The “Dusky Peril” and locating race in racial violence

Headline of the Puget Sound American (Bellingham, WA), September 16, 1906. (Source: South Asian American Digital Archive, via

Headline of the Puget Sound American (Bellingham, WA), September 16, 1906. (Source: South Asian American Digital Archive, via

On The Vault (the history blog for Slate magazine), historian Peter Manseau recounts the history of the 1907 Bellingham riots in Washington state, in which Sikh laborers were attacked and driven out of the town’s lumber industry by mobs of white men:

As reported across the country, in September 1907, a mob of disgruntled white workers rounded up hundreds of Sikhs, beat them in the street, and then forced them out of town. Many went north to British Columbia; others went south to California, where a Punjabi-Mexican community briefly flourished.

While we ponder today whether the recent murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina was a hate crime or a merely an argument over parking gone horrifically wrong, it’s worth remembering that acts of violence committed against religious groups in American history have rarely had a single cause.

The Bellingham Riots is one of the lessor known incidents of violent racial action in which ethnic communities were targeted by the majority in America. A few years ago, the South Asian American Digital Archive published a documentary that recounted the history of the riots, connecting them to local civil rights issues in Washington state today.

The comparison between the 1907 anti-Sikh riots in Bellingham and the murder of three Muslims in North Carolina made by Peter Manseau in his article is interesting, and we may also consider the role of the media in both cases in perpetuating stereotypes and rationalizing the violence against the victims. The negative characterization of ethnic communities that was rampant at the turn to the twentieth century — Sikh immigrants were accused of stealing jobs and even for the emerging use of marijuana in the west during that period — can’t be ignored in how these communities were mistreated.

Though, ostensibly, there is reason other than racial/ethnic discrimination that can be identified as the motive in both acts of violence, a necessary question is warranted around whether the incidents would have been violent, or would have occurred at all, had the victims not been from ethnic communities, and more, whether this tendency is just a relic of the past.

Read Peter Manseau’s full article on The Vault.


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