HFG Knowledge Against Violence Speaker Series November 10, 2021

“The Long History of Anti-Asian Violence in the US”: Dr. Beth Lew-Williams

Beth Lew-Williams is a historian of race and migration in the United States, specializing in Asian American history. Her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), maps the tangled relationships between local racial violence, federal immigration policy, and US imperial ambitions in Asia.

As we confront a new surge of anti-Asian hate crimes amid the pandemic, how should history help to inform our response? Beth Lew-Williams will discuss her research on anti-Chinese violence in the US West, consider the broader history of anti-Asian violence, and reflect on the implications for present-day efforts at reconciliation.

In 2015, Dr. Lew-Williams received an HFG Research Grant (now the HFG Distinguished Scholar Award) for her project “The Chinese Must Go: The Violent Birth of American Border Control.”

About The Chinese Must Go from Harvard University Press: 

“The American West erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 1885. Following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed, assaulted, and expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants. Beth Lew-Williams shows how American immigration policies incited this violence and how the violence, in turn, provoked new exclusionary policies. Ultimately, Lew-Williams argues, Chinese expulsion and exclusion produced the concept of the ‘alien’ in modern America.

The Chinese Must Go begins in the 1850s, before federal border control established strict divisions between citizens and aliens. Across decades of felling trees and laying tracks in the American West, Chinese workers faced escalating racial conflict and unrest. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 and made its first attempt to bar immigrants based on race and class. When this unprecedented experiment in federal border control failed to slow Chinese migration, vigilantes attempted to take the matter into their own hands. Fearing the spread of mob violence, U.S. policymakers redoubled their efforts to keep the Chinese out, overhauling U.S. immigration law and transforming diplomatic relations with China.

By locating the origins of the modern American alien in this violent era, Lew-Williams recasts the significance of Chinese exclusion in U.S. history. As The Chinese Must Go makes clear, anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today’s immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the ‘heathen Chinaman.’”


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