On July 17, California formally apologized to Chinese Americans for racist laws that were enacted starting with the Gold Rush period in the mid-19th century. According to a recent TIME magazine story, the racist laws, some of which were not repealed until the 1940s, prevented Chinese Americans from owning property, marrying whites, working in the public sector, or testifying against whites in courts.
In addition to apologizing, the bill also recognizes the contributions that the Chinese immigrants have made to California, most notable by helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Though a landmark bill, this apology is not the first of its kind. Previously, there have been apologies to Black Americans for slavery and Jim Crow laws. In 1988, 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II were paid $20,000 each in reparations.
This bill was cosponsored by California assembly member Paul Fong. “It’s symbolic to recognize that the state made mistakes,” he told time. “These laws reverberate to this date because racism still exists.”
Fong’s own grandfather was affected by these laws when he was held at Angel Island, an immigration station near San Francisco, for more than 3 months despite being a U.S. citizen.
The California bill passed quickly and quietly, something that Fong hopes to repeat on the federal level when he takes the issue to Congress. He will request an apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943) which has been the only federal law enacted that denied immigration based exclusively on race and nationality.
If Fong accomplishes his goal — which is likely with President Obama’s sympathies toward this kind of issue — not only would it put focus on this part of our history for people who were previously unaware that these events happened, but it would also serve as a closing chapter to this history.
Like Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans would finally be able to say that their government has acknowledged that the laws were racist and has formally apologized for it.
Though most of the direct victims of the laws have already passed away, the apology may be of little comfort for some. We understand why people would feel this way.
However, we do urge families to consider that implicit in the apology is also the understanding that our government will put forth its best efforts not to let this happen again. Perhaps that is of some comfort.
Fong is not pushing for reparations for surviving victims. He says that it is more important to educate younger generations about the mistakes of the past. He says he may ask for funding to preserve Angel Island immigration station. ♦