Apology Not Accepted

California State Legislature officially apologizes to Chinese Americans for past racial discriminatory laws

by michell ho

On July 17th, the California State Legislature quietly passed the Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 42, a bill meant to officially apologize to the state’s Chinese American community for racial discriminatory laws passed as far back as the Gold Rush of the 1850’s. These discriminatory laws, which affected about 25,000 Chinese immigrants, denied Chinese the rights to own property, marry white women, work in the public sector, and testify against whites in court. The new bill also acknowledges the work Chinese Americans contributed in constructing nearly 80% of the Western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It ends with listing quite a few Chinese Americans CEOs in big companies who have “made” it in today’s society.

Most importantly, an apology is meant not only to express regret for what happened, but also to recognize what led up to the mistakes made. In this case, there should have been a greater emphasis in the bill on why California decided to ban Chinese immigrants in the past: for example, because of the color of their skin. In addition, the bill should have addressed how the racist laws affected Chinese immigrants psychologically—how did the Chinese feel about the grand scale of discrimination against them? But nowhere does the bill explicitly state these issues.

However, almost everything described on the bill can easily be found in any history book that discusses Chinese Americans. Yes, it is important to talk about what happened, but the bill looks more like a list of historic events involving Chinese Americans than an apology. It does not explicitly address the racial injustices behind the laws. It barely even mentions the word “racism.” It goes on to talk about the Statue of Liberty and how the laws did not adhere to the American ideals of freedom and hope. Oh. Like we didn’t know that already.

This isn’t the first time a government has made an apology for what it has done to its people in the past. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Chinese Canadians for the unequal taxes forced upon them in the late 19th century. In February 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an apology to the Aborigines for past racist laws, especially the one that forced separation of children from their parents. Five months afterward, the United States Congress made a formal apology to African Americans for slavery and the infamous Jim Crow laws. Perhaps most famous of all, in 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the historical Civil Liberties Act that granted each of the surviving 120,000 Japanese American internees $20,000 dollars in reparation for their imprisonment in internment camps during World War II.

But what is the purpose of California’s apology? An apology is a sincere, heartfelt statement that expresses guilt or regret for one’s past actions. One reason we say sorry is because we hurt other people’s feelings by doing something wrong. To say you are sorry does not mean making reparations or passing a formal bill. The word “sorry” did not even appear at all in the bill. So was this bill passed only as a result of pressure from Chinese communities, as California hopes to look good by admitting its “wrong” and showing responsibility for the past?

Or is California just following the “wave” of apologies other countries have made to their people?

The bill expresses its “regrets” for the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law that excluded an entire population based solely on nationality. This law virtually denied all ethnic Chinese immigrants entry to the United States. It was followed by the Scott Act of 1888, which prohibited re-entry to the U.S. for undocumented Chinese immigrants who were here before 1882. The Geary Act of 1892 renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act for 10 years. Finally, in 1902 the law was extended indefinitely to exclude all Chinese from entering the U.S., until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act of 1943. Large scale immigration for the Chinese did not take place until the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965, which finally opened up entry to the United States for various immigrant groups. These were just a few of the racist laws against the Chinese. Does an apology on a good ol’ summery day in July compensate for over 150 years of painful discriminatory practices imposed on Chinese immigrants? No.

But wait. That’s not all. What about the immigrants who weren’t Chinese? They suffered racial discrimination and multiple racist laws as well. The Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laos, Cambodian, and South Asian Indians immigrants all experienced racial discrimination during the same time period in California, but have yet to receive any formal apology. Once again, the California State Legislature has made the infamous mistake of overlooking the distinct identities of different Asian American groups. Other Asian ethnic groups, not just the Chinese, were also affected by the “perpetual foreigner” ideology, and each clearly had its own unique struggles with racial discrimination in America.

One cannot deny the fact that so many years passed before this apology came along. Most of the victims of these discriminatory laws have already died. So who is California apologizing to? Is it to the descendants of the Chinese immigrants so that we don’t make a big fuss over the government’s past wrongs? Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), who co-sponsored the apology bill, asserted that “By apologizing, we’ll hopefully close those wounds and close a sad chapter in our history.”

I don’t agree. An apology cannot “close” wounds inflicted by racist laws over a century ago. An apology cannot account for all the Chinese Americans endured, struggles that still leave behind their emotional marks on the second or third Chinese generation today. An apology cannot eliminate history. If the purpose of this apology is just to close a sad chapter in the history of America, then there is no meaning in it.

I believe that to some extent, California issued this apology to save face for its legislature. By mentioning a few Chinese Americans CEOs and members in Congress, the bill tries to make a sort of amends for its injustices. This inclusion in the bill is somewhat awkward, because it is as if having Chinese Americans in these positions can right the wrong of racial discrimination. Of course it is important to have representation of Chinese Americans in the business or political arenas and to acknowledge their achievements, but mentioning this in an apology bill is inappropriate. It suggests that California has now somehow compensated for the past since there are Chinese Americans at the top of the social ladder and part of the political world today. The bill seems to infer that simply being Chinese, rather than their abilities, led them to those prestigious positions.

As a Chinese American, I will never forget the history of my ancestors in this country. The chapter will never close. The wounds will always be there, to remind me of what it took for me to be here, right now, living in the freedom paid for by the pain my ancestors felt throughout the past decades.

It is definitely a step forward for Chinese Americans now that California is admitting its past prejudice toward Chinese Americans and bringing light to the often hidden history of Asian Americans in general. I do applaud the bill for acknowledging the contributions of Chinese Americans and recognizing California’s past racial discrimination toward immigrant minority groups. I also applaud the bill for confessing the fact that this discrimination did not represent the ideals of freedom and equality promised to all of America.

But it is certainly debatable how real and sincere this apology is. After all, it is mostly a regurgitation of the history of Chinese Americans. More importantly, the bill does not really focus on the reasons behind the injustices. It never mentions the emotional or psychological impact of racial discrimination—how the laws changed the way Chinese immigrants faced their struggles and lived in America. It never brings up how hard it was for Chinese Americans to make a stand in today’s society.

Moreover, if this is an apology for California’s past racial discrimination against immigrants, then there should be a formal apology to each of the ethnic minority groups that have had marked a history in California. If not, then don’t call it an apology. Call it an acknowledgment of Chinese Americans’ contributions to the growth of California. Is it truly an apology if it comes 159 years after the fact, after thousands of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans have already been put through a living hell? I don’t think so.