This Week:
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American history is a tale of racial conflicts. Indians, African-Americans, Asians, Jews, Hispanics, Irish and Germans all have experienced discrimination in America. The word racism covers all these conflicts but this does not mean that it was the same pattern with a different cast of characters in each case. Every story was different and each needs to be considered in its own terms. Recently there have been stories about how Oregon was a racist hotbed because it had a law forbidding blacks to live in the state and that the Ku Klux Klan was politically influential in the 1920's. This is true enough as far as it goes, but in laying the preoccupations of one age on the facts of another, it distorts the reality. The law excluding blacks from living in Oregon was driven by 1850's politics and its goal was to prevent the introduction of slavery to Oregon. After 1860 that was a moot issue and there were African-Americans living in Oregon from pioneer times onward. The law was never actually enforced, became unenforcible after 1864 and was finally repealed in 1926. The Ku Klux Klan did flourish in Oregon for a few years in the 20's but their focus was anti-Catholic and their main effect was the election of Walter Pierce on a platform of suppressing parochial schools in Oregon. Which is not to say that Oregon was a garden of racial harmony or less racist than other parts of the US. On the west coast The Other was not blacks or European immigrants whose numbers in Oregon were never that large. The others were the Chinese in the 19th century and the Japanese in the early 20th. If you look closely at the pictures of the Kam Wah Chung museum that accompany this Gazette, you will see that the building was literally a fortress, with thick stone walls and steel shutters on the windows and door. This was no accident. In the American west, hostility towards Asian immigrants was overt, violent and commonplace. In Portland in 1873 a large part of the waterfront burned when arsonists targeted business that hired Chinese labor. In 1886 another outburst of anti Chinese violence throughout Oregon attempted to drive them all out of the state. These were only the most dramatic examples. Throughout the west anti-Chinese violence was frequent. Whatever other injustices they may have suffered, Indians and African-Americans could own guns and there a many pictures of Indians and Buffalo soldiers armed to the teeth. Chinese in most places were forbidden from owning firearms. The also were often not permitted to own land. It is significant that while large numbers of Chinese laborers were essential to building the American west, the Kam Wah Chung museum in John Day Oregon is one of a very few surviving reminders of their presence. My point is that Oregon racism was not a replay of the Jim Crow south with fir trees but something specific to its own history and circumstances. Every story is different even when some of the words are the same and it is important to note those differences if we are to learn from the stories.
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