Jeff Yang of WSJ Reviews the History of Federal Holidays in the Lunar New Year White House Petition

Jeff Yang has written a really phenomenal piece this week for the Wall Street Journal wherein he addresses the White House petition to make Lunar New Year a U.S. Federal Holiday. He notes that the petition has now reached 39,000 signatures, past the 25,000 signature benchmark that will mandate a White House response.

Jeff, like myself, is skeptical that the White House will answer in any way other than “no” on this topic. In addition to some of the arguments I’ve also mentioned in the past, Jeff notes that the creation of the U.S. federal holiday requires Congressional, not Executive, action and that the creation of the last U.S. federal holiday — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — occurred in 1983 after a 15-year state-by-state fight that still resonates in local politics. Virginia protested the creation of MLK Day at the federal level by declaring the day “Lee/Jackson/King Day” at the state level in “honour” of Confederate generals as well as Reverend King; the day was recently spotlighted in national politics when it was used to force a racial gerrymandering act through state government on the same day that a Black state legislator was absent (breaking an even Democratic vs. Republican tie) to attend President Obama’s inauguration.

Jeff also reviews many of the ongoing state-level efforts to make Lunar New Year a local and/or school-district holiday.

Efforts to recognize Lunar New Year at the state and local level have been afoot for years. In 1994, San Francisco decided to close public schools on Lunar New Year, but this was largely a response to demographic reality rather than political pressure: Given that nearly 40% of the city’s public school-going population and a similar chunk of its teaching and administrative staff are Chinese American, school representatives determined that running half-full classrooms wasn’t educationally feasible or budgetarily sound.

Maryland’s Coalition for the Recognition of the Asian Lunar New Year was able to gather over 6000 signatures to petition for recognition of Lunar New Year as a state holiday; though they didn’t succeed in moving the state legislature, their advocacy efforts are continuing.

And here in New York City, then-councilmember and now Comptroller John Liu proposed and passed a bill suspending alternate side of the street parking for Lunar New Year, which was promptly vetoed by Mayor Bloomberg as costing the city up to $300,000 a day in parking fines. Calling the bill a critical one for recognizing the contributions that Asian Americans have made to the city, Liu mobilized his council peers to override the veto.

While parking regulations seem like a rather small concession, Liu heralded it as an important step toward Asian New Yorkers getting “the same level of respect and attention that everybody else gets.”

“Everybody else” is a muddy term, of course; not every ethnicity or religiousheritage gets a parking holiday, though all the major Christian, Jewish and Islamic ones have been designated as such. But the real battle isn’t in the streets — it’s in the schools.

As Hwang Lynch alludes to above. Chinese American parents have long been enraged that classes continue for everyone else while their offspring are celebrating an important part of their cultural heritage. (After all, falling a whole day behind their peers could mean no Ivy League, begging in the streets, destitution, prostitution, et cetera.) And that’s where the definition of “everybody else” comes to a very sharp point.

New York City public schools have closed for the Jewish High Holy Days since at least the 1950s — again, for largely practical reasons: Then as now, a sizable percentage of the public school teaching staff were Jewish, making it challenging to find enough substitutes to hold classes effectively.

In 2010, the City Council passed a resolution to close public schools for another set of lunar-calendar denominated holidays: The Muslim holy days of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha. Again, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the bill, bluntly stating that “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.” That said, between 10% and 12% of the city’s population are Muslim, numbers that are close to the size of the city’s Jewish population. Asians also make up over 10% of the New York population, though looking only at Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese, the cultures for whom Lunar New Year is a central holiday, the percentage is closer to 7%.

Is 10% of the city population a reasonable benchmark for establishing a cultural or religious holiday as an official New York commemoration? If it is, Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha should be given that status immediately. And, given the continued rapid growth of New York’s Chinese population, the Lunar New Year-celebrating contingent of New York’s population should pass that 10% mark by 2020.

Read the full article here.

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