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The California Klan


It’s important history to know that the Ku Klux Klan not only wasn’t just an anti-Black organization in its second form in the 1910s and 1920s (in fact, the second KKK wasn’t even primarily anti-Black and was more concerned with Catholics and Jews), but that it wasn’t only anti-Black in its first iteration. In California in the late 1860s, the KKK primarily targeted the Chinese.

The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the spring of 1869. Vigilantes could measure their success that season by the carnage they left behind: marauded homesteads, assaulted politicians, a church burned to the ground. According to a local report, insurance companies considered canceling their policies, “owing to the Ku Klux threats.” A school serving students of color was supposedly next on the Klan’s hit list.

Such havoc could describe almost any southern state in the late 1860s. But in this particular instance, it describes California. With help from the journalist Knute Berger, I’ve uncovered more than a dozen attacks attributed to the Klan in California from 1868 to 1870, as well as a smaller number in Utah and Oregon. That figure is minuscule compared with what the former Confederate states endured in these years. Nonetheless, each of these western attacks left victims and sowed terror. And collectively, they challenge common assumptions about America’s long history of white-supremacist violence.

The story of the western Klan resembles that of its southern counterpart in the broad outline—vigilantes asserting white supremacy at gunpoint. But whereas southern Klansmen assaulted Black Americans and their white allies, western vigilantes targeted those they deemed a greater threat: Chinese immigrants. By 1870, migrants from China accounted for roughly 10 percent of the state’s population and a quarter of the total workforce. By comparison, Black people represented no more than 1 percent of the population. In striking against the Chinese and their employers, vigilantes framed their assaults as a campaign for white workers.

As I’ve talked about in the labor history series on several occasions (see here, here, and here), whites in California and on the west coast generally saw it as a White Man’s Country and would defend that principle with massive violence. If the Klan served that aim, then that was by no means out of bounds for whites at the time.

Of course, this also matters because of the recent wave of anti-Asian violence. For all the “model minority” lies, Asians have long been seen with great mistrust by whites and tolerated at best. It’s not hard to go from tolerance to murder by a racist white population, in the late 1860s or early 2020s.

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