The American Enterprise, November/December 1998
–By Ying Ma
IN WHAT PASSES for discussions on race these days, small problems are often blown up large, while real traumas are completely ignored. For instance, despite what President Clinton’s “Race Initiative” panel has said, the very rawest racial conflicts in present-day America don’t even fit into the tidy mold of white-majority-oppressing-colored-minority that activists constantly promote. Though civil rights groups and most of the media studiously ignore this fact, the nation’s most fractious racial battles are now conflicts between minority populations. Particularly horrific is the animosity directed at Asian Americans by blacks in low-income areas of urban America.
At age ten, I immigrated from China to Oakland, California, a city filled with crime, poverty, and racial tension. In elementary school, I didn’t wear name-brand clothing or speak English. My name soon became “Ching Chong,” “Chinagirl,” and “Chow Mein.” Other children laughed at my language, my culture, my ethnicity, and my race. I said nothing.
After a few years, I began to speak English, but not well enough to trade racial insults. On rides home from school I avoided the back of the bus so as not to be beaten up. But even when I sat in the front, fire crackers, paper balls, small rocks, and profanity were thrown at me and the other “stupid Chinamen.” The label “Chinamen” was dished out indiscriminately to Vietnamese, Koreans, and other Asians. When I looked around, I saw that the other “Chinamen” tuned out the insults by eagerly discussing movies, friends, and school.
During my secondary school years, racism, and then the combination of outrage and bitterness that it fosters, accompanied me home on the bus every day. My English was by now more fluent than that of those who insulted me, but most of the time I still said nothing to avoid being beaten up. In addition to everything else thrown at me, a few times a week I was the target of sexual remarks vulgar enough to make Howard Stern blush. When I did respond to the insults, I immediately faced physical threats or attacks, along with the embarrassing fact that the other “Chinamen” around me simply continued their quiet personal conversations without intervening. The reality was that those who cursed my race and ethnicity were far bigger in size than most of the Asian children who sat silently.
The racial harassment wasn’t limited to bus rides. It surfaced in my high school cafeteria, where a middle-aged Chinese vendor who spoke broken English was told by rowdy students each day at lunch time to “Hurry up, you dumb Ching!” On the sidewalks, black teenagers and adults would creep up behind 80-year-old Asians and frighten them with sing-song nonsense: “Yee-ya, Ching-chong, ah-ee, un-yahhh!” At markets and in the streets of poor black neighborhoods, Asians would be told, “Why the hell don’t you just go back to where you came from!”
When it came time for college, I left this ugly world for a beautiful school far away. Finally, it was possible to pursue a life without racial harassment backed by the threat of violence. I chose not to return to my old neighborhood after college, but I am often reminded of the racial discrimination I endured there. On a bus not too long ago I saw a black woman curse at a Korean man, “You f—ing Chinese person! Didn’t you hear that I asked you to move yo’ ass? You too stupid to understand English or something?”
In poor neighborhoods across this country Asians endure daily racial hatred just as I did. Because of their language deficiencies, their small size, their fear of violent confrontations, they endure in silence. Unlike me, many of them will never depart for a new life in a beautiful place far, far away. So each day they grow more bitter against a group that much of America refuses to acknowledge to be capable of racism: African Americans.
In a fair and peaceful world, racial harassment will be decried without regard to its source. The problem today is that prominent black leaders rule out even the possibility of black racism. Activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson intone that racism equals “prejudice plus power,” and that since blacks in America lack power, they are simply not capable of practicing racism against anyone. John Hope Franklin, chair of President Clinton’s race panel, angrily insists that racism is something suffered, not dished out, by blacks. Many black professors, writers, polemicists, and politicians repeat the same mantra. What might appear to be black racism, writes syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, actually boils down not to racism but to acts of crime and rudeness from the perpetrators, and tough luck for the recipients.
Rationalizers of black racism ignore the fact that identical actions inflicted by whites would be universally decried as intolerable. Ultimately, their arguments simply grease the skids for further traumatizing of “unlucky” victims. And to real-life casualties of racial animosity, motivation is not especially relevant. Loss is loss. Pain is pain.
Unfortunately, Asian Americans—and especially their leaders—have failed to speak out on this matter. Complaints from wounded individuals regularly boil into public view, however. In mid-August, I attended a crowded press conference held in New York’s Chinatown to discuss Indonesia’s history of discrimination against ethnic Chinese (which peaked this May in a wave of bloody anti-Chinese riots). One woman at the event began to hysterically scream out her frustrations over black American racism against Asians. The woman, Mee Ying Lin, shouted, “Chinese suffer from racial discrimination by blacks every day. We should help persecuted Chinese overseas, but why is no one dealing with our own troubles in America?”
Rose Tsai, head of the San Francisco Neighbors Association, and candidate for a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, suggests that everyday Asians rarely defend themselves against ghetto racism because “Asian culture is just not that confrontational…. Asians are unlike blacks who got to where they are in politics by being militant.”
Tsai explains that Asian involvement in politics is at a nascent stage, that it is difficult for her organization even to convince Asian immigrants to vote, let alone make a political stink against racial harassment. “Asians are just not used to standing up for our own rights,” says another Bay Area Chinese activist with frustration.
