As a person of color, the fog of racism surrounding this president is obvious to me. While I believe that he has not done nearly enough to address racism and has done all together too much in the way of ignoring human rights, I also see that he doesn’t get some of the credit he deserves because his record is distorted, both by detractors and by those who unfairly hold him to a higher standard because of his race.
But, as an Asian American, I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have internalized the lie that says that Asians have done well in the U.S. based solely on being exceptionally responsible, the effect can be especially powerful. Too many of us overlook the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery in the U.S. We don’t understand how different that experience is from that of Asian Americans, much less the way Asian Americans have benefited from the Black civil rights struggle. And we’re not alone in that. The irony of internalizing negative racial stereotypes amongst a community targeted by negative stereotypes only brings into stark relief a much wider spread and growing problem of anti-black racism that our president singling out blacks for lectures about personal responsibility only serves to feed.
We are still both separate and unequal by race. In 2012 the New York Times reported that 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. And the poorer the students, the worse the segregation. Meanwhile, due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class, a persistent and worsening racial wealth gap between blacks and whites continues to plague black families. This presents an unfair and often insurmountable barrier to opportunity in a society in which the most powerful indicator of success is your parents’ financial status. Yet, too many of us, more all the time actually, believe that the problem of black poverty is black irresponsibility.
The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater, meant to play in public. And to the broad public, our liberal black president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines the credibility of legitimate black complaints of persistent racism, even as it feeds the damaging stereotype that there’s a particular problem of irresponsibility in black communities. And, as I said before, those stereotypes are strongest amongst those of us who aren’t black, and that can cause people who should be allies to become enemies.
Back in San Martin, the Kuangs continue to live the farming life of their ancestors. But this way of life is increasingly under threat − not from the manufacture of watches, toys and clothes, but from Internet company headquarters and the surrounding neighborhoods where its employees live. Since buying 12.9 acres here in 1998, the Kuangs have watched the price tag of surrounding land increase from $30,000 an acre to as much as $70,000 in recent years. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, more than half of the Asian American farmers in Santa Clara County operate on less than 10 acres of land. Unlike their white and Latino counterparts, the number of Asians operating farms larger than 180 acres can be counted on one hand.
Of the roughly 130 Asian growers documented in this county, the majority are Chinese, and most of the Chinese growers here own land in or on the fringes of urban zones. In areas zoned for agriculture, land can be purchased at $100,000 an acre, according to Aziz Baameur, a University of California farm adviser based in Santa Clara County. However, land in the bedroom communities of Silicon Valley, such as Gilroy and Morgan Hill, could easily fetch between $300,000 and $500,000 per acre. New farmers have few prospects of buying land “unless it’s someone from Silicon Valley who is cottage farming on the weekends,” Baameur says.
While the Silicon Valley of Apple and Facebook is no longer a land of blossoms and orchards, Chinese farmers like the Kuangs continue to wage a battle for farmland preservation in Santa Clara County.
Kochiyama’s life in social change is inspiring, both for its longevity and for her willingness to take on the most controversial causes. She is, perhaps, most famous for her association with Malcolm X, and for the photos of her holding Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after being gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom on February 12, 1965. But there was much, much more to Kochiyama’s activism than her sojourn with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. She fought for Puerto Rican independence, provided support for social and political prisoners, and was instrumental in the fight for reparations for Japanese American internees.
But the importance of Kochiyama’s story doesn’t end with her personal history. For while she is no doubt a remarkable person, she was not alone among Asian Americans of her generation in her commitment to social justice. Throughout her story we are reminded of others who struggled alongside her, of the the Asian American movement of the 1960s that was inspired, in part, by Japanese American internment, exclusionary and blatantly racist immigration laws, the Vietnam War, and exploitation and discrimination of Asian immigrant workers. That movement gave birth to the phrase “Asian American” as a statement of inter-ethnic solidarity, and it stood against unjust wars and with the movements for African American civil rights, workers rights, and immigrant rights, and for multiculturalism, open enrollment in colleges and universities, and diversification of university curricula. That movement gave us Asian American studies, and Asian American studies has allowed us to create a record of our history, in our own words.
A generation ago, whites made up roughly two-thirds of the population in this rarefied Los Angeles suburb, where most of the homes are worth well over $1 million. But Asians now make up over half of the population in San Marino, which has long attracted some of the region’s wealthiest families and was once home to the John Birch Society’s Western headquarters.
The transformation illustrates a drastic shift in California immigration trends over the last decade, one that can easily be seen all over the area: more than twice as many immigrants to the nation’s most populous state now come from Asia than from Latin America.
And the change here is just one example of the ways immigration is remaking America, with the political, economic and cultural ramifications playing out in a variety of ways. The number of Latinos has more than doubled in many Southern states, including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, creating new tensions. Asian populations are booming in New Jersey, and Latino immigrants are reviving small towns in the Midwest.
Much of the current immigration debate in Congress has focused on Hispanics, and California has for decades been viewed as the focal point of that migration. But in cities in the San Gabriel Valley — as well as in Orange County and in Silicon Valley in Northern California — Asian immigrants have become a dominant cultural force in places that were once largely white or Hispanic.
