Despite the fact that racial discrimination has long been a stain on American history, its effects on Chinese-Americans have been overshadowed by the high-profile civil rights activities of African-Americans and were relatively unknown to its government and society at large.
One veteran Washington lobbyist sought to change that.
Martin Gold, a partner of Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling LLP, talks about his new book "Forbidden Citizens" in Beijing on April 21, 2012. [Photo by Li Xiaohua/China.org.cn]
Martin Gold, a partner of law firm Covington & Burling LLP based in Washington D.C., has authored "Forbidden Citizens," which chronicles the passages of anti-Chinese laws from the late 19th century to their repeal in 1943. The book quotes extensively from actual floor debates during Senate and House sessions. It is due for release on July 4.
Gold said he found it "painful" to read the words that were spoken on the floor of the U.S. Congress during the passage of the discriminatory legislations.
"Most people will be appalled by it," he said. "But if it brings some level of peace to people to feel as though their story is being told, that's wonderful. And if political institutions can do the right thing, that's wonderful."
Thanks to Gold's efforts, the Congress has already begun to do the right thing. In 2009, as counsel to former U.S. senators, he began heading a pro bono project for the Chinese-American community to push for Congress to issue an apology for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the subsequent discriminatory actions against Chinese immigrants. It led to the unanimous passing by the U.S. Senate of a resolution to express regret for these laws.
"It was extremely, extremely gratifying for that to happen," Gold said. "Long overdue, but gratifying anyway. It's rare for Congress to look back in history and make a historic evaluation and say: This is what happened, and it was the wrong thing to do, and we are sorry for it."
Bills proposed to Congress technically require a simple majority to pass, but unanimity was necessary in this case. Gold explained that, as the measure was considered non-essential to pressing issues affecting the operations of the government, a single vote against could have pushed the resolution off the agenda. His surprise over its easy passage that day was due to the fact that the parties were holding a very partisan debate over – ironically – currency legislation, an issue sensitive to the U.S. government's relationship with China, if not with American citizens of Chinese ethnicity.
According to Gold, the resolution passed because legislators understood the importance of correcting the disparity between the government's actions and the principles it was founded on.
"It's completely un-American to deny [Chinese immigrants] the right to participate in the political process and then to turn the political process against them, because they had no opportunity for recourse. They had no outlet."
The most infamous of the series of discriminatory legislation was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade specifically Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens. The initially controversial 10-year ban was made less disputed in subsequent extensions with a technical maneuver: making the debate about law enforcement rather than immigration.
The issue of immigration remains contentious today across party lines, and Gold was clever in framing the proposal for the apology as a civil rights issue. From that angle, "nobody could defend the old laws," he said.
Some critics have raised the issue of how the resolution is worded, claiming that because Congress said it "regretted" the laws, the resolution could not be explicitly called an apology.
Gold said it would not be fair for today's Congress to apologize on its own behalf, as the actions in question were performed by a previous generation. The resolution was for a long-standing institution to apologize on behalf of their predecessors.
"You can't undo history, but you can make a judgment on the history and say: What happened was a mistake and people were hurt by that mistake," Gold said. "The [Chinese-American] community wants to make sure their record is clear."
Gold said he hopes his book will add to the Senate apology to bring awareness of social injustice suffered by a group of people who, despite that injustice, have held themselves to a high standard and thrived as a result.
"The Chinese-American community has conducted themselves with great dignity, and they have accomplished a lot, and they have taken what the United States has to offer and done a lot with it," Gold said.
Contrary to the belief of turn-of-the-century legislators that Chinese immigrants were too different from white Americans and could never assimilate into society, Chinese-Americans have done exactly that. Most have assimilated quietly, but some have done so in style: Gary Locke garnered wide attention as the first American ambassador to China with Chinese heritage, and Jeremy Lin smashed doubts – some of them racially based – to excel as a starting point guard in the NBA.
In his new book, Gold detailed not only the mistake, which remained uncorrected for more than half a century, but also its causes. He said the original sin was an 1870 Senate debate over naturalization rights, in which Nevada's William Stewart filibustered to remove a provision granting those rights to all people, not just whites.
Gold's hope is that readers of his book will reflect on the fact that Congress has been able to correct its past misdeeds and implement safeguards. Although filibusters still frequently happen today, a mechanism has been put in place to ensure that extreme minorities are unable to suspend the workings of Congress in order to force provisions out of bills.
"I feel very good as an American that American political institutions are big enough to admit mistakes in the past and correct them."