Where’s The Mule for Victims of Slavery?

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Jean Pfaelzer is Professor of Asian Studies, English, Women's Studies, and American Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans" (UC Press, 2007). An earlier version of this article ran in The Globalist.

Last month Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell apologized for forgetting slavery when he launched Confederate History Month.  But what forms a true act of accountability for lost generations, stolen bodies, and unpaid labor?  Henry Louis “Skip” Gates questioned whether slavery reparations are realistic in TheNew York Times, asking “how to parcel out blame” if we factor in Africa’s huge profits from the Atlantic Slave trade.  As conservatives circle around bankers, mine owners, and physicians to limit their financial liabilities for jeopardizing bodies and bank accounts, President Obama, as Gates notes, shies away from reparations for slavery as too “unworkable.”

Governor McDonnell should recall that just last year the U. S. Senate apologized for slavery.  But did that help the country remember slavery?  Do we remember the national apology?

Yet apologies for slavery and anti-immigrant violence are flowing in from Maryland, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, California and New Jersey.  In 2009 California passed a resolution “deeply regretting” one hundred fifty years of violence against Chinese Americans and calling for a “Day of Inclusion” to mark December 17, 1943, when the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  It was the first U.S. law that banned immigration by race.  It also prohibited Chinese women from entering the country, thus a gesture toward ethnic cleansing that sought to force the early Chinese American population to die off.

In 2005 the U.S. Senate apologized for the 1931 “Repatriation Program” that shipped two million “temporary” workers to Mexico — one million of whom had been born in the United States.

State apologies rarely mark the forceful resistance of slaves and early immigrants who did not await apologies to claim their rights.  As Californians nod to the apology, how many know that Chinese immigrants organized California’s first farm worker strike?  Or that in 1892, in the largest mass civil disobedience to date, 110,000 Chinese workers refused to wear photo identity cards?  Or that Chinese “washmen” returned laundry folded but still dirty or went to jail rather than obey codes that banned laundries built of wood?  Or that they refused to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to hotel owners and housewives who joined anti-Chinese leagues?   Early Chinese railroad workers struck for equal pay and for the right to have Chinese cooks boil tea water to keep them from the killer parasites that decimated white railroad workers who drank from the crowded mountain streams.

An apology for anti-Chinese violence should recall the purges from 1850 to 1906 that drove thousands of Chinese miners, fishermen, launderers, prostitutes, railroad workers and cooks from three hundred towns across the Pacific Northwest.  Any apology should also recall the years Chinese émigrés spent imprisoned at Angel Island waiting to enter the United States.

Psychiatrist Aaron Lazere suggests that state apologies — usually offered hundreds of years after the fact by men who did not perpetrate the violence — should announce that the assaults were not the victims’ fault.  They should also guarantee the future safety of the victims, penalize the offenders and pay reparations.  Victims, he says, should see the offenders suffer.

Apologies should go beyond contrition.  Has an apology ever improved an under-funded school?  Discrimination costs.  The hundreds of thousands of dollars Chinese gold miners paid under the Foreign Miners Tax provided half of California’s revenue during the Gold Rush years.  From Seattle to San Diego, Chinese lost farms, fishing boats, vegetable gardens and Chinatowns in the nineteenth century pogroms.

Symbolic gestures can teach hidden histories and make us aware that they endure.  Language can segregate or unite.  In 2009, New York Governor David Paterson struck the term “Oriental” from all state documents, banning an old but divisive term that has long suggested Asian "otherness."

How many Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans are aware of these apologies?

Today’s apologies for past abuses prompt nervous concerns that recriminations will lead to reparations.  Yet many forget that the United States paid out in the past.  The Chinese who survived purges, vigilante violence, and a massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming, won nearly half a million dollars in reparations from Congress under the Belmont Act.  In 1988, the U.S. government paid $20,000 each to 82,210 Japanese Americans imprisoned in “relocation” camps during World War II.

Since money will never provide equity for irreparable losses, an apology should seize the power of language:  an apology for anti-immigrant violence should include support for legalizing millions of undocumented workers living in the United States now.

As a form of reparations for genocide and forced migration, many Native American tribes are exempt from bans on casinos.

To commemorate the 1886 purge of the entire Chinese community in Tacoma, Washington, the Army Corps of Engineers donated four acres of breathtaking land on Puget Sound for a Reconciliation Park.  Its grotto, garden and tall pillars describe the Trail of Expulsion — so those who visit the park may never forget.

The U.S. Congress authorized $30 million in restitution for Holocaust survivors and their dependents.  The money was also used to locate assets and art that were looted or extorted from Holocaust victims.

JP Morgan Chase disclosed that two of its predecessor banks in Louisiana used 13,000 slaves as collateral and when the loans defaulted, the banks took ownership of 1,250 slaves.  Recently Chase created a $5 million scholarship fund for African American students in Louisiana.

Australia held "restorative justice conferences" between representatives of the state and victims of racism or their descendents.  In South Africa, some found contrition and information in the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings — although money and land did not change hands.

Internationally, apologies continue to flow.  Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper apologized for the 1885 “Head Tax” that imposed a fine of $50 to $500 on each Chinese immigrant.  Facing calls that the apology was meaningless, he gave $20,000 to twenty surviving Chinese who had paid the tax and to 250 of their widows or widowers.

In 2005, New Zealand apologized to the Maori people for the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave Great Britain full rights to the Maori homeland.  In one of his final gestures as prime minister, Tony Blair announced that he felt “profoundly shameful" for England’s role in the slave trade.  But even as he launched Britain’s commemorations of the end of its slave trade— marked by museum exhibits and academic conferences — he stopped short of a state apology.

Since 1990, Japan has offered apologies for the forced prostitution of two hundred thousand Korean and Chinese “comfort women” (enslaved sex workers) during World War II.  But many Chinese and Korean women forced to serve the Japanese military rejected the money because it was funded by private donations.  They demanded that the government itself be accountable.  Soon former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied that the Japanese military ever forced women into sexual slavery, and former education minister Nariaki Nakayama declared that he was proud that Japan had removed all references to "wartime sex slaves" from history texts.

Australia held its first annual “National Sorry Day” on May 26, 1998 to apologize for the "Stolen Generations” -- aboriginal children seized from their families to be raised in missions or reform schools in order to inculcate them with “European values and work habits.”  Groups gave out "Sorry Books" where indigenous people could record their feelings about their lost childhoods.  Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson wrote:  "Black fellas will get the words, the white fellas keep the money."

South African author Achmat Dangor writes that a “happy nation” has no memory.  He explains, “We want to forgive but we don’t want to forget.”

Equality means never having to say you’re sorry.  No gesture has provided forty acres of land to American descendents of slaves.  As one friend asked, “Where’s my mule?”

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Arnold Shcherban - 5/4/2010

in one quoted remark: "Black fellas will get the words, the white fellas keep the money."
That's by the way is the main rationale
behind today's apologies.