Government “Apologies” for Historical Injustices: Why They Matter

“I rejoice in this most recent admission of institutional racism. I am not naïve enough to believe that this public acknowledgment, like previous ones to other racial-ethnic groups, was untainted by political calculations. But I am also not Kantian (so I reject the view that anything done out of mixed motives accordingly lacks moral merit).”

On June 18, 2012, the United States issued a rare mea culpa to a racial-ethnic group for the wrongs it had committed against them. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution expressing “regret” for “the passage of legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States because of their ethnicity.”

H. RES 683 chronicles six decades of federal legislation aimed at or against persons of Chinese descent. The most famous of these was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first and only federal law in U.S. history that barred a group of people from ever immigrating, becoming naturalized, or voting for no other reason than their ethnicity.  (It was not repealed until the passage of the Magnuson Act during World War II.)

Lawmakers also acknowledged in the earlier (and longer) Senate resolution SR 201 that this framework of anti-Chinese legislation:

(1)  resulted in the persecution and political alienation of persons of Chinese descent;

(2)  unfairly limited their civil rights;

(3)  legitimized racial discrimination; and

(4)  induced trauma that persist within the Chinese community.

Both resolutions named these federal statutes as contravening the nation’s founding principle of equality and as having legally enshrined the “exclusion of the Chinese from the democratic process and the promise of American freedom.”

The sponsor of H. Res. 683, Representative Judy Chu, at a 6/13/12 press conference.                                               Chu is also the first Chinese American woman ever elected to Congress.

While exceedingly rare, this wasn’t the first time that U.S. lawmakers have expressed regret to a racial or ethnic group for historical injustices committed against them and/or their descendants. African Americans, Native Americans, native Hawaiians, and Japanese Americans have also received national “apologies” (for slavery and Jim Crow segregation, “many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect,” the “illegal overthrow” of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and forced relocation and internment during World War II, respectively).

I rejoice in this most recent admission of institutional racism. I am not naïve enough to believe that this public acknowledgment, like previous ones to other racial-ethnic groups, was untainted by political caculations. But I am also not Kantian (i.e., I reject the view that anything done out of mixed motives accordingly lacks moral merit)

So the feminist in me rejoices in these resolutions not only because the feminist movement has struggled (and still struggles) with racism, but also because the best feminist analysis has always been an intersectional one (e.g., anti-Chinese bias was based on class and not just race, Chinese men were and still often are feminized–even emasculated–by the white mainstream).

And the Christian in me appreciates how difficult it is for either individuals or institutions to deal with the sin of racism; and how truth-telling and genuine remorse for wrongdoing are crucial ingredients for restorative justice.

And the American, specifically Taiwanese American, in me has hope that a bipartisan, public admission of this ugly history will, to use the words of Senate resolution SR 201, allow “the public and future generations” to “acknowledge and illuminate the injustices in our national experience and help to build a better and stronger Nation.”

Postscript 1: While my reaction to these resolutions has largely been positive, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the concern that the resolutions’ concluding disclaimers (that nothing therein may be construed as authorizing or supporting any claim against the United States) are intended to preclude these historic concessions from being used as grounds for legal redress (e.g., reparations). In the words of blogger Hannah Shin, “words must be backed by actions, and until measures are taken to address specific injustices, this ‘official’ admission of guilt will only be just that: an admission—not an apology.”

Postscript 2: Twenty years ago, in the summer after I had graduated from college, I got in a heated argument with the family who was hosting three of us for a church retreat in San Francisco.  (All members of the host family were Caucasian, we three recent grads were all women of Chinese or Taiwanese descent). As good, hospitable, and decent as our host family was, they simply could not accept what I was telling them—institutional racism is real, it is not simply something “in the past.” I was just as incensed by their denial as I was about their implication that my charge of racism had more to do with some pathology on my part than something based in fact.

If I could meet-up with that host family again, I’d be curious to learn if they still hold the views that they once did. I would share them what these resolutions mean to me. I would also hope that our discussion of race and racism could be less heated than it was then.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing a volume with Rebecca Todd Peters that is tentatively entitled “Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives.” You can read more about her work on her website.

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Categories: Academy, Asian American, Chinese American, Christianity, civil rights, Ethics, General, institutional racism, Race and Ethnicity, racial discrimination, racial-ethnic minorities, Social Justice, Taiwanese American

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2 replies

  1. It is always easier for the institution to acknowledge institutional injustices in the past (which conveniently gives the impression that we are beyond it) than to face up to what it is actively doing to racial minorities today, as exemplified by the mass human rights violations at the borders, mass minority incarceration (see Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow), the pseudo war on drugs, and the war on terror.

    • Yi Shen – agreed. Thanks for writing. My view on this, however, is that the fact that these resolutions don’t do everything is not a sufficient reason for me to act as if they do nothing. It was simply unfathomable to me that the U.S. would ever apologize for the Chinese Exclusion Act (+ 6 decades more of anti-Chinese, and then anti-Asian legislation). Also, what is incredible to me is the text of the Senate Resolution. In passages where the resolution names the number of ways that the Chinese were considered unfit for citizenship, one could easily substitute Hispanics (the current “detested” minority in terms of immigration) for the Chinese. In this sense, I read the Senate Resolution as a veiled critique of the current rhetoric against Mexicans who cross the border.

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