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A Letter to My Asian-American Friends About Racism

03/01/2016 12:08 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2016
  • Frank H. Wu Distinguished Professor, UC Hastings College of the Law

People ask me -- specifically Asian-Americans ask me -- why Asian-Americans face such hatred, bullying, and disrespect. Their questions have become more numerous and urgent. Although I once wrote a book about this subject, I claim no expertise. Allow me to offer an answer to open discussion.

Asian-Americans are an easy target for three reasons. Asian-Americans are perceived as perpetual foreigners; Asian-Americans are viewed as "the model minority;" and race is framed in a literally black-and-white paradigm. My hypothesis is as follows.

First, Asian-Americans are perceived as perpetual foreigners. Asian-Americans have been here for generations. Hardly anybody acknowledges that. Asian-Americans themselves are unaware. We have been written out of history books. There were Asian soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Major influxes of Chinese arrived alongside Irish starting in the middle of the nineteenth-century, but the former were characterized as "sojourners" only temporarily taking advantage of the benefits of the New World. Asian-Americans built half the transcontinental railroad that united the continent. Some Asian-Americans even trace their family tree to the Mayflower, thanks to intermarriage. Asian-Americans include adoptees with white parents, fundamentalist Christians, those with Southern accents, and many others whose stories are very much rooted on these shores.

Yet from the Exclusion era, when openly racial laws were passed prohibiting migration and even naturalization of those who had come properly, Asian immigrants have been described as inscrutable, an invading force, and hence forever an enemy within. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, two-thirds of them native-born citizens of this nation, was carried out on that suspicion of potential treason. German Americans and Italian Americans were not similarly treated, due to their political power (except in individual situations of people who by and large were in fact foreigners). The constant concern about Asian "spies" in incidents such as Wen Ho Lee (pre-9/11, called the worst-ever violation of national security) and even more recent examples, spectacularly failed prosecutions that have embarrassed the federal government for its lack of proof and abundance of racial profiling, show that the mistrust of Asian-Americans endures as a shadow on our equality.

The assumption that Asian-Americans are not "real" Americans, reflected in the persistent question of "where are you really from?" allows even people who proclaim themselves anti-racist to excuse their own bigotry. Here is how it works. People agree that racism is wrong. But they accept nativism as normal. There is a difference, they insist, between those who are citizens and those who are foreigners. Xenophobia, it seems, is integral to maintaining borders.

Many Asian-Americans would agree that citizens and foreigners are not alike. They would be even more adamant about the distinction. But because race has been used explicitly, and continues to be used implicitly, to demarcate who is a native, that means that racism can be readily concealed by patriotism. Instead of regarding anti-Asian-American bias as being about race, people treat it as being about citizenship. But that is possible if and only if Asian-Asians (the people who live overseas) and Asian-Americans (who call our democracy their homeland) are lumped together as if we all "look alike," even as Asian-Americans are separated from other Americans, for then people can shrug off their own ideals. After all, foreigners have no standing to object. They are guests at best, and in any event they can always go back to where they came from.

Second, Asian-Americans are viewed as "the model minority." The myth is that Asian-Americans are uniformly "overachievers." They might have come with nothing but the shirts on their backs. But with their work ethic, and without complaining about civil rights, they have made it. They have average household higher than others, including whites.

This notion is wrong for so many reasons. That objection isn't to take anything away from those who have earned accolades for what they themselves have done to realize the American Dream. It's merely to say that a generalization about a race is suspect even if it appears positive. The statistics aggregate people of multiple ethnicities: Southeast Asian refugees look much more like African-Americans and Hispanics in demographic terms. It does not account for the selective effects of migration: the difficulty acquiring a green card produces "brain drain," an influx of those who human capital, actual money, or both. (Or, for that matter, the horrible effects of discrimination. Asian-Americans and African-Americans cannot be compared in any objectively fair manner, setting aside qualms about group comparisons, because they face discrete forms of intolerance.)

Yet the worst aspect of this false flattery is how it excuses selective sympathy and generates racial resentment. If virtually all Asian-Americans are doing well, enjoying a life more luxurious than where they really belong not to mention far better than their co-workers or neighbors, then they do not need any empathy. Just the opposite: they are a threat. In our culture that celebrates the underdog, perhaps someone who is conspicuously comfortable deserves to be reminded of their place -- in the vernacular, they need to be "taken down a notch."

Ironically, the antipathy toward Asian-Americans enables its own denial. The feeling is that Asian-Americans have more than their fair share. That leads to anger.

Third, race is framed as literally black and white. It is possible to embrace the historic Black Civil Rights Movement as just that, primarily a fight for African-American equality -- albeit with localized efforts by and on behalf of Latinos and Native Americans, and, yes, even Asian-Americans, supported by progressive whites, including especially religious outsiders such as American Jews and Quakers -- but to request that other people of color be included in the ongoing struggle, if only to form coalitions with greater likelihood of winning, and to prevent being set against one another. The tradition since "white" became an identity, however, has been to understand race in America as a drama of only a single color line, a simple division of black from white, if not vice versa. That was not always the case. There was a time, a long time, when those who were "ethnic" were not fully white but had a status of their own, when a family would name itself "Polish" and in turn be called worse. Then, there were multiple gradations of hierarchy, no better but to be sure more subtle.

What happens when race is defined as black and white is people, whole communities, are expelled. They are forced out. In a contest of suffering, their grievance cannot be as great -- never mind that their suffering might well be real. It is dismissed in the abstract. Being neither black nor white means not counting, not quite, as minority or majority.

For my friends who are Asian-American, I close by being provocative. We are complicit. We have contributed to each of the factors I have identified. While most of us assimilate more than anyone else gives us credit for and sometimes that very adaptation generates further backlash, there also is a basis for anxieties about some Asians whose affiliations here are not strong. In spite of most of us being ordinary as must be true, a few of us promote the notion that we are superior to others by biology or culture or force of destiny -- and we likely will take over the world. All too many of us prefer to avoid these issues, leaving protest to other minorities as we pursue self-interest.

The challenge is what it always has been: civic engagement, The responsibility to participate in self-governance is difficult to impress upon busy, cynical people, much less Asian-Americans in particular. That is what our society depends on: involvement in public life, as crazy as it might be. The stereotype of Asian-Americans portrays them as polite, deferential, submissive, and passive (this is changing over time, to an image of hoards of mainland Chinese tourists grabbing luxury brand-name merchandise). To the extent there is a germ of truth to the generalization, exaggerated and distorted though it may be, it has roots in Asian culture that encourages fidelity to tradition and deference to authority. We don't fight back, not effectively anyway.

I am confident that Asian-Americans can empower themselves. The prerequisite is that we wish to make the effort.

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