The idea of who is considered “American” has been a constant theme throughout United States history, shaping our values, identity and ideas. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act remains the only time American law outlawed a group of people based on their ethnicity and nationality. Now, an upcoming PBS documentary aims to bring more attention to this little-known piece of legislation that has significant meaning today.
To initiate the conversation, CAAM and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), a coalition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander national organizations, brought a half-hour preview of the upcoming documentary to a Washington, D.C., audience last Wednesday, hosted at Verizon’s new Technology and Policy Center. The preview gave the audience a feel for the film’s narrative.
In a panel following the preview, NCAPA National Director Christopher Kang was joined by award-winning directors Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu of Steeplechase Films, South Asian Americans Leading Together’s Lakshmi Sridaran, Muslim Advocates’ Brenda Abdelall and CAAM’S Susan Chinsen to discuss the relevance of the Chinese Exclusion Act in today’s society.
Some of the parallels include anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies being proposed today that would ban people based on their religion.
“We are seeing public discourse and violence against Muslim Americans and those perceived to be Muslim, and also a number of policies that profile and surveil these communities, which a lot of time makes our communities more vulnerable to this violence,” Sridaran said.
Muslim Advocates started tracking hate crimes after the Paris attacks and have recorded more than 140 incidents. Abdelall said these hate crimes range from pulling hijabs to murders of Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim.
Abdelall pointed out that many who passed the Chinese Exclusion Act may have never met a Chinese person, and many people who engage in this rhetoric today have never encountered or met a Muslim American. “The whole rhetoric surrounding the ban itself was out of fear,” she said.
And just as Muslim Americans are asked to report “suspicious” Muslims today, Chinese Americans were asked to rat out “paper sons” or people who did not have paperwork to prove they were a citizen, Sridaran observed.
Susan Chinsen closed the event by telling the audience about CAAM’s community and educational outreach efforts and to reach out if an organization would like to host an event or conversation. Thanks to support from the community, CAAM was able to raise money for educational outreach about the Chinese Exclusion Act to be able to provide free resource kits. In addition, Verizon made a special announcement at the event to pledge $10,000 and additional in-kind support to the outreach campaign.
The story resonates today in many communities, not just for Chinese Americans, but all communities of color. Burns and Yu hope the preview will generate interest in the full-length film, which will premiere at CAAMFest in March 2017 and air on PBS in May for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
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For more information about the Who is American? campaign and The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary, please visit this site.
Watch a livestream of the panel on NCAPA’s Facebook page.
Mary Tablante is the communications associate of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). At NCAPA, she works with policy staff, government and community partners to promote NCAPA’s advocacy work and manages the organization’s social media, website and written materials. She previously covered Asian American issues as a reporter for Asian Fortune and did social media outreach as a community manager for USA TODAY’s Your Take initiative.