Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chinese-American history

The history of the United States is peppered with instances of the white establishment behaving horribly towards a local minority group: Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Japanese, Irish, etc. The 'Us' and 'Them' mentality is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it's important that it be acknowledged. Jean Pfaelzer's new book - Driven Out: the forgotten war against Chinese Americans - chronicles the various waves of anti-Chinese sentiment that swept through the West in the second half of the 19th century. In her narrative she includes personal stories from a variety of individuals: a Tacoma merchant, a San Francisco wife and a Truckee woodcutter. She also chronicles the actions of the white men who led the purges and anti-Chinese riots and those who refused to surrender up their Chinese employees or who represented them in the courts. It is in the latter section of the book where Pfaelzer turns her book from a depressing story of prejudice and injustice into a story of determination and courage. The Chinese begin to fight back by using the law. They sued for reparations, demanded property rights and petitioned for access to education. They also armed themselves and refused to wear identification cards. In short, they fought tooth and nail for their right to be Americans. Pfaelzer has written a very interesting book about a part of history that is very rarely taught in our schools.

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