Not Yet an Apology

by hannah shin

The US Senate’s official apology for decades of racist and discriminatory legislation

On Oct. 6th, Senate Resolution 201 was passed. SR 201 is a bill that states the United States Senate: “(1) acknowledges that the framework of past anti-Chinese legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, is incompatible with the basic founding principles of equality recognized in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; (2) regrets passing six decades of legislation targeting the Chinese people for physical and political exclusion; and (3) reaffirms its commitment to preserving the same civil rights and constitutional protections for people of Chinese or other Asian descent in the United States accorded to all others.”

In other words, SR 201 is supposed to be an official apology to the Chinese American community for decades of racist legislation and treatment, and a resolve to protect the rights and liberties of individuals of Asian descent.

It’s been almost 130 years since the passing of the only bill to exclude individuals solely on the basis of race. Passed in 1882 and repealed in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which blocked Chinese immigrants from the U.S. mainland and denied citizenship to individuals of Chinese descent, was an apt apex of the racist, anti-Chinese sentiment that had been simmering since 1848, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants had eagerly flocked to “Gold Mountain” in the quest for lucrative riches. After experiencing the first acts of discrimination against them in the form of physical violence and the Foreign Miners’ Tax, among other things, many Chinese immigrants moved on to other fields of work, causing a perceived competition in the job market and increasing racial tension.

Even after the establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a slew of racist policies followed, ranging from the Geary Act of 1892, which barred those of Chinese descent from bearing witness in court and required all Chinese to carry residential papers, to the Immigration Act of 1917, which designated an Asiatic Barred Zone from which immigration was denied. The effects of this legalized racism were readily apparent: families were torn as a result of being denied entry or reentry, and assimilation grew increasingly difficult for Chinese Americans who were forced to live on the margins of mainstream American society; having no option but to cluster together, Chinatowns abounded, eventually becoming the fodder for vicious stereotypes and contempt still perpetuated in the present day.

So 130 years later, where does this leave the Chinese American community—and in a broader sense, the Asian American community?

While SR 201 may acknowledge the nation’s injustice to the Chinese American community, that’s really the only thing it does. The fact that the bill sticks a disclaimer that it’s not meant to “authorize or support any claim against the United States” or to “serve as a settlement of any claim against the United States,” essentially says, “we’re sorry, but don’t hold us accountable.”

But if someone consciously committed a crime, how can you not hold them responsible? If a nation not only admits clear wrongdoing but also remorse, then it’s only rational that it should work to correct those wrongs or at least take measures to prevent anything of the sort from happening again. The only reassurance given in the resolution is the reaffirmation of the nation’s commitment to protect the rights and liberties of individuals of Asian descent—the resolution merely recommits the U.S. to what it was already committed to do in the first place (and ironically broken, on multiple occasions).

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who co-sponsored the resolution, has stated that SR 201 is meant to enlighten those who may not be aware of this regrettable chapter in our history.” But this statement raises some doubts who exactly does the resolution set out to enlighten? If the bill refers to the general mainstream populace not well versed in Asian American history or with Asian Americans in general, it does a pretty terrible job of reaching out to those individuals. Not only is there no direct effort to educate the general public with solid measures like incorporating Asian American history in school curricula, but there’s barely any media coverage on the resolution at all—you have to literally go out of your way to find any information about the resolution or its significance.

So while the resolution is meant to acknowledge past wrongs and ultimately provide closure, apologies without amends are essentially empty gestures. Others may argue that it’s the symbolism that counts: a nation acknowledging its wrongdoing is sufficient enough. And to a certain extent, I agree. Acknowledgment, though, is only the first step toward reconciliation; if the nation proffers an apology to the Chinese American and Asian American community, it should take physical responsibility for its past crimes.

It’s like slapping a band-aid on a wound and hoping that with time it’ll heal on its own. But we know that sticking on a band-aid isn’t enough. If we want the wound to truly heal, we need to apply medicine that will not only heal the wound, but will make the area surrounding it sturdier and less susceptible to harm. And even band-aids can be detrimental; what is meant to seal things in for safety can in reality lock in already present contaminants and in turn cause the wound to fester and sore to a point where drastic intervention is necessary. And in this case, measures to promote awareness and prevent future injustices from being committed are necessary to truly salve the wounds of the past.

Words must be backed by actions, and until measures are taken to address specific injustices, this “official” admission of guilt will only be just that: an admission—not an apology.