Archive | May, 2012

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean –

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

Those Were The Days…

25 May

I lived in Washington, D.C. for a while in the ’90s, during Marion Barry’s second term as Mayor. I remember it as the city where I had to hail cabs while my Black colleagues stood back from the curb or the wait for a ride could be a long one.

Having some experience of D.C. and Mr. Barry behind me, his recent anti-Asian rants, while sad, were no surprise.

But the subtle and not-so-subtle racism expressed in the responses? That kind of caught me off guard. I mean, his obvious bigotry ought to be addressed, for sure, but holding him to a higher standard because he’s Black? That’s just uncool.

Now, to make matters worse, his apology to Asian American constituents included an anti-Polish slur. Sigh. Reminds me of an uncle I’d rather not name.

My uncle and Marion Barry are about the same age. They were both in their early 30s when Richard Nixon took office. Nixon was taped repeatedly referring to Blacks using the “N” word and worse in conversations with Henry Kissinger. Nixon once complained to John Erlichman that Great Society social programs were a waste because Blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

For people of Mr. Barry’s generation, overt racism was like the air we breath. I’m not excusing it, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind.

More important, I think, is to be clear that there’s quite a difference between the racism of Marion Barry and that of, say, Republican leaders. Their explicit strategy is to exploit white racism in order to build a Republican majority in Congress.

One piece of that strategy, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this blog, has been to target African Americans in a tough on crime campaign, the cornerstone of which is the war on drugs. The mention of Nixon is apropos here since tough on crime was a brainchild of his administration. Today, there are three times more African Americans in prison than in college dorms, and the ratio is not much better for Latinos.

Yup, a little perspective would do us some good here, especially since reducing racism to insensitive statements requiring public apologies trivializes the most damaging, less overtly expressed racism of those for whom racism = mega-millions in profit.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to run across this blog post about Mr. Barry’s racist rants. It sort of puts the whole incident in context. And on a weekend that evokes nostalgia in many of us, it felt just right.

I’m taking a few days off, so it’s what I’ve got for you. Now, pass me a Bloody Mary and turn on the ESPN.


Appalachian Voters

24 May

Thanks to a great article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, I came across this quote by Steve Kornacki concerning Obama’s lack of popularity in Appalachia:

A majority of Kentucky’s 120 counties voted against Obama in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, opting instead for “uncommitted.” Big margins in Louisville and Lexington saved the president from the supreme embarrassment of actually losing the state, not that his overall 57.9 to 42.1 percent victory is anything to write home about…

Chalking this up only to race may be an oversimplification, although there was exit poll data in 2008 that indicated it was an explicit factor for a sizable chunk of voters. Perhaps Obama’s race is one of several markers (along with his name, his background, and the never-ending Muslim rumors, his status as the “liberal” candidate in 2008) that low-income white rural voters use to associate him with a national Democratic Party that they believe has been overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists and gays – people and groups whose interests are being serviced at the expense of their own.

Coates addresses the race ignorance of failing to make the connection between perceptions of Obama as “Muslim,” and “liberal,” and all the b.s. about him being foreign and his race. Good point. I highly recommend reading the article.

To add a bit of wood to this fire, I’ll go a step further and say that low-income white rural voters are only half wrong (and half right) when they say the Democratic Party is overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists, and gays at their expense. Here’s where they’re wrong – liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists, and gays are not in control of the Party.

Even calling the Democratic Party liberal is wrong. Democrats have run so far away from the label “liberal” that the Republican ploy of vilifying Democrats as liberals has had the effect of changing very meaning of the word for most Americans. Feminists certainly haven’t been able to move their agenda through the Party. Neither have LGBT folks. And minorities (I assume Kornacki is referring to people of color here) sure as hell aren’t in control.

When the Democratic Party becomes the champion of humane immigration policy we might start to imagine ourselves in control. When they finally stand up against the racist drug war, push for marriage reform so that everyone can marry, and domestic partners enjoy the same rights as married couples, we’d be getting somewhere. When the Party makes redirecting the more than $16,000,000 spent so far this year on the drug war to building schools and providing drug treatment and job opportunities in poor communities, I might start to take pride in my Democratic voter registration.

When honoring treaty rights, protecting the mineral rights, and providing adequate support for health, education, and economic development of Native people is a priority of the Democratic Party, we’d really be getting someplace.  When supporting pay equity for women is more of a priority than locking up non-violent drug offenders or detaining undocumented immigrants, the Party might start to feel like a par-tay. When President Obama starts to respond to accusations that he’s not a Christian by simply saying it doesn’t matter because we are not, by law, a Christian nation, I might faint, but only after getting on my knees to thank God.

