CA Apologizes to Chinese for Racist Treatment, What Would My Grandparents Say?

By Julianne Hing Jul 22, 2009

Got word via Angry Asian Man that the California legislature apologized last week for racist laws targeted at Chinese Americans. We’re talking about a big, fat "Oopsies!" for, most notably, the Chinese Exclusion Act, but also anti-miscegenation laws, laws barring Chinese folks from buying or even renting property, laws that barred Chinese women from migrating to the U.S. Laws like the Yick Wo ordinance that targeted the primarily Chinese-run laundry businesses. It’s good news, sure. But the thing about these sorts of formal apologies for decades, even century-old racial offenses, is they give us a false sense of progress. We get to sigh contentedly, "We’re past that now. We’re bigger than that petty race stuff. We don’t do that anymore." If only, right? We might not be passing laws that explicitly mention which racial groups we’re going to persecute but it doesn’t mean we don’t have laws that have the same effect; legislators are just more sophisticated these days. And I suspect this apology was passed with such swiftness because the legislators explicitly left out any language about reparations. We wouldn’t want to actually have to pay for our transgressions, you know… My great grandfathers worked on the transatlantic railroad and as laundrymen. My grandmother was detained at Angel Island before she was allowed to be reunited with my grandfather, who spent years setting up a business and home in rural Arizona before he sent for his bride. I wonder what they’d have to say, if they were around to hear the news today. Would they be gratified at the news of this lovely worded apology? What if they knew that the same week this apology was passed, Pat Buchanan’s bigoted remarks that white folks were the ones who built this country, reverberated across the country? Over the weekend I was in Arizona with my family and someone mentioned the Philly swimming pool incident from a couple weeks ago, and one of my uncles, who’s now 81, recalled the time when he and his Boy Scout troop headed to a neighboring town’s public swimming hole and were turned away because of my Chinese uncle, then a child. "They didn’t want me there," he said. Another of my dad’s brothers recalled their experiences being barred from buying property in the tony neighborhoods of Scottsdale, Arizona, when he and his wife were a young married couple. The conversation turned to memories of being locked out of whole swaths of the Southwest in the 50s and 60s when my aunts and uncles were settling down. My aunt and her husband settled in Monterey Park, in Southern California, because it was one of the only neighborhoods in the LA area that would sell homes to Asian folks at the time. My aunts and uncles recalled the shock at seeing restrictive covenants written into the deeds of the homes they eventually owned. They never mentioned the hurt though, what must have been a very harsh sting. It was all so matter-of-fact, the conversation. These were all stories I’d heard before–these sorts of memories don’t die easily. What does an apology mean when discrimination continued long after exclusion was outlawed? Was the California legislature referring to these more recent acts of racist treatment with its passage of the apology? Do those lawmakers realize there are exclusionary laws on the books right now that are having the same destructive effect on communities across the state today? Like my mama often says to me, "You don’t need to say you’re sorry. You just need to not do it anymore." The state could take a cue from her.