Asian Americans And Civil Rights: The Mistakes We Keep Making

08/29/2016 04:12 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2016

I have been working on Asian American civil rights issues since it seemed strange to put those words together into the same phrase. Asian Americans, no less than other Americans, have only recently become aware that Asian Americans even had civil rights concerns, and the notion of Asian Americans raising their voices is still transitioning from a hesitant “could” to a tentative “should.” Yet I wonder if we continue to make the same mistakes. We develop patterns of conduct immediately. 

Asian American civic engagement predates the term “Asian American.” In the nineteenth century, Chinese Americans litigated cases to the Supreme Court challenging laws that excluded them, expelled them, and discriminated against them. They formed a group for the American born, in response to the Native Sons of the Golden West welcoming only some who came forth on American soil. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was founded in 1929. A South Asian, Dalip Singh Saund, was elected to the United States Congress in 1956. Vietnamese refugees have fought for their livelihoods — and their lives — as they resettled and became successful in places such as Louisiana.

Our potential strength has attracted notice. We are sought for donations, tapped for appointments, even encouraged to run for office. We are no longer brushed off as apathetic. 

The announcement of our arrival may be premature though. What I say below I would rather share privately. It may be rude, not well received. But it also is true, necessary.

Asian Americans are not as strategic as we could be, in three respects. These errors are mine, the second in particular. I name them so we can address them. 

First, we go it alone instead of reaching out. I am dismayed by what I see. My friends, more than one of them, who have given their careers to civil rights have expressed to me their alarm about Asian Americans, many not familiar with the history of segregation or even contributions made by earlier Asian Americans, but who fight in direct opposition to African Americans and display contempt for Asian Americans who would do otherwise.

I have witnessed it myself. I have had multiple conversations with earnest Asian Americans who are surprised that “immigration” includes them. They trust that angry discussions about the border refer to those who are undocumented, whom they assume are all Latino. That is incorrect as a matter of fact: the growth of the Asian American population is due to immigration rates more than birth rates, and there are more than a few Asians among those who lack papers. And I have had other conversations with Asian Americans, whom I also am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that they act from ignorance rather than malice, as they insist “racial justice” is not for them. They make as if racial profiling affects African Americans, and perhaps Arab immigrants, but they do not regard marching, organizing, and agitating as appropriate for an ambitious Asian American youngster who should be studying and then making as much money as possible.

What is worse, we divide among ourselves. I have said to Asian Americans in cities such as Chicago and Dallas that I admire their network. I am not flattering them. Ironically, in places without critical mass for any Asian ethnicity, they have built bridges. They have had no choice.

Elsewhere, however, the Chinese disregard the Japanese, and vice versa. Or the Chinese and Japanese appropriate the title “Asian American,” omitting if not shunning Koreans, Filipinos, and Southeast Asians. Those with East Asian origins and those with South Asian origins do not perceive a common cause; those from Central Asian areas once part of the Soviet Union are not even considered. Pacific Islanders are hardly mentioned either, except if their numbers are used to boost statistics. Adoptees and those of mixed background are left behind and left out.

Then among the Chinese,  every type of further division emerges: Mainland against Taiwan; Mandarin speaking against Cantonese speaking; by generation; and by partisan politics. They are carried over ancestrally, which is to say thoughtlessly. 

We commit the same sins. We are, for example, homophobic, or, more defensible only in our own eyes, unsupportive, when we could be, of LGBT rights. We dismiss it as a “white” issue. I am sure there are Asian American parents who prefer to believe that Asians are not gay or lesbian; they probably pretend their children are celibate in addition.

Second, we proceed naively as if we need not be distracted by foreign relations. We frame “civil rights” as domestic. We do that for a reason: we insist we are Americans. Our claims here do not depend on what China is doing overseas. The proper comparison is whether we are equal to a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or an African American, though the former typically is better off than the latter (a point we ought not overlook if we are serious about these matters).

The problem is that as goes China, so go Chinese Americans. To the average person, the distinction between a Chinese Chinese and a Chinese American is not great. It seems a technicality, even if it is profound. Our green card may be newly acquired, after all. If our neighbor or co-worker is angry about the loss of her job to China, she may well blame us. She cannot tell whose side we are on. We can proclaim our patriotism all we want; we look as if we are trying too hard. 

As much as we try to correct, gently, and nudge attitudes, we should be aware of the hard realities. Otherwise, our willfulness exposes our vulnerability. I too argue about my American-ness. I keep my passport handy as proof. 

Nonetheless, I have realized I must follow the news about China. In part, all of us should be doing that. We are not educated Americans if we are cognizant of China. Chinese Americans must take greater care. Whether I like it or not, I am associated with China. I can take this positively. It may be that I, as a Chinese American, have an ability to do good with respect to China, or US-China interactions. Since I am situated to perform that function, I would be shirking a responsibility if I turned away from the possibilities.

Third, we also do the opposite in becoming too involved in “homeland” politics. I do not begrudge newcomers, especially exiles. They read the newspaper that their grandparents read, or they prefer the American periodical in the same language. They remain a member of an imagined community. They follow distant elections that are obscure to the average American.

Asian Americans have played a salutary role, dating back more than a century, in every type of change in the lands they left. Some were as others perceived them, albeit without negative connotation: temporary residents, sojourners. They were students or expatriates; they then had an opportunity to return, educated by much more than their formal schooling. They brought back ideas that inspired. Or they were transnational from the outset. They were much more bicultural than the hyphenated American, able to move effortlessly around the world.

The trouble comes from potential conflict between civil rights here and political interests there. It is difficult to insist that you are not a foreign agent if you aspire to be a foreign official. We may be creating a fantasy for ourselves, a romance of memory in which we never left the comfort of our village, which our own children reject, as they decide their destiny is on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Our nostalgia inhibits our progress, as nostalgia does.

The policies we propose, if they are to be implemented, must be for the benefit of this society of which we are an integral part. If there is even a hint they favor others, those with whom our kinship is presumed to be more true, we will not be credible for any cause. 

My conclusion is that effective civil rights advocacy is principled. It appeals to a set of ideals that others can embrace too. It is realistic. It adapts to the facts on the ground. In a diverse democracy, lasting success comes from coalitions. Affinity and identity should empower but not limit.

The world is as we have found it, but it can become as we envision it.

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