But here’s where those low-income, white rural voters are half right. Until Appalachia is able to rise out of poverty, they have a rightful claim to being victims of injustice. The interests of others are most certainly being serviced at their expense. But those interests aren’t our interests – they’re corporate interests.

And maybe if all of us ordinary folks mattered more to the Democrats than corporate interests, those Appalachian voters might stop being so damn mad at us.

Where I Stand on the Color Line

23 May

Throughout my adult life, I have struggled over the color line. I’ve never doubted it exists. Rather, my struggle has been over which side of that line I’m on.

This struggle has been on my mind since my 20s, when a Japanese American woman many years my senior told me this story:

She recalled being a young college student in the South in the 1950s. She was 12 years from being released from an internment camp where she and her family were detained during WWII.

She went to school determined to make something of herself. She wanted nothing more than to quietly toil to prove herself as a “good” American. Success would be her way of thumbing her nose at white supremacy.

But in the South she was faced with segregation. One day she found herself in a park wanting a drink of water. There were two drinking fountains – one for whites, and one for Blacks.

She intuitively walked toward the “black” drinking fountain. But just as she was about to take a drink, a police officer stopped her and ushered her to the whites only fountain. Confused and scared, she did as she was told and drank at the fountain for whites. She realized with shock that the police officer considered her white.

Years later, her life was profoundly changed by witnessing the Civil Rights Movement. Here were people who weren’t quietly enduring. They were standing up, making demands, marching. And as she learned about the issues at stake, she came to understand that the principle of the color line. Being pushed onto the white side of the line on that day at the fountains was not an endorsement of her. It was an act meant to stigmatize and isolate Black people.

She told me the story as a lesson in not being too cocky. I heard her and try to live the lesson. But what really stuck was the idea of the color line.

Whether intentionally or not, we reinforce the power of race to define us unless we commit to see life through the lens of race – not just my race, but of race writ large.

Through that lens, the disadvantages built into the menu of choices we are given are obvious to some of us, but less so to others. It depends on which side of that line you live on, and whether or not you are allowed to cross over now and then.

In this age of racist drug wars, roll backs in voting rights, Stand Your Ground laws, and legal licenses to racially profile African Americans as criminals, Latinos as “illegal,” and presumed Arabs as “terrorists,” the color line can be hard to discern. Rather than being colorblind, we are blinded by the absolute ubiquity of racism.

But if you look hard enough, there it is, written in the tears of those who wait for the return of the nearly 900,000 Black men in U.S. prisons. It is drawn with the stories of those pushed off the welfare rolls when assistance turned to punishment. And it is plain in the persecution of undocumented immigrants and Muslims, and the resentment and bullying of Asian school children because of the lie of the model minority.

The color line is as vivid as ever if we only have the eyes to see it. Erasing it will require us to first ask the question, on which side do we stand?

How We Rewrite History

20 May

Melissa Harris-Perry included a segment on personal character on her 5/20/12 show on MSNBC. During the segment, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), “We say he is wonderful in character…while millions of people were being destroyed in Europe”(presumably in WWII). Harris-Perry responded by citing FDR’s record of cheating on his wife Eleanor as another stain on his record.

Honestly MHP? Is that all you got?

FDR was a racist. That’s right. He was a segregationist who believed powerfully in the inferiority of non-white people. I’d call that a character flaw, but maybe I’m too extreme.

Maybe…if you don’t count Executive Order 9066. That order, signed on February 19, 1942, sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII. 62% of those sent to concentration camps were natural-born U.S. citizens. They were forcibly detained for the duration of the war without evidence of espionage. Many were children.

FDR never had a change of heart. The war ended and folks were released, though without compensation for their many losses, including farms, businesses, homes and jobs.

FDR met with white Olympians after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but famously refused to meet with African Americans on the U.S. team to avoid stirring the resentment of Southern whites. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in ’36, complained that Hitler didn’t snub him, FDR did.

That attitude was reflected in federal policy of the FDR era. Wikipedia says of him, “Roosevelt needed the support of Southern Democrats for his New Deal programs, and he therefore decided not to push for anti-lynching legislation…though he did denounce lynchings as “a vile form of collective murder”.

Who is the more admirable character, the person who supports lynching because of racist beliefs, or someone who has the presence of mind to call it “vile” and the power to stop the practice, but does nothing for the sake of politics?

Now, I don’t normally consider Wikipedia a source of reliable facts, but do a Google search. If you’re like me, the only indication of FDR’s racism that appears among the first page or two of hits is Wikipedia and a bunch of right wing attack sites. Our side apparently has little if anything to say on the subject.

