Tag Archives: African American

Is It Apartheid Yet?

1 Aug

Lately friends of mine have been talking about the U.S. heading toward apartheid in response to white fears generated by census reports predicting demographic changes that are likely to erode white power. They point to various attempts to disenfranchise voters of color and marginalize us socially and economically as evidence.

My general reaction has been, “your kidding, right?” I mean, we beat legal apartheid in the courts and on the streets in the 1960s.

But folks say I’m taking the term too literally. They tell me I need consider de facto apartheid – a condition in which whites, even as a minority (though credible sources contradict census predictions and argue that a white minority is not in our near future), are able to rule by creating separate and unequal conditions for people based on race without resorting to explicit racial codes.

Okay, so maybe we’re just trapped in an argument over semantics. After all, we already have a system of minority rule, right?

For instance, the majority of us wanted the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. Regardless, we lost on that issue because a (white) minority interest opposed to the public option controls Congress.

And then there’s the wildly disproportionate targeting of Black men in the war on drugs, even when whites use drugs at the same rate as Blacks and are, by far, a bigger driver of the illegal drug trade. That seems like a pretty clear demonstration of how bald faced racism can drive public policy and institutional practices in spite of constitutional guarantees of equal protection. All you have to do is avoid certain trigger words and, at least to our courts, it’s not racism.

Advocates of the de facto apartheid scenario also point to efforts to economically marginalize people of color via attacks on government assistance and educational opportunity programs. It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that leaders of both parties are far less responsive to poor people than to folks with money, so economic marginalization accrues to the political disadvantage of communities of color, right?

Attacks on government are also attacks on government employees, a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color, reflecting the historical reality that government was (and is) one of very few avenues to good employment for many minorities. Government also plays a regulatory role, including by policing discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Then the prophets of doom ask that we consider conservative efforts to disenfranchise communities of color, especially Latinos and African Americans. By aiming the war on drugs at Black communities and making drug possession a felony that can cost you your voting rights, many states have gotten around the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which prohibit denying ballot access based on race.

And Republican Voter I.D. Laws take things a step further. They know full well that this will have a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color. In fact, that’s the whole point of these laws. In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), has gone so far as to describe Voter ID as a way to “allow Governor Romney to win the state…”

Good point. And don’t get it twisted, the Republican Party is the party of white power.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that 89% of Republicans were white. 2% were Black, 5% Latino, and 4% were “other race.” Of white Republicans, 60% identify as conservative. And, according to a more recent Pew Research Center report, the trend is toward Republicans growing more popular among whites since the election of Barack Obama (while either losing support or holding steady among voters of color).

Put it all together and those fearful of de facto apartheid might be onto something.

But, in spite of all of these arguments (and folks offer many more), I’m not joining the choir on this one yet. To me, it matters not whether the white elite (what we used to call the white power structure back in the day) are plotting (or bumbling into) a form of de facto apartheid because, well, it doesn’t seem to me to increase the urgency of resistance nor change the way we ought to go about it.

But where we agree is on the matter of Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and economically disadvantaged Asian Americans being systematically marginalized, socially, economically, and politically. And that is cause for alarm, especially because most of our leaders aren’t talking about it, opting instead to go along with the post-racial (or colorblind racism) consensus that the best way of addressing racism is to avoid talking about it.

Regarding Blackness is the Fulcrum

16 May

Blackness is the Fulcrum continues to be, by far, the most read post on Race Files. Many of the conversations I’ve had about it begin with the assumption that Asian Americans are less likely or even unlikely to step up on issues of racial justice. The suggestion is that I’m an exception to a rule that generally applies to Asian Americans who, a few imply, get off easy where race is concerned.

I think this deserves a response.

I didn’t mean to imply that Asian Americans are opting out of fighting racism. Neither did I mean to present myself as exceptional in my concern about racism.

I’m no exception. The reality is that many Asian Americans are leaders in the movement to win racial equity in the U.S. My firm, ChangeLab (website on its way), recently conducted interviews with 80+ Asian American activists to get their takes on race and racial justice. Those interviewed are active on criminal justice reform, civil rights, environmental justice, health care, labor organizing, and humane immigration policy, among other issues.

Many of those interviewed work in communities that are made up of people of color from across the American spectrum. I am humbled by their commitment to the cause. And they are just a small sample.

The interviews generally indicate that there’s a problem with racism in Asian America. Many spoke to the prevalence of anti-Black racism in some Asian ethnic communities. But, my hunch is that interviews with any group would have revealed racist attitudes. The reality is, there is a problem with racism in America and it affects everyone.

