What's in an apology? Some expressions of remorse are commonplace - we hear them on the playground when kids smack each other on the head, or they land in your inbox after a friend forgets your birthday. It's the grand-scale apologies, it seems, that are harder to come by.
On July 17, the California legislature quietly approved a landmark bill to apologize to the state's Chinese-American community for racist laws enacted as far back as the mid–19th century Gold Rush, which attracted about 25,000 Chinese from 1849 to 1852. The laws, some of which were not repealed until the 1940s, barred Chinese from owning land or property, marrying whites, working in the public sector and testifying against whites in court. The new bill also recognizes the contributions Chinese immigrants have made to the state, particularly their work on the Transcontinental Railroad. (Check out a story about the Asian-American experience in late[EN]20th century California.)
The apology is the latest in a wave of official acts of remorse around the globe. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a similar apology, expressing regret to Chinese Canadians for unequal taxes imposed on them in the late 19th century. Last February, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to his country's Aborigines for racist laws of the past, including the forced separation of children from their parents. Five months later, the U.S. Congress formally apologized to black Americans for slavery and the later Jim Crow laws, which were not repealed until the 1960s. And most notably, in 1988 the U.S. government decided to pay $20,000 to each of the surviving 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned in camps during World War II. Says Donald Tamaki, a San Francisco–based attorney who helped overturn wrongful WWII-era convictions of Japanese Americans: "Part of what a humane society does is recognize past injustices and address them."