On the night of June 19, 1982 in Detroit, after a confrontation at a local club where Vincent Chin was having his bachelor's party, two auto workers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, beat Chin with a baseball bat until he slipped into a coma. He died four days later on June 23, 1982. During the investigation and subsequent trial it became clear to many that this was a hate crime, with Chin, who is Chinese, being blamed for the job losses in the United States and the rise of the Japanese auto industry. The light sentences and drawn-out judicial process galvanized the Asian American community and brought into view the violence, intimidation and racism that many Asian Americans had been experiencing for generations.
One of the lessons of this incident was the real impact and the insidious nature of racial, cultural and ethnic stereotypes about Asian Americans. The stereotype that we "all look alike" is not born from the wild imagination of a community, but from years of being asked some derivation of, "Where are you from?" "What are you?" or "What's your nationality?" This constantly reinforced assumption about Asian Americans only reinforces the idea that, no matter how long we have been here, no matter what we have done, or no matter what we have declared, Asian Americans are not fully American.
From the preceding violence and passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s that halted immigration from China to Executive Order 9066 that interred over 100,000 Japanese American in 1942, Asian Americans have been told that they must choose between a connection to the culture of their ancestry and their commitment to their country. In a country that often sees race in terms of White America and Black America, like Latinos, Asian Americans live in a racial middle where we must choose between being Asian (or Chinese or Filipino or Indian) or American, but not both. For some reason we can allow folks to claim Irish pride without challenging Irish Americans' loyalty to the United States or mistaking them for those Italians, Germans or Swedes. We lift up and celebrate the ancestral convergence of for many other groups, but for Asian Americans the wait continues.
I fear that this view of Asian Americans has taken another ugly turn with the recent upsurge in anti-China rhetoric. Yes, the United States should hold China accountable for human rights abuses, environmental responsibility and global citizenship, but surely we can do this without appealing to a form of nationalism that we know can generate deplorable actions against Asian Americans.
Case in point, the recent ad by Pete Hoekstra, a senatorial candidate from Michigan... yes, Michigan.
After I watched this video, my immediate reaction was anger... flavored with a few choice expletives. I have since moved to sadness. While Hoekstra's use of Chinese-sounding music, a broken-English script and a coolie hat certainly brings Asian-fying to a new low, this is not the only time that we have seen this anti-China rhetoric being used irresponsibility during this election season. Case in point, a person claiming to be a Ron Paul supporter, accused then presidential candidate, John Huntsman, of having "Chinese values" and not "American values" because of his adopted Asian children. Hoekstra is not blazing any new trails here... he either doesn't understand the implications of this ad... or he doesn't care.
Now I have no problem with passionate debates on politics and culture and I know that political campaigns can get "dirty," but the running of this ad only goes to show the insensitivity to issues of race in today's world. We, as a society, must be better than this and no public official should tolerate as part of his/her campaign. The fact that this is a candidate from MICHIGAN, precisely where Vincent Chin was killed, makes this even worse. Vincent Chin's death took place in a highly-charged anti-Japan atmosphere that lead to his brutal beating and death. I fear that with public officials encouraging this kind of rhetoric, it is only a matter of time before someone, fueled by today's anti-China outrage, will inflict violence upon someone else.
I have no delusions that the Team Hoekstra will ever recant or apologize for this ad or its implications; in fact, I suspect that the outrage that has been directed at his campaign via Twitter and Facebook has only bolstered his credentials with his supporters. That said, I would hope that others who see this ad as dangerous would do all that they can to stop this kind of rhetoric from further shaping our national conversation on race and politics.
To give equal time and assuage my ambivalence about giving this ad any more bandwidth than it already has, you can connect with and support his rival, current Sen. Debbie Stabenow by signing her petition, volunteering on www.stabenowforsenate.com, following her on Twitter, liking her on Facebook and/or sharing this video response from the Michigan Democratic Party.
And lastly... please take some time to remember Vincent Chin.
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