SACRAMENTO – Gov. Jerry Brown on May 3 issued the following proclamation declaring May 2017 as Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in California.
The 5.4 million Californians of Asian or Pacific Islander descent constitute the fastest-growing ethnic group in our state. California’s social and economic ties to the Pacific Rim are strengthened every day through commerce, cultural exchange, immigration and the growth of our own Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
The United States Congress enacted Public Law 95-419, establishing Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, in 1978. They selected early May for this observance because of two important milestones in the history of Asians in America: the arrival of Manjiro, the first Japanese citizen to settle in our country, on May 7, 1843; and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, using a largely Chinese labor force, on May 10, 1867.
In 1990, reflecting the growing numbers and diversity of Asians and Pacific Islanders in America, Congress expanded the observance from one week to the entire month of May.
Sadly, this time of year also recalls a darker aspect of the Asian and Pacific Islander experience in America: the misplaced fears and outright violence that often greeted these groups when they first arrived on our shores. On May 6, 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the most infamous of many state and federal laws that unfairly targeted immigrants from Asia and the Pacific. As we celebrate the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders this month, we should not forget the unnecessary suffering inflicted on these immigrant groups.
This pattern of discrimination began during the Gold Rush, when the Foreign Miners’ Tax, which unfairly targeted prospectors from Asia and Latin America, was signed into law by our state’s first governor, Peter Burnett. San Francisco and Los Angeles witnessed multiple instances of mob violence against Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush era and after.
In 1913, at the urging of Gov. Hiram Johnson, the Legislature passed the state’s first Alien Land Law, which prevented land ownership by foreigners who were ineligible for citizenship due to discriminatory laws passed at the federal level. Seven years later, an overwhelming majority of the people of California voted for an initiative to extend the Alien Land Law and make it harsher, but this was not enough to appease the xenophobia that gripped California during these years.
In 1923, Gov. Johnson’s successor, William Stephens, devoted much of his State of the State address to what he called “The Oriental Problem” and described his efforts to get Congress to pass an even more draconian law. His efforts came to fruition in the form of the Immigration Act of 1924, which would prevent most legal immigration from Asia until the major reforms of 1965.
I urge all Californians to join me this month in reflecting on the part that men and women from China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and other parts of Asia and the Pacific have played in our state’s history. We should also reflect on our propensity to view strangers from other lands through a distorted prism — too often leading to discrimination, injustice and violence.