By Prem Calvin Prashad
May was National Asian Pacific Islander History Month, and against that backdrop, Asian Americans, both nationally and in the borough, are taking steps to hold the U.S. government accountable for historical missteps and current racial discrimination.
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) introduced a bill to Congress calling for the removal of the term “oriental” from federal law. As a result of these efforts, H.R. 4238, which aims “to modernize terms relating to minorities” by removing dated and defunct terms such as “oriental” and “negro” in federal law, passed Congress in a rare showing of bipartisan support, receiving 76 co-sponsors, including two Republicans. The bill was signed into law by President Obama, last Friday.
Specifically, the law revises the definition of “minority” in federal law “to mean any U.S. citizen who is an Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or Alaska Native.” The important distinction for Asian Americans was to delegitimize the use of “oriental” as a description, particularly due to its historical connotations of excluding and othering Asian immigrant communities in the United States.
Adding to efforts to seek historical redress, a group of New York-based Chinese Americans created a traveling exhibition, “Remembering 1882” to commemorate migrant Chinese railroad workers and discuss the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The exhibition opened two weeks ago in Chinatown. Organizers circulated a White House petition on social media, calling on the federal government to apologize for the categorical exclusion and “singling” out of Chinese immigrants over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Though both efforts are meant to redress historical grievances, some activists say the attitudes that formulated the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act persist today, allegedly in the highest offices of federal agencies.
Wary of a growing cyber, trade and espionage conflict between the United States and People’s Republic of China, federal agencies have stepped up efforts to combat leaks of confidential information and punish those suspected of leaking “trade secrets.” No doubt, intelligence leaks and personal information of federal employees have put pressure on these agencies to give the impression of diligence in prosecuting agents of industrial espionage.
However, Asian American civil rights groups allege that the government has engaged in malicious prosecution in their arrest and prosecution of up to five Chinese American scientists and researchers, all arrested and released without charges within the last 18 months. Though no wrongdoing was found, some of the arrested were fired from academic positions and found their reputations in shambles. In many cases, investigators either misconstrued the nature of the work the scientists had done, or flagged innocuous personal correspondence as “suspicious.”
These cases drew parallels to the botched case against Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of leaking nuclear secrets to China in the 90s, only to be exonerated. Like Lee, many of these suspects were preemptively labeled in the media as “spies,” to their personal and professional detriment. The FBI is widely known to have engaged in spying on Chinese Americans during the Cold War, suspecting the community of disloyalty.
Joyce Xi, daughter of one of the scientists, in conjunction with the Asian American civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), started a petition to call on Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Obama administration to examine possible racial biases within the Department of Justice, as well as apologize to Chinese Americans that had been accused and subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.
Persons interested in the petition can access it at the following url: https://www.credo