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In the war against history, Los Angeles and Asian American history offer hope

Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict discussions of race, gender, and sexuality in U.S. history. In 2022, proposed educational gag orders attempting to restrict teaching about race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 and higher education increased by 250 percent compared to the previous year. Further, according to a new report by Pen America, more than 2,500 different book bans were enacted in schools across 32 states during the 2021-2022 school year. A few months ago Florida rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement course on African American Studies in the state’s high schools, claiming that it “lack[ed] educational value.”  

There is a war being waged against American history by those hostile to an honest portrayal of our country’s history—and who seek to stamp out the expansive, inclusive, and complicated understanding of America’s past that recent scholarship has revealed. 

As more than 1,000 U.S. historians gather in Los Angeles this week for the annual Organization of American Historians meeting, the question of how educators, scholars, officials, and activists can work together in this war will be front and center. We will be discussing how current community, civic, and historian-led efforts are confronting our past in ways that should all give us hope for the future. And how Los Angeles may serve as a model for other cities and states to follow in developing approaches that openly and inclusively tackle our country’s difficult racial history. 

The stakes could not be greater. This is because the research and teaching of history is not just about what happened in the past, it is also shaped by crucial issues affecting society today, including who has economic, political, and cultural power and capital—and who does not. This calculation shows up in our classrooms, textbooks, public discourses and spaces. It is revealed in how we write and teach American history, and how we define America and who counts as “American.” It informs the decisions we make to either maintain the status quo or demand change. 

Those of us who research, write and teach in fields that are especially under threat in this moment know well what historical erasure looks like in our textbooks, classrooms and public spaces.  

Particular to my field of Asian American history, a recent survey of K-12 U.S. history curriculum standards from all 50 states found that Asian Americans are largely invisible: 18 states included zero Asian American content, seven included just one.  

This dismissal of Asian American history in classrooms has happened alongside the erasure of Asian American history in public spaces as well. A street that now runs below the shadow of LA’s City Hall is the site of the 1871 Chinese Massacre, the largest mass killing of Chinese people in California’s history and one of the deadliest mass lynchings in U.S. history. On the night of Oct. 24, 1871, a violent mob murdered 18 Chinese men. Three were shot to death, 15 were hanged, and another died of their wounds. But for over 150 years, it has been largely erased from the historical record, our collective memory and our public spaces. 

LA newspapers reported that the Chinese massacre began with a local feud between two men believed to associated with rival Chinese gangs. After one police officer responding to the exchange of gunshots on Calle de los Negros, (Los Angeles street,) was wounded and a popular Anglo business owner was killed, rumors that the Chinese were “killing whites wholesale” spread across the city. Angelenos began to head to Chinatown with some yelling that “all the Chinamen in the country ought to be hung.” By 9 p.m., the bodies of the Chinese victims were found hanging at three different places near the heart of downtown Los Angeles. 

None of the victims had been involved in the initial shootings. They were cooks, laundryman, a musician, and a respected herbalist named Chee Long Tong, or Gene Tong, who had pled for his life. Another was a teenage boy. The dead represented 10 percent of the city’s Chinese population. Eight rioters went to prison for manslaughter, but just over a year later, their convictions were overturned on a technicality, and they were released from prison. 

The lost lives and the lack of justice are more than enough evidence to identify the Chinese Massacre as one of the most tragic chapters in our shared history. But compounding these tragedies is how the history of the massacre and subsequent anti-Chinese violence was deliberately and almost completely erased. For example, the sites where this brutal history occurred lie below the El Pueblo de Los Angeles parking lot on North Los Angeles Street, LA’s Civic Center, and the Los Angeles Mall. The history of the Chinese massacre remains buried beneath our feet. 

Today, more than 150 years after the massacre, things are changing. Recent work in Asian American history and Ethnic Studies provide guidance for how we recover and reckon with the history of systemic racism in the United States. We now understand how the histories of both anti-Asian violence and Asian American organizing are central to understanding racism’s roots and legacies.

The Chinese massacre was a transformative act of racial violence that led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to establish significant federal control over immigration, and one which legalized xenophobia on an unprecedented scale. Historians are also shedding light on how history is a powerful tool in the fight for social justice today. This is because history helps to define who deserves to be given equal treatment in our chronicling of the past, and who deserves to be fully equal today. 

Community-based activism is also essential in the current war against history. Because while the Chinese massacre of 1871 had largely been erased from the history books, there is one caveat: LA’s Chinese American community never forgot.  

In the aftermath of the massacre, the city’s Chinese community in LA raised $1,000 to bury the dead. The Chinese community continued to commemorate the massacre for many years. Then, about 10 years, ago, a small group of Chinese Angelenos began to gather yearly on the anniversary of the massacre to remember the victims. In 2001, the Chinese American Museum installed a small plaque marking the 1871 massacre in the sidewalk along North Los Angeles Street. To this day, it remains the only historical marker of the event in the city. 

As a city, LA is also modeling reparative justice. On Oct. 24, 2021, the 150th anniversary of Chinese massacre, then-Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti offered an official apology. The city followed this by allocating $250,000 to build a memorial to the victims, and the state of California allocated $2 million toward building a Unity Garden dedicated to healing and reflection in front of the Chinese American Museum. A final design for the memorial is expected to be chosen soon. 

Meanwhile, LA-area schools and institutions are also leading the way in creating innovative and timely educational programs and resources. Some of this activity has been spurred by the recently enacted statewide Ethnic Studies requirement for graduation. Some of it has involved the reparative work of new investments in education after generations of neglecting Asian American history in classrooms and teachers. 

All of these changes have not just happened. They have required organizing, advocacy and movement building.  

We all have a role to play in the current war against history. Like Los Angeles’ efforts, our work should be collaborative and coalitional. When teams of historians, teachers, students, community organizations, curators and professional groups work together, we are powerful. 

We must continue to practice, teach and advocate for new ways to produce, preserve and share history that democratizes American history and leads to social, economic and political change. Not just for today. But for tomorrow as well.

Erika Lee is the Regents Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, and the president of the Organization of American Historians.

Tags history

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