“We are really looking at a different era here,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied census data. “There are astounding changes in working-class towns and old, established, wealthy cities. It is not confined to one place.”
Many of the immigrants come here from China and Taiwan, where they were part of a highly educated and affluent population. They have eagerly bought property in places like San Marino, where the median income is nearly double that of Beverly Hills and is home to one of the highest-performing school districts in the state. The local library now offers story time in Mandarin.
But the wealth is not uniform, and there are pockets of poverty in several of the area’s working-class suburbs, particularly in Vietnamese and Filipino communities.
“This is kind of ground zero for a new immigrant America,” said Daniel Ichinose, a demographer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “You have people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese and Spanish all living together and facing many common challenges.”
Members of UC Irvine’s Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta put their racial ignorance on display last week when they released a video of a student wearing blackface. The college community, which caught wind of the video this week when a YouTube user reuploaded the deleted video, is predictably outraged.
The video includes four Asian-American men dancing to Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” to promote the spring induction of the fraternity’s new recruits. One man in blackface plays the part of Jay-Z. It is the very definition of bad taste. I watched as much of it as I could stomach and cringed during the worst of it.
With their racist antics LTD is carrying on the long and horrid tradition of campus racism, which is its own genre of racial antagonism. C. Richard King and David Leonard broke down the history of college goers partying in blackface in the pages of Colorlines—in 2007. King and Leonard describe the “ghetto fabulous” parties of yore as a reactionary aggression toward demands for “political correctness”—but what’s going on seems to be just as much the result of endemic racial ignorance.
Such incidents are especially egregious at a campus like UC Irvine, where Asian Americans are 49 percent (PDF) of the undergraduate student population and black students are just 2 percent. Within the University of California network UC Irvine’s has for years been the campus with the highest percentage of Asian-American students.
To their credit, the fraternity issued an actual apology, as opposed to the disingenuous non-apology-apologies that so often follow such offenses.
As we got up from our seats and stood in place to enter the aisle, the white woman behind me stood next to me in the aisle and was determined to gain the place in the line ahead of me. Elisabeth was standing by her seat in the row beside me, and the woman’s husband was standing behind us in the aisle.
We stood a long time, as it seemed to take longer than usual for the passengers ahead of us to file out of the passengers’ cabin. When it became closer for our row to exit, the elderly woman beside me started walking ahead and somehow got three rows in front of us. I am not sure how she managed that, but she did, leaving her husband behind us. So far, we have simple rudeness.
As she left the plane, she was about eighteen passengers ahead of me on the ramp. So, when it was my turn to walk out, I asked her husband if he wanted to go ahead of us, and he politely said, “Please go ahead.” So, my daughter and I stepped from the passenger cabin.
As we passed the elderly woman on the terminal ramp, she had an angry look on her face as my daughter and I emerged from the door ahead of her husband. She was waiting for her husband in disgust. Her displeasure was written on her face, and as we walked past her, she said aloud to her husband, “I can’t believe you allowed the Chinese to get ahead of you!”
She said it loud enough so that I could hear. As the words left her mouth, her spitefully-based statement to her husband angered me more than such events may warrant. My first thought was the perception that an Asian is always already viewed as a foreigner no matter how long they have been living in this country. Even fourth or fifth generation Asians are viewed as the “perpetual foreigner.” Asian Americans have been depicted as “perpetual foreigners,” “unassimilatable,” and other stereotypes that reveal historic and persistent racism experienced by this racial/ethnic group. For example, almost every Asian in America has been afflicted with the perpetual foreigner syndrome. Many have been asked, “Where are you really from?” This loaded question, which I shall call the “really-question,” differs from the usual one, “Where are you from?” The really question figuratively and literally ejects the Asian American respondent to Asia, because the assumption behind the question, even if the questioner is oblivious to it, is that Asian Americans cannot be “real” Americans.
Grace Lee Boggs, the 97-year-old feminist, activist, and philosopher, was born in the United Stated in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Boggs earned her PhD in 1940; these credentials were no shield against discrimination based on her Chinese ancestry. When Boggs married African American activist James Boggs, over a decade before the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, she made the choice to add his name to her own. Their marriage would last until James Boggs’ death 40 years later.
In observing debates around the politics of naming, especially when it comes to gender, I often think of Boggs. Someone who knows little of her life and politics, or of intersectionality, might judge Boggs’ last name as an acceptance of a patriarchal naming tradition that privileges men. But is it?
The argument could also be made that by adding the last name of her black husband to her own Chinese name Boggs was putting into personal action the political solidarity between people of color traditionally pitted against one another by white supremacy. Perhaps her acceptance of the name was even a revolutionary act that flew in the face of the laws of a country that said race must determine whom you choose to love?
Or maybe, in 1953, a deeply political Chinese American woman marrying a black man simply had bigger fish to fry than worrying about her last name? Of course, these arguments are just as much speculation as the first. Still, I’d argue it is Boggs’ life-long record as a thought leader in the labor, civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements that actually defines her identity.
Boggs put into action hooks’ concept of ideas over identity long before the rest of us even started talking about it. That’s an example that could do us all some good.