Eight U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan have been arrested in connection with the apparent suicide of Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19-year-old infantryman who was Chinese American. The arrests came after family members pressured the Pentagon to investigate allegations that Chen had been repeatedly taunted with racial slurs. The alleged anti-Asian bullying and taunting started during basic training when fellow soldiers used a mocking accent while calling him Jackie Chen; others allegedly told him to "go back to China." The eight soldiers have been charged with dereliction of duty and manslaughter.
Asian American history is replete with examples of the de-Americanization of its members by vigilante racism. For some, the ostracism started immediately. Consider the poignant autobiography of Mary Paik Lee, a Korean immigrant who described her family's arrival in San Francisco harbor in 1906:
As we walked down the gangplank ... young White men were standing around, waiting to see what kind of creatures were disembarking. We must have been a very queer-looking group. They laughed at us and spit in our faces; one man kicked up Mother's skirt and called us names we couldn't understand. Of course, their actions and attitudes left no doubt about their feelings toward us.
Even more recently, de-Americanizing antics have been directed at Chinese Americans. In the midst of an international crisis in April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane had to land on Chinese soil and China would not immediately release the plane, many Americans took their frustration out on Chinese Americans. A radio station disc jockey in Springfield, Ill. suggested boycotting Chinese restaurants. Another commentator called people with Chinese last names from his local telephone book to harass them. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Pat Oliphant ran a cartoon portraying a buck-toothed Chinese waiter yelling at a customer (depicted as Uncle Sam), "Apologize Lotten Amellican!" The American Society of Newspaper Editors was entertained by the renowned satirical group Capitol Steps, featuring a white man dressed in a black wig and thick glasses impersonating a Chinese official who gestured wildly as he said (in a manner reminiscent of the chant that greeted Mary Paik Lee on her first day in school): "ching, ching, chong, chong."
The profiling examples of Asian Americans are unending: Wen Ho Lee, Japanese internment, hate crimes directed at Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians.
A few years ago when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta was still in Congress (where he served for over 20 years), he was invited to attend a celebration of the reopening of a General Motors plant in his home district Santa Clara County, Calif. As an honored guest, he was greeted by a senior GM executive who thanked the Congressman for attending, and then complimented Mineta on his English. The executive then asked Mineta, "And how long have you lived in our country?" Mineta knew that when the GM executive looked at Mineta's Japanese American features, the executive saw a "foreign face." Yet Mineta was born in San Jose, Calif., in 1931 and attended the University of California, Berkeley. Unfortunately this certainly was not the first time he had been de-Americanized. During World War II, he was interned along with the rest of the Mineta family in Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Somehow the soldiers who allegedly harassed Pvt. Danny Chen felt licensed to engage in taunting and bullying of a young Chinese American who was trying to serve his country. Perhaps that's the problem; those soldiers didn't think that the United States was Chen's country to serve. Somewhere the soldiers got the message that their private vigilante actions were condoned. That message has done much to solidify the image of people of color with immigrant roots as perpetual foreigners. This encourages private individuals to engage in discriminatory acts and reinforces their hostility. As such, Asian Americans become prime targets for de-Americanization by vigilante racists. And that can lead to death.
Follow Bill Ong Hing on Twitter: www.twitter.com/immprof