California: Sorry About the Racist Laws

1889 - from California Historical Society, San Francisco; poster boycotting a business rumored to hire Chinese workers1852 photo by J.B. StarweatherCalifornia has been offering apologies for its past injustices toward Asian Americans for the past few weeks. We first heard about University of California granting Japanese American WWII internees honorary degrees, and now we hear that the state of California recently passed bill ACR 42, which apologizes for past racist state laws against the Chinese community that go as far back as 150 years ago, and acknowledges contributions Chinese immigrants have made, in particular, their work in constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. The bill was sponsored by California State Assemblymembers Kevin de Léon and Paul Fong. "It's symbolic to recognize that the state made mistakes," says Fong. "These laws reverberate to this date because racism still exists."

1889 poster from California Historical Society - boycotting business rumored to hire Chinese workers

Now if your knowledge of American history is a bit rusty, here’s a quick refresher for why this apology is significant. The racist laws in question were drafted during the Gold Rush (1849-1852), a period when waves of Chinese immigrants (about 25,000) migrated to California. These laws obliterated rights such as interracial marriage, owning property and testifying against whites in court. Many weren't even repealed until the 1940s — nearly a hundred years later!

Though I'm a Chinese resident of California, I'm only a first-generation immigrant, so no one in my family has suffered the indignities the bill ameliorates. Since many of the immigrants directly affected by these laws have passed away, it's hard for us younger generations to understand their sufferings. But, however distanced we may think we are from this period of overt discrimination, it's clear that traces of racism from past policies still and will continue to linger in society. That's why Chinese Americans today have to look to the past in order to prepare for a better future, where past mistakes won't repeat itself. As a next step, Assembly member Fong will appeal to Congress and request a nationwide apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act that denied Chinese American immigration from 1882 to 1943.

Photos: (top) 1852 photo by J.B. Starkweather of Chinese and European American workers at a gold mine; (bottom) 1889 poster boycotting a coffee house because it employed Chinese immigrants, fine print reads "Although hundreds of capable and deserving White Workingmen seek employment, Brown continues to employ CHINAMEN." Image courtesy of California Historical Society.