One of the particular challenges facing Asian American racial justice advocates is the lack of educational tools and strategies designed to reflect the many specific and diverse ways in which Asian ethnic minorities understand racism in the U.S. and the world. For instance, many Asian Americans came to the U.S. as war refugees. In order to address racism among these groups, we must understand and respond to their experiences with foreign armies, including the U.S. military.

Equally important is the history of European and/or American colonialism of India, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Many have been subjected to white supremacy. Many  have also been infiltrated by right wing evangelical television and radio ministries.

A lot of Asian immigrants watched American T.V.  in their countries of origin. Those countries often include few if any African Americans or Latinos. How would any of us feel about Blacks and Latinos if our main source of information was U.S. television?

My current work involves calling Asian Americans to action not because I believe we’re less active or more determinedly racist. I’m reaching out to Asian Americans because I believe it’s my responsibility do my part where I can be most effective.

I was politicized on race as a teenager in a rural sugar plantation community. The plantation was based on a racial caste system, the legacy of which was still obvious even in the 1970s. There were neighborhoods known as Filipino Camp or Japanese Camp. I remember only one white kid in my high school class. The few white families still living near the plantation usually opted for private school, considering our public schools dead ends, leading only to low-wage labor.

Like most of my peers, I cleaved strongly, even militantly to my family and community. When I finally left Hawaii for the U.S. mainland, I was shocked by the overt racism I experienced. Outside the embrace of my community, I was exposed to harassment, intimidation, even a couple of incidents of violence during the years of the U.S.-Japan auto wars.

In my 20s I made my way into college for a year and that changed my life. In college, I met people of privilege. Some of them used that privilege to help me create a professional career in human rights. The happy accident of college, something I never planned for, led to a life I could not have imagined as a boy.

As my life in human rights progressed, I found myself working on what many perceive to be “Black” issues – countering vigilante white supremacist groups, fighting the drug war, and advocating for criminal justice reform, even teaching at a school for activists in Appalachia and the Deep South.

But I didn’t do this work because there was no basis for action on racism in the Asian American community. I did this work because I considered it strategic to ending racism for all of us. I did this work because I believed, as I wrote, that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?

4 Apr

In a Daily Kos article, Laurence Lewis asks the provocative question, “What if Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman were Black?” I’m guessing you to get the point. Clearly, if the races were reversed, things would be very, very different.

But this got me to thinking, what if Trayvon Martin had been Asian, say Japanese American for example? Would he have been profiled as a potential menace? Would he have provoked George Zimmerman to say, as revealed on the 911 recording, “These a**holes always get away”?

I’m guessing, no. Moreover, a Japanese American Trayvon would be exempt from the kind of character assassination being attempted by right wingers. No one would be combing his school records for evidence that he was a troublemaker. And if it turned out he was once caught with a little pot, it’s not likely he’d be labeled a drug dealer.

And would White conservatives be defending the adult Zimmerman by presenting evidence that an Asian minor, described by his teacher as a cheerful A and B student, was suspended from school? I doubt it.

Nor would Bill O’Reilly speculate that an innocent verdict for Zimmerman “could very well lead to violence as we saw in the Rodney King case.” The Japanese American community up in arms rioting is not exactly the nightmare vision keeping conservative white folks up at night.

In fact, imagining the victim of this tragedy as Asian American makes our society’s negative stereotyping of African Americans especially apparent. Why? Because Asian Americans are subject to a different kind of stereotype that was created as a foil to the racist, victim-blaming narrative of African Americans that continues to serve as a justification for attacking the welfare state.

That stereotype casts Asian Americans as the model minority:  a group of mathletic (though not athletic) super-achievers, overcoming prejudice and economic disadvantage not by protest, but through hard work and uncritical patriotism.

The model minority myth popped up in the media during the Civil Rights era in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Success Story:  Japanese American Style.” Until then, Asian Americans were mostly labeled as evil outsiders in order to justify immigration limits and Japanese American internment during World War II. But in the midst of Black uprisings and protests, the  article recast Japanese Americans as a group that had quietly and politely pulled itself up by its bootstraps in spite of terrible obstacles (like being put in a concentration camp because, well, you’re making white people nervous ‘cuz you’re Japanese American).

The article made the claim that Japanese Americans have a strong culture that values work, family and education which prevents J.A.s from becoming a “problem minority.” Problem minority? W.T.F! But the idea caught on, and over time, the myth expanded to Asians in general.

By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan twice publicly congratulated Asian Americans for their success, while smacking down African Americans for supposed dependency on welfare. And in a “some of my best friends are Black” move, Reagan used Black conservative Alan Keyes as a wing man in this strategy. Reagan’s crazy false logic says that if Asian Americans can succeed in spite of terrible obstacles, then persistent poverty among African Americans must be a product of a defect in Black culture or Black people.

