Hindus “Get out”:  Bothell, WA harks back to the Bellingham “Hindu riots” of 1907 and widespread xenophobia in America’s Pacific North-West

The recent vandalism at a Hindu temple in Bothell, a town of 33,000 in the state of Washington with a hate message — “Get Out”– spray painted on it’s walls brings up painful memories for the Indian-American community.

Bothell, WA is only 78 miles or little over an hour south from another small town in Washington state – Bellingham, one with a history of racism and where in September 1907, the entire Indian community, primarily Sikh immigrants, were rounded up and driven out by a White mob.

Bellingham in Northwestern Washington was a boomtown in the early 20th century and employed hundreds of immigrants including Indians in its lumber mills. Indians, like the Japanese and Chinese before them, were met with hostility and racism by European laborers and union members. This hostility toward Indians, not just in Washington state but also in California and Oregon was disproportionate to their numbers.

The total population of Indians in the US in 1907 was no more than two thousand. Yet their arrival and immediate participation in the economy of the Pacific coast generated an antagonistic and adversarial response among whites that was both racist and Hinduphobic (Sikh immigrants were presumed to be Hindu too). America, European immigrants and locals believed, was a “white man’s country” and the only “huddled masses” welcome, were those from Europe or better still, from Northern Europe.  In May 1905, two years before the 1907 riots erupted, almost 67 European-American labor unions had formed the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League. Renamed the Asian Exclusion League (AEL) in 1907, the objective of the league was to keep all Asian labor out of the United States. Ironically, the leaders of the AEL were immigrants too – primarily from Norway, England and Ireland. In 1906, Olaf Tvetmoe, the Norwegian general secretary of one of the labor unions and the founding editor of the paper “Organized Labor”, stated in an editorial piece, the fears of the League:

The literature and statistics sent out by the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League has done wonderful work in educating the public”.

“. . . They have learned the truth that the Japanese coolie is even a greater menace to the existence of the white race, to the progress and prosperity of our country than is the Chinese coolie. But if there has been danger from Asiatic immigration to our state before that danger has not lessened now. On the contrary, it has increased. The great calamity (the Great Earthquake of 1906) which befell San Francisco will furnish the orient with lurid tales of opportunity for employment and profit. California, the land of fabulous wealth, revenue and mountains of gold, and San Francisco with its wonderful wages will be exploited before the ignorant coolies until they come in shiploads like an endless swarm of rats

“. . . Great as the recent catastrophe has been, let us take care lest we encounter a greater one. We can withstand the earthquake. We can survive the fire. As long as California is white man’s country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion, there will be no more California”.

Antagonism toward Indians inevitably made its way to the press. In the Puget Sound, a local Bellingham paper, the headlines of  the September 16, 1906 issue asked provocatively: “Have we a dusky peril? Hindu hordes invading the state.” A reader of the paper wrote in to say that:

I consider their (Hindus) advent in this country very undesirable”. (…) “Their code of morals is bad (from our point of view) and if allowed the freedom, which they naturally expect in America, they will eventually become troublesome”.

In May 1907, a few months before the Bellingham riots, Fred Lockley, an influential American journalist wrote a piece in the Pacific Monthly magazine titled, “The Hindu Invasion: A New Immigration Problem”. In it he asks:  

“our kinsmen (Indians) in the Far East are turning their faces westward. Here and there a tiny crevice has appeared in the dam that has held them in check for so long. They are trickling through in a slight and apparently insignificant stream into the Western lands but will the stream gradually enlarge till it floods our lands and menaces our institutions?”

It was this climate of hostility and activism by the labor unions that led to the riots in Bellingham. The town was home to nearly 800 members of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League. On September 4, 1907, about 500 working class white men the majority of whom were League members, gathered to drive the Indians out of the town. The Indians in Bellingham were mostly Sikh though referred to as Hindu, the term conflated with Indian ethnicity. To cries of “drive out the Hindus”, for about 5 hours, the mob went from house to house (boarding and bunkhouses where Indian men typically lived in groups) and mill to mill to drive out the Indians. Several men were dragged to the streets and beaten up. Valuables found in the bunkhouses were stolen and 6 Indians had to be hospitalized. That night about 200 Indians were rounded up at the City Hall in Bellingham while many were driven out to the city limits.

Eventually in about 10 days every Indian had left town to never return. On September 6th, the New York Times remarked that the “police were helpless” during the raid and “all authority paralyzed” while the mob worked. It further stated that “there is a strong undercurrent of opinion which apparently approves the action of the members and it may be found impossible to prosecute the raiders”. Indeed not a single person from the mob was ever prosecuted. A few days later, an editorial in the Bellingham Herald, declared in seeming solidarity with the rioters: “the Hindu is not a good citizen. It would require centuries to assimilate him and this country need not take the trouble. Our racial burdens are already heavy enough to bear”.

A 100 years after Bellingham, in September 2007, the Bellingham Herald wrote an editorial apologizing for the language used in the coverage of the riots, for the “racism that was not only tolerated but encouraged”  in the newspaper and for the paper’s refusal to defend the Indians because of their skin tone and ethnicity.

The incident in Bothell, so close to Bellingham, reveals that unfortunately both racism and Hinduphobia are alive and well in America. According to the Hindu American Foundation, the incident in Bothell is not an isolated one. There has been a spate of anti-Hindu incidents across the US in recent months. In August a murti of Shiva at the Vishwa Bhavan, Hindu Mandir in Georgia state was desecrated with black paint. Between July and October in Loudon County in Virginia alone, police documented 17 separate incidents of anti-Hindu vandalism according to HAF.

Usually, cases of anti-Hindu bigotry are mischaracterized as race related incidents and anti-Hindu crimes have been added as a category in crime reporting only this past January. What accounts for these anti-Hindu hate crimes?  In addition to race, Indian-American author Rajiv Malhotra lays at least some of the blame on biases generated against Hinduism in the American academy and evangelical churches, the two sometimes working in tandem, the lines between them, blurred. These two groups have continued the hoary and self-serving traditions of indologists and missionaries of centuries past, their biases eventually permeating mainstream and popular culture.

The vandalizing of the Hindu temple in Bothell came days after the galling reference to India  by President Obama at the “National Prayer Breakfast” in Washington, when he remarked that “acts of intolerance” in India would have “shocked Gandhi”. Not surprisingly, the “National Prayer Breakfast” itself is a tradition instituted by the efforts of American evangelicals, the main promoter, the “Fellowship Foundation”, a Christian religious and political group. As yet, President Obama has remained mum on the theology of exclusivism and supremacy (Christianity is the only “true faith”) among evangelicals that begets widespread religious intolerance in the first place. Now that would have shocked Gandhi.

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