By P.C. Staff
President Barack Obama signed the H.R. 4238 bill on May 20, striking the word “Oriental” from federal law.
The bill’s original author, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), introduced the initiative late last year, and the bill was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives on Feb. 29. On May 9, the Senate passed it again with 76 members of Congress as co-sponsors and 51 members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
The new bill targets outdated language used to describe racial groups.
“The term ‘Oriental’ is an insulting and outdated word, and the Senate’s passage of the bill will soon force the U.S. government to finally stop using it,” Meng said in a statement.
“I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for recognizing the need to pass this long-overdue legislation,” she added. “Our government should not refer to any ethnicity in a derogatory manner, and very shortly this offensive and antiquated term will be gone for good.”
This new law will target and remove the last sections of racial terminology of the U.S. Code. In Title 42 of the U.S. Code for the Department of Energy Organization Act, “a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental or Aleut or is a Spanish-speaking individual of Spanish descent” will be replaced with “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American or an Alaskan Native.”
“‘Oriental’ is a throwback to a time when Asian Americans were viewed as an amorphous population from a geographically-incorrect region known as the Orient, which exists as neither continent nor country. An Oriental could be a rug or a person or any object that could be vaguely associated with cultures east of Europe,” said JACL Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida. “I congratulate Sen. Hirono and Congresswoman Meng for their leadership in ensuring federal law recognizes our self-identity. The new law is a solid step toward eliminating derogatory racial references.”
Other parts of the bill will erase “Negros, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts” from the 1976 public-works act.
The new change looks to reflect America’s steps in addressing race and ethnicity. However, archaic attitudes can leave lasting marks and survive through the law even long after popular culture has moved on. Parts of the government, like the U.S. Census Bureau, have undergone similar revisions.
In 1850, the available categories were “black, mulatto” or “white,” but by 1860, “Indians” for Native Americans and “Chinese” made their first appearances on the census. Those from India didn’t have box until 1920, written as “Hindu.” Hindu, is a religious identity and not an ethnic one.
One of the bureau’s changes included the 2013 announcement that it would no longer use “Negro” on its forms despite being used for almost a century.
But as the federal law moves to eliminate the outdated terms, states still retain some of the racial terms in their statutes like New Jersey’s education code.
The code asks educators in the state to include “the history of the Negro in America” as part of the curriculum. The Mississippi State University of Agriculture and Applied Sciences in General has a 4-H camp in Madison County “for the purpose of teaching the Negro boys and girls of Mississippi standards of better farm and homemaking.” Additionally, New York includes a code requiring sickle-cell anemia tests “to teach applicant for marriage license who is not of the Caucasian, Indian or Oriental race.” Sickle cell anemia is a genetic blood disorder.
But some states have fought for anti-discrimination labels like Pennsylvania. The state prohibits “Caucasian, Negroid, Chinese, Asian Immigrant, French Hawaiian, Arab, Oriental, African-American and Irish” in housing advertisements.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, a sponsor to the bill in the Senate, said in statement that “after months of advocacy in both chambers of Congress, derogatory terms in federal law will finally be updated to reflect our country’s diversity.”