Saying sorry doesn’t magically fix injustices, past or present – a point which is often made in respect of the Parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations. It is true that apologising for past wrongs won’t in itself address present problems, but this fact doesn’t validate the view that formal apologies serve no purpose or have no real effect.
I mention this because the legislature in the USA state of California has recently “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”
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later, the U.S. Congress formally apologized to black Americans for slavery and the later Jim Crow laws, which were not repealed until the 1960s.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.”
The local Los Angeles Times notes
They helped build California — but were treated with contempt. … .. The resolution comes as Chinese American historians delve into the desperate lives of the Chinese immigrants who in the 19th century did some of the most dangerous work in building California.
They could not marry, they could not own property and they performed the most undesirable jobs: ditch diggers, canal builders, house boys. They were banned from most shops and public institutions and were the target of racist violence that went unpunished.
If I have one criticism of the apology for the practices which created the Stolen Generations, it is that it leaves far greater acts of racial discrimination unacknowledged. Far worse injustices have been inflicted on Indigenous Australians since colonisation, but there is little awareness of many of them. Other systemic and severe racial discrimination towards other groups also occurred during that period.
I don’t think an endless ‘apology-thon’ is the best way of dealing with this, but I do believe a more clear cut acknowledgement and recognition of systemic crimes of the past helps every nation. Many nations have blind spots where they cannot acknowledge past (and present) wrongs – whether it is Japan’s war crimes in the Second World War, Turkey’s treatment of Armenians, Indonesia’s actions in West Papua, China’s actions in Tibet, or Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. (just to name a few)
Formal apologies are as big a benefit to those who make them as it is to those who they are directed towards. You can never fully move forward until you fully recognise how you got to where you are. And you can’t learn from the things you did wrong until you can acknowledge that the wrongs occurred.