Wed 17 Jun, 2009
Tags: Apologies, Asian Americans, Chinese immigrants, Legislation
I’m often asked, when discussing apologies, reparations, or other proposals for addressing the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, whether or not such measures have been taken for other historical events.
In weighing how to respond to historic injustices, a problem for which we have no widely-accepted and time-tested solutions, it seems to help people to know what precedents exist. It matters, for instance, that the U.S. apologized and offered reparations for interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in WWII, even though it took a half-century—and, in some cases, reparations had to be paid to descendants of the original victims. There are other examples, including the 1993 congressional apology to native Hawaiians and apologies for slavery by the U.S. House and eight state legislatures in the last two years. Other apologies are currently being considered, including ones in the U.S. Senate for slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
Today, another potential precedent has emerged: Next week, the California State Assembly is scheduled to consider a measure which would apologize for discrimination against Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The resolution, ACR 42, was introduced this spring by Assembly members Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
The measure, a concurrent resolution to be voted on by both the Assembly and the state Senate, is now scheduled to be taken up at a hearing of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee next Tuesday, June 23.
The resolution, as amended, recites the history of the Chinese immigrant experience in California, including the role of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants in building the transcontinental railroad following the California gold rush, and in making other vital contributions to the history of the state and the nation. The text also recounts the considerable discrimination faced by Chinese-Americans, including lower pay and sub-standard working conditions. The role of the state legislature is given particular attention, as discriminatory laws denied Californians of Chinese descent the right to own land or property, the right to vote, and the right to marry white people. California laws also denied Chinese-Americans the opportunity to attend public schools, to be hired by public agencies, or to testify in court.
After acknowledging the value of diversity and the state’s imperfect record on toleration, the resolution states that the state legislature “deeply regrets” its role in discrimination against Chinese-Americans.
According to the Associated Press, Fong also intends to seek a federal apology and reparations, perhaps in the form of support for the famed Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. Fong’s grandfather spent two months at Angel Island in 1939, being held for questioning to determine whether he was eligible for entry in to the U.S. under highly restrictive and racially discriminatory immigration policies.
I suspect that this resolution will generate some controversy within the Asian-American community. There is always a question of how broadly or narrowly to seek recognition for historical discrimination: when should discrimination against one group be discussed in isolation, and when must it be placed alongside the parallel experiences of other groups? This resolution itself notes how deeply intertwined racial prejudice often is, as it argues that discrimination against the Chinese in California helped lead to the emergence of Jim Crow laws throughout the nation. In this case, however, the discrimination at issue can’t even be disentangled from the experiences of other groups: The resolution refers consistently only to discrimination against Chinese Americans, when in fact much of that discrimination was actually against all those of Asian descent (such as large numbers of Japanese-Americans) without distinction.