Leadership lessons for the long run
In 1981, en route from Massachusetts to begin his Ph.D. at Stanford, Scott Lankford stopped at Lake Tahoe, and managed to stay there for much of the next ten years. Today Dr. Lankford is a professor of English at Foothill College in California’s Silicon Valley.
His new book “Tahoe Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Stories of America’s Largest Mountain Lake” includes a chapter that chronicles the consequential, and yet almost completely forgotten struggle of Asian Americans for equal rights in the late 19th century. A battle that was won, and foreshadowed the civil rights victories of the 20th century.
I interviewed Scott Lankford recently about his book, Asian American history, and leadership:
As someone who was already familiar with Asian American history, you were nevertheless surprised by what you uncovered while researching this book. Why?
In writing Tahoe beneath the Surface, I was shocked and horrified to learn of the endless series of Anti-Chinese riots, rapes, arson, and domestic terrorism which rained down on Tahoe’s Truckee Chinatown in the late 1800s — especially given that Truckee was arguably home to the largest Chinatown in all of America in the early1870s.
And yet you characterized this as a pivotal moment in U.S. equal rights history.
I was inspired by the leadership these early Chinese American communities showed in fighting back by legal means — thereby laying the groundwork for many of the civil rights triumphs of the 20th Century. Using their intelligence, wealth, and political muscle, the Chinese brought thousands of lawsuits — several of which went on to become landmark cases in the Supreme Court. Indeed several of the first landmark cases testing the application of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all citizens) were brought forward by the Chinese in California. From Sacramento to Eureka to San Jose to Tahoe, Chinese workers fought discrimination with strikes and walkouts. They organized protection committees to defend their property — and even shipped firearms from San Francisco up to Tahoe Truckee to help Chinese immigrants and citizens (the children of immigrants born here in the States) in the Sierra fight the tide of violence and terror. They even sued for financial reparations when their towns and livelihoods were destroyed — setting a precedent for the reparations more recently paid to Japanese, Filipino, and Native American communities.
But can their efforts really be considered a “success” when virtually all of America’s Chinatowns were burned down and destroyed – and so many Chinese immigrants lost their lives in the violence?
Admittedly most of these measures failed in the short run: Tahoe’s Chinatown in Truckee was burned to the ground, and the Chinese were literally driven out – as they were driven out and burned out and bullied out from towns across the West. But in the long run they lost the battles but won the war.
In the words of Professor Jean Pfaelzer at the University of Delaware, author of “Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans” (2007), “The Chinese contribution to civil rights litigation is generally ignored outside the field of Asian American legal studies. History is still unaware of most of these cases…which broadened the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and extended equal protection under the law “to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality.”
What leadership lessons can we draw from this chapter of American history?
Sometimes true leadership means leadership for the long run — regardless of short-term costs and even defeats. Hence the civil rights we all now enjoy owe much to the leadership and courage of some of California’s earliest Asian Americans. That’s part of the hidden history of Lake Tahoe — and our shared heritage as Americans.
Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. Write to Preston at firstname.lastname@example.org, and access free resources at www.nipreston.com.
© 2011 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved.