In the midst of the state's worst budget crisis ever, the California legislature last week approved a bill apologizing for racist laws passed against Chinese-Americans dating back to the 19th century. While no one is questioning whether those laws were wrong, one question that is being asked is this: Is the legislature wasting its time with such bills, when there are other more pressing matters at hand?
The laws barred Chinese people from owning land or property, marrying whites, working in the public sector and testifying against whites in court. All of these laws have obviously since been repealed, but some were still in effect as recently as the 1940s. The new bill also recognizes the contributions Chinese immigrants have made to the state, particularly their work on the Transcontinental Railroad.
The resolution moved quickly through the legislature after being introduced in February. "It's symbolic to recognize that the state made mistakes," says assembly member Paul Fong, who co-sponsored the legislation. "These laws reverberate to this date because racism still exists."
It's believed virtually all of the direct victims of these laws are dead. So why bother apologizing at all? South Korea, for example, last year dropped its tradition of demanding apologies from Japan for its colonial rule of Koreans. Then President-elect Lee Myung-bak said, "For a new, mature Seoul-Tokyo relationship, I don’t want to ask them to apologize for, or examine themselves... It’s true that Japan has so far only made perfunctory apologies or self-examinations in the past, and such apologies failed to move the Korean people to a large extent."
In Europe, where former enemies are now friends, pushing for apologies for past events could lead to disaster for the coalition. In 2006, Britain’s former European Minister Denis MacShane warned that if the European Union begins to ask member countries for formal apologizes for certain events in their histories, the bloc could face a danger of collapse.
Certainly, historical apologies are not unheard of. Germany has not stopped apologizing for the Holocaust. Last year, the U.S. Congress formally apologized to black Americans for slavery and Jim Crow laws, which were not repealed until the 1960s. And in the nation's most famous mea cupla, in 1988 the U.S. government decided to pay $20,000 to each of the surviving 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned in camps during World War II.
Perhaps Donald Tamaki, an attorney who helped overturn wrongful WWII-era convictions of Japanese Americans, summed it up best when he said, "Part of what a humane society does is recognize past injustices and address them."