We do ourselves a disservice when we leave these pages of history to the right wing. We do everyone a disservice when we overlook episodes of overt racism on the part of the U.S. government in the hopes of serving current day political agendas, however well intentioned they may be.

This is how we rewrite history. Excusing behaviors because they were “normal” at the time shifts blame for racial injustice onto the most extreme racists. We create the false impression that racism is just a problem of bad people and ideas. But we know outspoken racists are just the shock troops of a systemically racist system for which passivity and racial liberalism of the sort that gives FDR a pass are equally necessary ingredients.

Race Basics: Colonialism and Religious Bigotry

18 May

I don’t play in the oppression Olympics. Yet, I’ve argued that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. This statement has generated some controversy, with some saying I’ve overlooked Native people, and others saying there is a hierarchy of oppressions in which Blacks suffer most.

All this talk got me to thinking about the particular racism faced by Native people and how it fits into my analysis.

I recalled a time, some years back, when I got stuck in a soft spot on the shoulder of a road on my way to a speaking engagement. I tried to wave down help, but to no avail. For hours, no one stopped.

When I got to my destination, I told the story to my host who promptly said, “You’re in Indian country. They thought you were Native American.” What the…? Lots of white folks, he explained, are afraid of Native people in reservation-adjacent areas in Oregon.

A year later, I was in Idaho for a reception with an LGBT rights group. Near the end of the evening, two Native American men arrived. As they walked to the ticket table, one of the guests referred to them by using the “N” word preceded by the word “prairie.” Again, I was shocked.

When years later I worked in criminal justice reform out West, I learned a bit more about the racism faced by Native people. In Montana, urban Indians are profiled as vagrants and targeted for  harassment. Native drivers were regularly pulled over and assumed to be either drunk or driving without insurance. The latter is often true because the extraordinary poverty rate among Native people in Montana means many can’t afford insurance.

In 2000, Native Americans were more than 20% of all prisoners in Idaho and Wyoming in spite of being approximately 7% of the populations of those states.

Later, as a program officer of a social justice foundation, I visited Native groups all over the Northwest, both on reservation and off. Among them was the Wind River Alliance in Wyoming. From them, I learned that the Wind River had been reduced to a trickle on the reservation by white farmers whose water rights trumped Indian treaty rights.

To make the point, they aired a video of a local judge explaining his decision against the tribes’ water rights lawsuit. He said “we” already won that “war,” and water rights are one of the spoils.

This conquerer mentality regarding Native people is everywhere. It is expressed by those who say Native people are “vanishing.” It’s indicated by the current fight over re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That Act is opposed by the House Republican majority in part because of special provisions concerning violence against Native women.

It may also explain the soaring unemployment rates of Native Americans, topping 18% in the West.

I’ve toured the Crow Reservation on visits to the Center Pole Foundation in Montana. Many there live in dilapidated and poorly insulated trailers.

During the freezing winter, space heaters run constantly. Families sleep as close to the ceiling as possible in order to feel the heat. But the bills run so high that the electricity is eventually cut. Families wait until summer to earn enough money to settle back bills and avoid freezing next winter.

I also met members of the Chinook Nation. The University of Oregon describes the Chinook tribe of Washington as historical relics.  Some claim they are “extinct.” Yet these supposedly extinct people continue to fight for recognition of their tribal sovereignty.

The situation of Native Americans today is the legacy of genocide, relocation and forced assimilation. This legacy is as much a part of our history as Yankee Doodle Dandy, WWII, and and the invention of the car all rolled into one.

When Columbus first arrived in North America, the Library of Congress claims that 900,000 Native people lived here. Some demographers claim as many as 7 or 8 million. By the 1890s, only 250,000 remained. Whole nations were destroyed. Others were pushed onto reservations, and many more were simply terminated.

This history speaks to another dimension of racism: colonialism and religious prejudice.

While Africans were profiled as animals to justify race slavery, Native Americans were profiled as anti-Christians to justify wars over land and resources. Today’s debates over the dominance of Christianity in our politics echo this history. Religious bigotry continues to drive the expansion of American Empire in the form of the war on terror/Islam. And, that war is part of a larger culture “war” that is knocking down rights of LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.

I continue to believe that anti-Black racism drives white supremacy. I believe it because I know that the converse of Black in our culture is white. In order to justify slavery, white identity was created as the lever of white supremacy with anti-Black racism as the fulcrum.

But, anti-Indian racism is very real. It is an extension of a long history of colonialism, and its legacy is the mentality that drives the expansion of American Empire and Christian jihad.

I won’t play in the oppression Olympics, but I do believe that to fight racism we need a game plan. That game plan is incomplete if we overlook anti-Native racism.

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.

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