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Thursday, June 16, 2016

June 16, 2016: ApologyStudying: The Chinese Exclusion Act



[Inspired by two recent events about which I wrote on Monday, a series on the complex question of whether and how America should apologize for historic wrongs. Leading up to a special weekend post where I’ll share some broader thoughts and for which I’m not at all sorry to ask for your contributions as well!]
On what it means to apologize for something we don’t remember, and how one might affect the other.
In June 2012, the House of Representatives passed a formal resolution apologizing for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the many equally discriminatory, subsequent laws and policies that extended and deepened the exclusion era’s realities and effects on the Chinese American community. One of my favorite journalists and writers, James Fallows, blogged at his Atlantic site about the apology and how it was being perceived from a Chinese perspective (a particular expertise of Fallows’) here; in this follow up post I was fortunate enough to have an email of mine to Fallows quoted as part of the conversation abuot the Exclusion Act. Although (like the last couple apologies about which I’ve written this week) the House resolution did not include any reparations or other such actionable items, it was nonetheless a significant moment in both American political history and for our relationship with this fellow global superpower. And yet, as Fallows notes in the first post, the resolution received no coverage in any of the leading American newspapers.
Fallows attributes that absence to the fact that the House passes a lot of resoutions, and most of them go unnoticed or unremarked upon. That’s true enough, but it’s also true—or at least I would argue it is, and did so in the entire premise of my third book—that we don’t collectively remember the Chinese Exclusion Act much at all, and it’s pretty hard to think or care about a Congressional apology for something that’s not on our collective radar to begin with. Fallows notes how different things are in China, where he argues memories of the Exclusion Act run far deeper; but in my series of book talks for that Chinese Exclusion Act project, I had the chance to talk with both communities of Chinese Americans (such as at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco Public Library) and Chinese nationals (a group of graduate students at UMass Lowell who had recently arrived from China), and found that even among those groups there was not a widespread base of knowledge about the Exclusion Act and its contexts. At best, memories of this crucial law and all the histories to which it connects are painfully partial and simplified, and it’s fair to wonder whether an apology for such histories has any valence at all (outside of what it might mean, practically speaking, for our current relationship with China).
Yet at the same time, why not? I spent a whole weekly series focusing on bad memories, dark histories that it’s painful and difficult to remember, and thinking about various ways we might better so and models for those possibilities. And there’s certainly no reason why formal, official apologies for those histories couldn’t become (provided, yes, that they received some media coverage and conversation) one successful method for spreading and amplifying those collective memories. Indeed, however much pride I might take in my book on the Exclusion Act, even in my most optimistic takes on its potential reach and resonance it would pale in comparison to the kinds of coverage that can accompany government actions and debates in our news cycle age. Such coverage would only be a first step towards more full and nuanced collective conversations and memories, of course—and that’s where public scholarly voices would become important contributors—but it could certainly provide a significant starting point. So even though we’re four years (almost to the day) from that June 2012 Congressional resolution, I say we stir up some debate, and see if we can’t jump start some collective conversation about this American apology. You in?
Last ApologyStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this topic and/or broader thoughts on American apologies for the weekend post are very welcome!

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