And while Reagan was praising Asian Americans, the architects of the Reagan revolution were confounding attempts on the part of Black people to achieve success by ginning up anti-Black racism in order to attack welfare. I’d call Reagan a genius, except, well, that would be a compliment, and I just can’t go there.

Nowadays, the model minority myth is just accepted as truth, even by lots of Asians. In fact, many Asian Americans commit what they presume to be a victimless crime by taking cover behind the myth of the model minority. But there are victims, and they aren’t only non-Asians.  The victims include 54% of Asian American kids who claim to be bullied at school, at least in part, as a result of stereotyping. And, it includes the members of Asian ethnic groups that haven’t been so successful, such as Bangladeshis, Laotians, Cambodians and the Hmong, all of whom have lower per capita incomes than African Americans. The model minority myth marginalizes, even makes invisible, their suffering.

But the greatest danger of anti-Asian stereotyping, whether it is “positive” or not, is that it continues to hold Asian Americans separate from other people. And this makes us vulnerable to the flip side of the myth of Asian exceptionalism:  the idea of Asian Americans as a threat to “American” jobs. It was this kind of stereotyping that led to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by displaced auto workers in 1982 during the U.S. vs. Japan auto wars. And, BTW, neither assailant ever did any jail time.

And today, as China’s rise as an economic superpower inspires anxiety, even hatred, of the Chinese, the specter of more Vincent Chin’s ought to get us wondering, is it ever a good thing to be used, no matter what the pay off?

Coopt-upy Wall Street

30 Mar

One of my favorite pundits, Elon James White, recently wrote about How Occupy Wall Street Co-opted the Million Hoodie March, describing the behavior of OWS activists at the recent New York protest over the Trayvon Martin case.

In the post, White describes white OWS’ers taunting the police, which, besides just being insensitive of the always tense relationship between cops and African Americans, appeared to be a ploy to get attention. Many carried Occupy signs, chanted, “We are the 99%,” etc. Hence, White’s complaint that they attempted to co-opt the march.

The following weekend, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes addressed the conflict, saying that this kind of thing goes both ways, citing instances in which African Americans with Free Mumia signs protesting the incarceration of the African American political prisoner, often appear at anti-war demonstrations. I usually like Chris Hayes, but this statement made me squirm.

There are big differences between mostly white OWS protestors who are obviously being targeted for police repression showing up with 99% placards and chanting about economic inequality at a peaceful protest of a white on Black killing, and Free Mumia activists showing up with placards supporting their cause at a mostly white anti-war rally.

One difference, at least as I see it, is that when people of color show up to raise visibility for their causes at mostly white anti-war demonstrations, it’s an opportunity to escape the invisibility that is imposed on us by segregation and the indifference of the white majority, including the white media.

It’s a chance to build support among whites who, because of their concern over an unjust war, might be open to hearing about another kind of injustice. And, let’s face it, in a majority rule society in which white people not only hold the numerical advantage but control the media, you kinda have to get white permission for your cause to become visible.

Case in point: the Martin family tragedy is by no means isolated. Black men and boys die at the hands of people with guns with some regularity, and in those cases where the perpetrators are white, evidence of racially motivated bias is by no means rare. And yet, where are the protests? Meanwhile, a white child goes missing at a mall and it’s not just news, it’s a national crisis.

Not only are the problems affecting people of color happening mostly beyond the view of the white majority; the information necessary to understand these problems as injustice rarely get aired. Unless we can get white folks paying attention, like the white blogger who worked so diligently to bring the Trayvon Martin case to the public, our issues rarely become visible to the mainstream. So show up at a mostly white-led protest of something as big as a war to get some air time? Sure, how else can you get heard? And, BTW, we’re not there to distract media attention from the primary cause.

On the other hand, when white OWS’ers, who have been widely criticized for being isolated in their whiteness, use a march organized by Black people to raise visibility for themselves using distracting tactics, there is cause to complain. Given how polarizing OWS is (and BTW, polarizing is, strategically speaking, just what I think they ought to be), it doesn’t help the Martin family cause to have OWS’ers chanting, “We are the 99%.” In fact, it’s a detriment.

The Trayvon Martin protest isn’t about polarizing, it’s about coming together across race, politics and class to demonstrate broad-based public concern. Demonstrating broad, mainstream opposition to the Sanford police department’s handling of the shooting of Trayvon Martin is essential to achieving a just resolution.

But in the end, that’s not what made me squirm. What made me uncomfortable was that Chris Hayes’ false equivalency dismisses the racial dynamics underlying the conflict described by Mr. White. Too often white activists show up at the protests led by people of color (but not at the doors of our organizations offering to help behind the scenes) to say something, not about our causes, but about themselves. And what they want to say is some version of this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”

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