By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
If you have been reading this paper long enough, you probably know that during the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese Americans faced appalling mistreatment at various times in this country. You probably also know that the subject was rarely taught in schools.
Now, there seems to be a solution. Washington State House Bill 5246 calls on the state to deem January “Chinese American history month” and encourages schools to “designate time for appropriate activities” to commemorate “the lives, history, achievements, and contributions of Chinese Americans.”
The bill is largely symbolic, but it is a good start, said WA Asians for Equality, the group that lobbied for the bill. In an emailed statement, the group said “Senate Democrat leadership blocked the bill not once, but twice, this past session… How can this be seen as anything more than an extension of the anti-Asian racism that Asians have been experiencing for generations now?”
So why is it stalling in the State Senate with a Democratic majority that espouses principles for equity and which just enacted a holiday for “Juneteenth,” to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States?
The answer depends to some extent on who you talk to.
For the Republican who sponsored the bill, Sen. Keith Wagoner, the bill is a chance to extend recognition to another marginalized group.
“I voted for Juneteenth,” he said in an interview.
Moreover, Wagoner is married to a Taiwanese woman whose father was a leader of the Chinese Nationalist’s navy. Wagoner, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot stationed in Okinawa, visited his wife’s ancestral home in China with her father in 1992.
“I usually get asked to sponsor things like this,” he said, mentioning that the Taiwanese government had bestowed upon him thousands of masks during the outset of the pandemic for him to coordinate distribution.
But for WA Asians for Equality, it is a direct plea for the state and country to wake up to the wave of anti-Asian hatred that has been roiling society since before the start of the pandemic.
They contend that, since the bill is stalled in the Senate (as of press time), this shows a bias of the Democrats against Asians—and apparently in favor of other marginalized groups—since they control the chamber and recently passed the bill for Juneteenth.
“The Democrat controlled Senate stalled Asian bill and let it die yet put Black bill on fast track to pass,” said a press statement from the group on April 9.
Democrats, reached by the Asian Weekly, on the other hand, say the bill is being used as a wedge to divide Asian Americans from Blacks and even create tensions within the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community at a time when urgent action is needed on other fronts, such as combating the pandemic.
They say that symbolic statements such as the one in the short bill, which requires no funding from the state, can be issued either by a resolution from the floor in the Senate or as an executive order from the governor.
By contrast, the bill creating the holiday of Juneteenth required the state to provide funding to pay for the salaries of state employees that would be compensated for taking time off.
Yet the bill calling for Chinese American history month requires no funding from the state and therefore does not need the approval of the legislature, one of whose functions is to apportion funds.
“Juneteenth needed appropriations, so it needed to go through the legislative process,” said state Rep. My-Linh Thai. “Chinese American history month would not need to go through the legislative process, it can be done through executive order by the Governor.”
Moreover, she said, “I have learned that for a bill to have a better chance in the legislative process, it needs to be involved, engaged, and supported by communities at large for feedback and inputs.”
WA Asians for Equality and other organizations with similar agendas have often allied themselves with the Republican Party, where they have found common interests, including opposition to affirmative action.
But state Sen. Joe Nguyen questioned that such an alliance was based in common opposition to anti-Asian hate incidents. The Republican Party has often protected those within its ranks who have spewed anti-Asian invective, including in the state legislature, he said.
“The anti-Asian rhetoric is coming from a party that is now trying to sponsor the bill,” Nguyen said.
Complicating the issue are outsiders such as Stephen Ling, a former teacher at Bethel Junior High School, who was contacted by the Tacoma News Tribune to voice support for the bill.
Ling said he supports the bill because he believes the region’s public schools have grievously neglected their duty to prepare students for a future in which they are “world citizens” as China becomes increasingly dominant.
Ling said the bill was about the future, not the past, and hoped it would encourage more public schools to offer classes in Chinese language, history, and civilization.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.