Six years after the 1882 act, the Scott Act prohibited lawfully residing Chinese who had temporarily departed from returning. The 1892 Geary Act extended the 1882 act for another ten years. It also required that all lawful Chinese Americans obtain certificates verifying their legal status. In 1902 the restrictions were made permanent. The 1917 Immigration Act was similar to the 1882 Act except it extended immigration restrictions to a broader “Asiatic zone.”
The Exclusion acts also prohibited any state or federal court from granting citizenship to Chinese Americans, even if they were permanent legal residents. California used the provision as a means to deny the right to vote to Chinese Americans. Not until 1942 were the Exclusion Acts repealed thereby enabling Chinese nationals to become American citizens.
The federal government’s cooperation in helping California deny the right to vote to residents of Asian descent draws into question Foner’s habitual portrayal of the 19th century Republican push for black suffrage. If racial equality was the Party’s prime focus as Foner suggests, it should have applied to Chinese as well as blacks. If, however, the true Republican objective was to create a new Republican-loyal voter constituency that would enable the Party to retain control of the federal government, Republican disregard for Chinese racial equality is consistent with such an agenda. The blacks, after all, were almost certain to vote Republican, which was not true of the Chinese.
As for California per se, the state did not repeal a law that permitted school boards to single-out Chinese American students for segregated schools until 1947.
The context that Foner omits about the 1891 New Orleans lynching shall be addressed in a second post. Although the event was reprehensible, the full story shall show that racism was not limited to white Southerners just as does the Los Angeles episode and the ensuing decades of anti-Asian discrimination in California noted above.
Adam Serwer “These People are Among Us, But Not Of Us” BuzzFeed (August 5, 2016); Erika Lee Review of “The Chinatown War” by Scott Zesch Journal of American History Vol. 100, No. 1 (June 2013); Alfred Avins “The Right to be a Witness and the Fourteenth Amendment” Missouri Law Review Vol. 31, No. 4 (Fall 1966); “Major US Immigration Laws 1790-Present” Migration Policy Institute http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/timeline-1790; Joyce Kuo “Excluded, Segregated, and Forgotten” Asian American Law Journal, Vol. 5, Article 7 (1998); “The People’s Vote: Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) U.S. News and World Report; Ron Hayduk The History of Immigrant Voting Rights in California