California is debating whether to pay all Black residents who descend from slaves as much as $1.2 million each – to atone for the horrific injustices that their ancestors suffered. San Francisco has proposed a $5 million payment to each Black resident.
But – California was never a slave state. Nor was San Francisco ever a slave city.
California does have a sordid history of mistreating its large yellow population. For more than a century after Chinese immigrants began arriving for the Gold Rush around the 1850s, they faced open discrimination and unabashed hatred in this state.
My paternal great-grandfather lived in Northern California as a laborer around the turn of the century.
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Under the logic of the current reparations proposals, descendants of early Chinese immigrants to the Golden State, like myself, should be eligible for reparations as well. That we are not even included in the discussion demonstrates the absurdity of the reparations movement. That reparations are discussed seriously at all further shows the perils of policymaking based on racial grievance and virtue signaling.
Upon their arrival in California, early Chinese immigrants labored on farms and orchards, toiled in coal mines and gold mines, and operated laundries. Without them, the transcontinental railroad would not have been built. They were essential in developing the abalone and shrimp industries. By 1870, some 63,000 Chinese individuals lived in the United States, 77% of them in California.
In short, Chinese immigrants were indispensable to much of California’s success. Despite that, the Golden State’s Chinese not only labored under slave-like conditions, they were forced out of towns (according to one account, in the mid-1850s, at least 168 communities expelled their Chinese neighbors); they were not allowed to own property; their children were banned from attending public schools; they were not allowed to marry White people; and the courts denied them equal protection under the law.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first law limiting immigration based on race or nationality. Seven years before that, the Page Act essentially banned the immigration of Chinese women into the United States.
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During that era, Chinatowns in various California cities were burned to the ground in clear acts of arson. White vigilante mobs burned down Chinese homes and attacked Chinese people in the streets.
California’s prohibition of Chinese land ownership was not revoked until 1952. Chinese in the state faced discriminatory lending practices well after that, prompting Betty Chu, the first Chinese American female attorney in Southern California, to found East West Bank in Los Angeles in 1973 with the mission of serving the Chinese community.
Indisputably, rampant racial discrimination against Chinese immigrants, like my great-grandfather, colors California’s history.
The details of what he did, where he worked, and when he was here are hazy because U.S. law prohibited his family in southern China from joining him and made it difficult for him to leave and return to this country. Multiple generations of his descendants knew little about him, though I now know for certain that he was viewed, in the eyes of White Californians, as not only a second-class citizen, but a second-class human.
Born in Communist China, I immigrated to the U.S. with my parents when I was 10 and grew up in Oakland. We all live in California today. It was my great-grandfather who labored and suffered in the Golden State. It was my great-grandfather who lived through the vicious discrimination and mistreatment in California. Should my father receive reparations for his grandfather’s suffering? Should I?
The answer is clear: absolutely not.
No one who mistreated my great-grandfather is still alive. My great-grandfather is no longer alive. It would be immoral, on the deepest level, to force Californians who bear no responsibility whatsoever for the actions of their ancestors, to pay tax dollars to their fellow residents whose ancestors suffered.
In 2014, California apologized for supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar legislation, and the U.S. Congress issued an expression of regret.
In 2021, San Jose formally apologized to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for the 1887 arson of its Chinatown, acknowledging the city’s role in “systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia and discrimination.”
That same year, Antioch apologized for its mistreatment of Chinese immigrants – who had to build tunnels to get home from work, as they were banned from city streets after sundown.
Such apologies, and U.S. apologies for slavery and mistreatment of American Indians, are acknowledgments of past sins coupled with a promise not to repeat them. And the impressive successes of Chinese Americans across the country provide the best reminder that the racist laws and practices of the past cannot stop today’s progress.
The fight against modern-day injustices – such as overt discrimination against Asian applicants in higher education – will continue, but my great-grandfather no doubt would have been pleased to know that his future great-granddaughter would be a graduate of an Ivy League university and Stanford Law School, and would lead organizations defending the American ideal of equal opportunity.
Advocacy for reparations are in vogue today – but as Americans and as Californians, let us never force one group of people to pay off another group of people to atone for the sins of others. Let us not obsess over grievances of the past but strive, today, to treat each other equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, color or country of origin.
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