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Book Review: Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer

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When a face has been put on the once forgotten we must care enough to take notice.  When a group or race has been dishonored, enslaved, or branded, we must care enough to listen. "Thousands [of Chinese] honored the call to disobey the 'Dog Tag Law'… to carry an identity card. Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks had… to bear papers proving that they were not slaves” (pgs 291-292). Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, by Jean Pfaelzer, professor of American studies, is a narrative of how Chinese Americans fought disgrace, racism, and expulsion in the Pacific Northwest and the state of California between the years 1849 to 1906. And it is a work worthy of our attention.

We, as a country, have much to learn from this timely, tough, terrific study of the legal and moral ramifications of a war waged against an entire group of people based on race, culture, and religion. The lesson of The Driven Out — an entire race or group, believed not assimilating, can be removed as parasites from the fabric of a society they have chosen for survival.

Pfaelzer's purpose in writing this book is to weave together some forgotten threads of Chinese-American history into a blanket of facts. The facts tell an engaging, though painful, story of the Driven Out from the West coast.  The looming legislation for illegal immigration, the religious and racial fatigue, currently in this country, provide the perfect backdrop for this new book. The Chinese Exclusion Act was in force in 1882, but Chinese had been entering this country legally before this date. An egregious legal immigration law, no doubt, whose type could be revisited if present-day Americans are not vigilant.  

“Nigger Alley”

This author documents many surprising events in the turbulent history of some California cities: There was a massacre in a place called “Nigger Alley” (Los Angeles, 1871). The local, white, angered populace made genocide look easy. These citizens, armed with anything and everything, simply went in and slaughtered each and every Chinese that they could get their hands on, then burned and looted the remains. Not only did Americans do this, but they also imposed taxes on “cubic air” usage. They instituted extensive prostitution brought on by extreme poverty; allowed untreated syphilis, and created virtual enslavement of many Chinese women.  

And if you think lynching was a tool used solely against blacks or slaves, think again.

By comparison, perhaps 5,000 “Negroes” between the years 1849 to 1902 were lynched. But within this same time frame, there was “a mass lynching in California” where 302, mostly Asians, were killed.  Lynching has been called “a form of ‘folk pornography’” (pg. 54).  In support of her thesis, war against Chinese immigrants, Jean reminds the reader of the rungs of an evil ladder known as pograms. Pograms against any people act as a forerunner to herald genocide. It begins with wearing a yellow star, miscegenation laws, anti-queue laws (an outlaw of a racial custom), or forbids baskets worn or bags carried on poles. All this and more were outlawed for the Chinese. It begins with the rule of law, and ends with lynching or mass killings.  

One thing they did not have to do, because of their unique features, was to wear a label on lapel or badge. But they did have to carry “dog tags.” They passionately fought this law. Chapter 8, “The Dog Tag Law,” is both prescient and pivotal. It could be the very future for us all if certain laws such as “The Real ID Act” go into effect for every legal citizen without opposition or grand-scale civil disobedience. Americans could well become captives or aliens in their own country.  What is more, in lieu of tags or ID cards computer technology could make possible a great tribulation (Lou Dobbs – YouTube video). The belief, history repeats itself, is enshrined in this book.

The readers will appreciate the inclusion of striking parallels with the Jews of Europe, while at the same time the author increases her credibility. An entire range of parallels in this book can be drawn from the Jewish pograms of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Third Reich, with others right here in the States. Herein are included the ongoing massacre of Native Americans and the enslavement of black Africans.  It is one of the most appealing aspects of this book — an undeniable intersection between emancipated black slaves and immigrant Chinese.   

This addition is vital  in supporting her thesis: racism and genocide recur.

How is this accomplished? The book Driven Out uses newspaper accounts, scrapbooks, archival interviews and eyewitness accounts, correspondence with other historians, diaries, legal pleadings, and photographs to bring to life the Chinese immigrant near-demise in America. Then Jean, meticulously and individually, tries to identify the Chinese who were affected. This requires extensive research. Why? Papers as well as memories were burned in the many fires that destroyed both homes and livelihoods. But she felt that including folk narratives and photos would most honor the Chinese and their struggle. 

So, as a narrative account, this author will add an important social voice, while helping to sort out the collective thinking on this serious subject of human rights. Why? Because it is also about people who came to this country (illegally) in order to make an “honest” living.  It is therefore astonishing that ethnic cleansing was once a fixture in the firmament of the flag stars.

This book will appeal to those who make formal or informal studies of such issues as legal and illegal immigration, early Chinese immigration, California history, African American experience, slavery, racism, genocide, labor law, politics, Constitutional law and civil rights. For that reason chapter 6: “The Chinese Rewrite The Letter Of The Law” is vital to this history. How the Chinese used the legal system to fight against expulsion from California, and for reparations from the United States, therefore becomes indispensable documentation of this ‘illegal’ war waged against the Chinese. 

Some of the eye-openers and buzz for this reviewer: Reparations as a moral issue. The duplicity of the Democratic Party in keeping the “anti-coolie” movement in the forefront: How it was used to win offices; how both political parties upheld KKK laws; how unfair racial laws became the underpinnings of unrest; how historical coincidence of newly freed black slaves increased the crisis Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans faced — absolute purging from the West coast. And finally how this frenzy for the Driven Out eventually extended itself to the entire country. It becomes increasingly evident to any student of history that, either from a distance or up close, that racism and genocide appear intricately tied. 

With the many alliances being forged today between book publishers and filmmakers, this is one book, or parts of it, that would lend itself to a documentary film — about what we did and why we did it. It is also about what good (as group) or evil (as mob) man is capable of. 

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