“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
– William Gladstone, former British prime minister
We take time to honor the contributions of Americans past and present this month as Washington, D.C., officially unveils the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the nation celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. These people made possible the progress we see today in science, culture, and many other aspects of society. But it is also important that we study the pains they suffered. Only when we acknowledge history’s ills can we truly move on, honor the sacrifices people made, and ensure past mistakes are not repeated.
On October 6 the Senate took such a step by passing S.R. 201 and moving it to the House. The resolution, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Scott Brown (R-MA), expresses regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the six decades of anti-Chinese American persecution that followed. It also reaffirms America’s commitment to protecting civil rights.
Many other discriminatory immigration laws were passed before and after this one. But it is the focal point of this resolution due to its historical significance. It was the first major law restricting immigration in the United States, and it still remains the only legislation passed by Congress that banned people based on race.
Though the first Asian immigrants arrived here during the 1700s, the first major wave of Chinese immigrants came to America shortly after gold was discovered in California in the mid-19th century. They were initially welcomed into the country and settled on the West Coast along with thousands of other migrants seeking a better life and their version of the American Dream. When gold became scarcer, many Chinese immigrants turned to more stable labor both in agricultural plantations and what history remembers them most for—helping build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Once job prospects dimmed, however, these immigrants became scapegoats for the economic hardships that emerged in the late 1800s. As the post-Reconstruction South saw the establishment of Jim Crow laws and increased acts of discrimination against African Americans, a similar movement in the West targeted Chinese Americans.
Ethnic Chinese Americans were singled out to pay taxes in order to work, commute, and even occupy space to discourage the “coolies,” as they were derogatorily called, from immigrating or residing in certain communities. State and local governments throughout the West imposed laws barring Chinese Americans from owning property, marrying whites, holding certain jobs, or from testifying against whites in court.
The 1882 Exclusion Act and its successors not only limited Chinese Americans’ rights and denied them citizenship like laws being passed at the local level but also validated inhumane attitudes that Chinese Americans were not equals and illegitimate to having a chance at the American Dream.
During this period the highest levels of government provided credence to such prejudice, as even U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared people of Chinese descent as “an element ignorant of our constitution and laws, impossible of assimilation with our people and dangerous to our peace and welfare.”
As Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) explained when introducing the Chinese Exclusion Act resolution in the House in May, the law “engendered hatred, bigotry and prejudice in the minds of Americans towards Chinese,” which resulted in many being “brutally murdered and even more were abused, harassed and detained.”
These discriminatory attitudes would manifest into more large-scale violence in the form of anti-Chinese American riots, forced expulsions of entire Chinese American communities, and even mass murder, most notably the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, when 28 Chinese American miners were beaten to death and countless others injured.
Even though the law was repealed in 1943, it was not because of any moral clarity by lawmakers, but America’s entry into World War II. The United States sought to repair relations with China, then a critical ally in the war.
Proponents of the resolution seek to ensure the government officially acknowledges that the law was unjust and recognize the suffering that thousands of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans faced as a result of the anti-Chinese American atmosphere it fomented.
The resolution unanimously passed by voice vote in the Senate, but the House version introduced by Reps. Chu, Judy Biggert (R-IL), and Mike Coughlin (R-CO) faces hurdles, as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refuses to bring it up for a vote.
As the last living generation directly affected by the exclusion laws begins to pass away, it is imperative that the House of Representatives follows the lead of the Senate and passes this resolution now to make sure that the victims get the closure they deserve and that our country lives up to its ideals.
Justice has been denied to these victims for too long. Speaker Boehner and the rest of the House should not delay it any further.
Nick Lepham is a Special Assistant at American Progress.