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Asian Americans and the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Mapping Out the Next 50 Years

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As we observe the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we will hear a common refrain: We still have a long way to go toward realizing Dr. King's Dream. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. The Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The law required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.

In short, much of what we hold dear in our democracy is shaped by this landmark legislation. The passage of the bill was borne out of a long, hard, collective struggle and sacrifice. Dr. King will be remembered for leading the movement to make passage possible. Mississippi Burning memorialized lesser known civil rights advocates like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. The name of Grace Lee Boggs (who just turned 99 recently) should be easily recognizable to those who know the long journey of struggle and sacrifice.

All too often, however, we forget to mention Grace Lee Boggs or the inequities experienced by Asian Americans 50 years ago and today. So, many are left wondering where Asian Americans figure in the national racial picture, and what stake they have in the shifting dynamics of the civil rights arena?

For starters, the Asian community is the fastest growing racial group in the nation, having expanded by 46 percent from 2000 to 2010 and now constituting 6 percent of the American population. However, the Asian American community is still relatively new to the United States. Most Asian Americans count themselves as first- or second-generation Americans. A third do not speak English, or speak it with limited proficiency, which restricts their ability to participate meaningfully in society.

Even though federal statutes mandate that certain polling locations and other government sites offer instructions in users' native languages, existing translated materials -- on the rare occasions when they are available -- are often so poorly translated as to render them useless. These missed opportunities to reach out to the Asian American community only wind up further alienating and isolating them. Admittedly, the community's linguistic diversity (we speak over 25 languages) poses a challenge. But it is not an insurmountable challenge in a nation blessed with many skilled translators. The real question is whether we are committed to inclusion.

With the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder last term, Asian Americans' voting power has been further compromised. The Court effectively gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that has protected minority voters. No longer will 16 states and localities with histories of racial discrimination need to obtain federal "pre-clearance" of any new voting law or practice before it goes into effect. This comes at a time when the Asian American electorate has nearly doubled in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Virginia -- states historically covered by the "pre-clearance" provision. And those states are taking advantage of their new freedom from Section 5 safeguards.

In Texas, for example, strict voter ID laws-which were previously blocked by Section 5-were re-introduced on the very heels of the Court's decision. Such laws have been found to disproportionately burden poor voters, who may lack money for a driver's license, or the means to travel to the motor vehicles office. In Texas, "poor voters" means not only many African and Mexican Americans, but also Vietnamese Americans, who suffer a higher poverty rate than the white population. The myth that all Asians belong to a successful "model minority" has blinded too many of us to the reality of financial hardship among some sectors of Asian America.

In other areas, Asian Americans are still being used to inflame fears and perpetuate stereotypes. The Ninth Circuit is currently considering the constitutionality of an Arizona law that makes it a felony for a doctor to terminate a pregnancy if the doctor knows that the abortion is "sought based on the sex or race of the child or the race of the parent or child." The Arizona State Legislature openly employed the specter of Asian preferences for sons over daughters as the rationale for this legislation. In light of Arizona's historic hostility toward abortion and indifference to the welfare of Asian Americans outside the womb, it is hard not to conclude that the legislature has simply used Asians as a foil for its anti-abortion agenda.

These are but a few examples of the challenges that the Asian American community faces in its quest for equality and full acceptance into American society. The community is relatively new, but eager to learn, participate and contribute. To be sure, it has made significant strides already. But to realize the community's fullest potential, American society must discard the "model minority" myth, understand the community's complexity and save room for us at the civil rights table.