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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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San Francisco apologizes to Chinese immigrants for historic discrimination

The city's formal apology to Chinese immigrants and their families comes after new data revealed that anti-Asian hate crimes increased nearly six-fold in San Francisco last year.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Acknowledging its role in promoting racist policies that made it difficult for Chinese Americans to live, work and gain wealth in San Francisco, city leaders on Tuesday formally apologized to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for historic injustices.

“San Francisco was shamefully and tragically a place where much of this racism found support in our city government and was replicated in other places, but it was also the hub of resistance,” Supervisor Matt Haney, who introduced the resolution, said in a committee meeting last week.

The 11-member board of supervisors approved the resolution unanimously with no discussion on Tuesday.

San Francisco is the fourth U.S. city to apologize to Chinese immigrants, following similar moves by the California cities of Antioch, San Jose and Los Angeles.

The resolution comes at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans are spiking in San Francisco and across the United States. The city’s police chief, Bill Scott, announced last week that anti-Asian hate incidents in San Francisco increased nearly six-fold in 2021.

“As we grapple with the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, we must do all we can to lift up our communities and usher in a brighter future together,” said David Chiu, San Francisco’s first Asian-American city attorney, in a statement Tuesday.

The eldest son of Taiwanese immigrants, Chiu sponsored a similar resolution when he served on the board of supervisors in 2009. That resolution acknowledged the “regrettable role” San Francisco played in advancing policies of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. law to ban a specific ethnic group from entering the country.

“It is vitally important that we recognize the harms of the past and the impacts of those discriminatory actions on our Chinese communities today,” Chiu said.

A combination of bigoted state laws and local ordinances made survival difficult for Chinese people arriving in San Francisco and living in the city’s Chinatown — the nation's oldest urban center of Chinese immigrants — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1863, California lawmakers banned testimony by Chinese witnesses against white people, making it impossible to convict a white person for harming or killing a Chinese person unless a white person was willing to testify against them. That law was later deemed invalid by the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1870.

The state also banned Chinese children from attending public schools with white children in 1860.

San Francisco closed its only segregated public school for Chinese children in 1870, barred Chinese people from holding public service jobs and passed a series of laws aimed at shutting down Chinese-owned laundry businesses.

The fight against these anti-Chinese laws paved the way for future civil rights victories in the United States.

In 1870, San Francisco passed the Cubic Air Ordinance ostensibly to crack down on unsafe crowded conditions in Chinatown housing tenements, but the law subjected Chinese people to criminal penalties for living in squalid conditions. When Chinese people refused to pay fines in protest, they were thrown in jail.

To combat jail overcrowding, the city passed a law intended to make Chinese men want to avoid prison. The Pigtail Ordinance of 1876 forced Chinese prisoners to undergo the disgrace and humiliation of having their traditional queues — long pony-tail-like hair viewed as status symbols for Chinese men — cut off. The Ninth Circuit declared that law unconstitutional three years later.

In 1880, two-thirds of laundry business owners and 89% of laundry workers in San Francisco were Chinese. The city’s board of supervisors used zoning rules to push Chinese launders out of white neighborhoods, banned drying racks on roofs and passed other laws aimed at shutting down Chinese businesses.

The city made it illegal in 1880 for laundries to operate in wooden buildings without a permit and denied all but one permit application for Chinese-owned laundry businesses. The permit ordinance was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1886 decision in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the first case to hold that a law which appears race-neutral on its face can violate equal protection when applied in a discriminatory manner.

In 2018, the city renamed a playground previously dedicated to Julius Kahn, a San Francisco congressman who helped extend the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902. The anti-Chinese immigration law remained in effect until its repeal in 1943.

Justin Hoover, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, which runs a museum on Chinese immigrant history in San Francisco, called the city’s apology a positive step forward but said it should also be followed with actions, not just words.

“A symbol is great but unless it comes with substantive investment in the community that keeps Chinatown a thriving place, it’s kind of empty,” Hoover said in a phone interview Tuesday.

In a Budget and Finance Committee meeting last week, Supervisor Haney said he and other city leaders must “make good on their word” and ensure resources are provided to “address the legacy” of anti-Asian discrimination in San Francisco.

Hoover said he’d like to see more funding for community organizations, arts and cultural institutions and more teaching of Chinese-American history in schools.

“I’m looking to see what the budget committee can do to invest in the community beyond just an apology,” Hoover said.

Follow @NicholasIovino
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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