Given the abysmally low regard many people hold for Congress' ability to get anything done, the fact that both the U.S. House and Senate have passed a bill that represents some genuine progress should not be taken for granted. Even if the issue in question seems long past due for a serious overhaul.
On Monday evening, the Senate passed H.R.4238, which strikes references to a number of outdated and offensive ethnic labels, including "Oriental," and "Negro," from federal law.
Introduced earlier this year by New York congresswoman Grace Meng, the bill focuses specifically on 1977's Department of Energy Organization Act, which defines minorities as "a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent." It also amends 1976's Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act, which similarly defines minorities as "Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts."
Terms such as "Asian American," "African American," and "Pacific Islander" will now be used instead.
Given that this is 2016, and not whatever bygone era our slightly-racist grandparents learned to speak about other ethnicities in, it may seem strange to learn that terms like "oriental" and "negro" were still being used in federal law. In fact, Meng has long been leading the fight to remove antiquated terms from our legal lexicon, having passed a similar bill in New York in 2009.
In a statement released Tuesday by Meng, the congresswoman writes, "I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for understanding that the time has come for our government to no longer refer to Asian Americans—or any ethnicity—in such an insulting manner. Repealing this term is long overdue. ‘Oriental’ no longer deserves a place in federal law, and very shortly it will finally be a thing of the past.
“Our country’s diversity makes us strong," echoed Hawaii's Mazie K. Hironoso, who introduced Meng's bill in the senate. "It is imperative that this language is changed as soon as possible."
The bill, which passed the House with 76 co-sponsors earlier this year, flew through the Senate with unanimous consent. It will now be sent to President Obama who, Meng wrote in a short post on her Facebook page, is expected to sign it.
UPDATE: On May 20th, President Obama signed Rep. Meng's bill into law.