It’s rare that life hands us the opportunity to add a positive narrative to the history books. But there was just such an opportunity recently, when I was given a platform at the 150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike to honor the 12,000 or more workers of Chinese ancestry who played a key role in building the first transcontinental railroad. These men, nearly 80% of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad, endured merciless, harsh, and dangerous conditions to build one of the greatest pieces of infrastructure in our country’s history. Digging and tunneling through the Sierra Nevada mountains with rudimentary tools, many lost their lives. But instead of gratitude for their sacrifice, state and federal laws were passed preventing men and women of Chinese ancestry from becoming American citizens or immigrating to the U.S.
So much has changed in the 150 years since. The Chinese exclusion laws have been repealed and our country has moved forward, becoming the diverse nation it is today. But for more than a century and a half, the Chinese American community has waited patiently for the contributions of the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers to be fully acknowledged and honored.
On May 10, 2019, proper recognition finally came. It was a reminder that as our country becomes more diverse, there is a tremendous hunger out there for the achievements of all the groups who helped make America great to be recognized and celebrated.
That’s a sentiment I hear more and more from the Asian Pacific American community, which is one of the fastest growing in this country. In just 50 years, Asian Pacific Americans have gone from approximately 1% to nearly 7% of our country’s population. They take pride in the fact that, with their emphasis on strong families, education, and hard work, Asian Pacific Americans are contributing much to the growth and strength of our country. Just look at the unemployment rate for Asian Pacific Americans: an astonishingly low 2.2%. Many Asian Pacific Americans find great comfort that someone in the president’s Cabinet looks like them and shares their journey.
Yet for all their success, Asian Pacific Americans can still feel uncomfortable. At the Golden Spike ceremonies, I heard from Asian Americans who felt that for too long their ancestors’ contributions have been relegated to a mere footnote in history. Popular culture does not always make the distinction between Chinese Americans (who were either born here or made the free choice to become American citizens) and Chinese nationals. Other Asian Americans are increasingly dismayed at quota systems designed to limit their children’s access to a first-class education. To a community that has experienced so many historical obstacles to becoming full-fledged Americans, these developments have the all-too-familiar ring of the past.
This administration is leading by establishing a special initiative, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (of which I am co-chair) to help advance the economic empowerment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. An executive order has also been issued affirming the principle that access to higher education must respect merit, and not diminish those who have sacrificed, invested in themselves, and achieved academic excellence. These actions address deep aspirations within the Asian Pacific American community.
But there is always more that can be done. Recognizing the seminal contribution of the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers is a good start to a more inclusive history. My hope is that their astounding achievement will become part of American folklore, known to every schoolchild and every American, in recognition of the vast and wonderful coat of many colors that makes our nation great.
Elaine Chao is secretary of transportation.