The Case for Symbolism

Some Congress people are trying to get the US government to issue an apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the Chinese from immigrating to the US, or in the case of those who already had, kept them from naturalizing as American citizens. It was a dark, 60 year moment in American history that most people agree now, was racist.


Keeping an entire group of people out of the US based on stereotypes and fear is unfair. So why does the government need to apologize for it now? The people who were around when Congress passed it are dead (1882), but there are still some people from when the law was repealed (1943). Maybe they’d like the acknowledgement. Or maybe their children and grandchildren would. Or maybe it seems fair, since the US government apologized for interning Japanese Americans back in World War II.


Or maybe (and this is the real hope), the US will reflect on its past racisms (genocide of the American Indians, slavery, Chinese exclusion, the annexation of Hawaii, the colonization of the Philipines, the recent violence against Muslims and people who look Muslim, etc.) and learn how not to do them again.


People are generally much more willing to talk about what WAS racist, rather than what IS racist. Maybe that’s the point about bring up the past at a time like this. Maybe a discussion of how the US scapegoated immigrant groups during economic recessions in the past, blaming them for taking jobs and not learning English and generally being morally unfit for society, will help us kick start conversations about the ways that we’ve continued to do that today. Here’s to drawing undeniable comparisons across history.


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