Though attention has focused largely on the state budget, among other issues the California legislature has dealt with this year is a unanimously-passed resolution recognizing the great contributions people of Chinese origin have made to the state’s development, and apologizing for past laws that persecuted them.
Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 42, introduced by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, was passed in mid-July. It presents a compelling account of the many ways Chinese Americans have helped create present-day California, from their role in building the transcontinental railroad and developing agriculture and other industries to their present participation as elected officials, leading scientists, academics and businesspeople.
It also presents a graphic picture of repression and discrimination that continued well into the 20th century.
The resolution is “the first formal apology offered to the Chinese American community,” Fong said in a telephone interview. “Learning from the past and acknowledging the injustice our history holds will help us become a stronger state.” Fong, a former political science and Asian American studies professor, was elected to the Assembly last year.
According to the resolution, Chinese in California couldn’t own land or property, vote, or marry a white person. Their children couldn’t go to public schools, and immigrants were forced to stay outside town and city limits. Chinese couldn’t be employed on public works projects, couldn’t be issued licenses and couldn’t fish in state waters. They faced additional discrimination at the local level.
The resolution also cites California’s role in lobbying Congress to pass the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, “the first federal law ever passed excluding a group of immigrants solely on the basis of race or nationality,” which set a precedent reflected in Jim Crow laws and other segregation legislation. The 1882 law was not repealed until 1943, when China was a U.S. ally in World War II.
“These laws reverberate today,” Fong said. Despite the official repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, he said, Chinese exclusion did not really end until the Immigration and Nationality Act opened up immigration to all people in 1965.
Calling diversity “one of our state’s greatest strengths,” and citing the role of “immigrants of all backgrounds” in California’s development, the legislature “deeply regrets” past discriminatory laws “and reaffirms its commitment to preserving the rights of all people and celebrating the contributions that all immigrants have made to this state and nation.”
Chinese American community leaders agree the document has an important message for today. “Resolutions are a good step and we hope to see actions taken in this spirit as well,” said Alex Tom, co-director of the San Francisco-based Chinese Progressive Association. With Chinese and other poor working people facing unemployment, lack of health care and cuts in vital services, “it’s very important to have justice on a political level, recognition of poor past practices in our country. But moving forward, we hope this resolution can compel more legislatures to take steps toward economic justice, too.”
“When we look at the way Chinese Americans were treated in the past ― or African Americans ― where any group has faced various forms of discrimination and oppression, we ought to connect it to how we are treating the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our society today,” added Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, also based in San Francisco.
Both cited the problem of Asian Americans being viewed as a “model minority” that no longer faces challenges. Pan noted that some of the highest poverty rates among any ethnic or racial group occur in Southeast Asian communities, while many people of Chinese background, whether immigrants or U.S.-born, still struggle in low wage jobs and lack access to services.
And no matter how a particular racial or ethnic community experiences oppression, said Tom, “it’s all coming from the same larger system.”
While much work is needed to change a perspective that “still tells the story of America in a very narrow and limited way,” Pan said, younger people including elected officials increasingly recognize that truly loving one’s country also includes criticizing it when necessary.