That might explain the quiescence of recent immigrants who speak imperfect English. But what about the growing cadre of Asian activists? They are far from passive or non-confrontational. In just the past two years, organizations like the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the National Asian-Pacific American Legal Consortium, the Organization for Chinese Americans, and others have voiced loud condemnations of “racism” in American society. But they have focused on events like the recent investigation of Asian donors of illegal campaign funds, the Republican opposition in Congress to Bill Lann Lee’s nomination as director of the Office of Civil Rights, a cover drawing for National Review that showed the President, Vice President, and First Lady dressed in Manchurian garb, and even a recent cover photo for this magazine that showed a handsome Asian male scowling angrily at the camera.
If vocal Asian activists are able to work themselves into a frenzy attacking everyday political tussles and editorial cartoons for their alleged racist motivations, they are obviously capable of confrontation. Why then do we never hear these national activists condemning black racism against Asians in our inner cities?
Some Asian-American activists say the reason they have not confronted anti-Asian racism among blacks is because the tension does not exist on the national level, but is merely confined to some local areas. Karen Narasaki of the National Asian-Pacific American Legal Consortium claimed in a recent interview that black animosity is different in each city and ought to be handled differently in each case by local organizations. David Lee, executive director of one such local organization, the San Francisco Voters Education Committee, concurs: “There may be a few communities and a few areas where tensions exist—so it is better for community groups rather than a national organization like the Organization of Chinese Americans to deal with such problems.”
Representatives of national Asian organizations also cite resource constraints to explain their quiescence. They say black-Asian clashes are not a serious enough national issue to expend scarce time and money on.
There is a difference, however, between not being able to expend effort and not wanting to. Asian activists on the national level also matter-of-factly justify black racism in inner cities as a direct result of competition between Asians and their black neighbors over limited economic resources. Narasaki, while acknowledging she is not an inner city expert, insists that many black and Asian conflicts “have to do with the lack of economic opportunities” in cities. Echoing this refrain, Stanley Mark, program director of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, asserts that “we can’t talk about race without talking about economic disparities.”
In this vein, Asian activists consistently mention that racial problems occur when Asian merchants move into predominantly black neighborhoods and flourish. The vicious year-long black boycott of a Korean store in Brooklyn in 1990, and the looting and burning of Korean stores in south-central Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King riots serve as shining examples of conflicts linked to economic disparities.
The excuse of economic disparities fails miserably to justify violence and harassment, however. For some observers, it also brings up memories of Nazi persecution of Jews, African attacks on Indian merchants, and recent murders, rapes, and robberies of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. All of these atrocities were committed against people deemed economically well off by larger masses facing difficult times.
In any case, the economic disparities rationale falls apart in the many instances where racism flourishes in the absence of class differences. At San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point public housing complex, for instance, low-income Southeast Asian residents, who are in the minority, have consistently encountered racial harassment from their black neighbors. Racial slurs, physical threats, violence, and destruction of property have festered for years. Philip Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center, who has worked on the case for years, notes that there are no economic differences between the Asian and black families in the complex. The Asians, he says, are very quiet and have made every effort to befriend the black residents, yet serious friction has persisted for ten years.
Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, painstakingly tried to bring blacks and Asians together after the Rodney King riots. He believes that “much of the hostilities are due to blacks’ jealousy of Asian economic success, a sense of alienation, and the self-perpetuating belief that blacks will always lose out in the racial equation in America.” He adds that “certainly economics gives a basis to many of the problems,” but asserts that “even if tomorrow we can have a level playing field for both racial groups, we would still have animosity and racial strife” because prejudices would still remain.
Asian activists who are not otherwise inclined to ignore prejudice are often strangely anxious to apologize for black racism. In interviews, they note that Asians harbor many prejudices against blacks too. This explanation, however, has no power to explain the kind of harassment I and many others like me experienced as young immigrant children beginning life with no animus toward anyone.
Asian prejudice toward blacks surely exists. But whatever biases might be harbored in the minds of Asian immigrants, many of whom had never seen a black person before arriving in the U.S., they certainly don’t rate at the level of destroying black people’s property, scaring their elderly folk, or threatening and assaulting their children—the kinds of pressures Asians in many urban areas now endure routinely. Asian youths in particular typically start out with little or no inclination to distrust or dislike African Americans. Young Asians are usually far more willing than their parents to accept a new country and new friends, including black ones. In many cases, it was only after innumerable frightening chases, assaults, and humiliations that Asian attitudes toward blacks turned defensive. Those of us whose open minds were confronted with hostility and hatred will never accept the insulting assertion that our suffering resulted from our own prejudices.
It seems that leaders of the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, and related groups are disconnected from the real concerns of many of the Asians they claim to represent. David Lee, whose Bay Area organization is attempting to promote local dialogue among minority journalists, believes that a fundamental disconnection exists between the national Asian spokesmen and the new majority of Asians who are recent immigrants. The prominent Asian civil rights leaders, he notes, tend to be American born, to speak little of their ethnic languages, and to be unable to read the local ethnic newspapers. Many of them do not know or understand the problems in low income areas, because they live comfortable middle-class lives. And so “it is not surprising that they are silent about black-on-Asian discrimination,” Lee summarizes.
Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles and an active member of the Black-Korean Alliance that attempted to bring African- and Korean-Americans together in the eight years before the south-central riots, describes a disconnection in the Korean community between first-generation immigrants and acculturated second generation residents with less familiarity with inner-city life. After the shops of Koreatown were looted or burned, he reports, the more suburbanized Koreans pushed inter-ethnic bridge-building efforts, while the first-generation immigrants who toiled in menial jobs, bridled at having to sit across the table from those who looted and burned their property. Meanwhile, few of the prominent national Asian organizations even condemned the violence perpetrated against Koreans in L.A.
Stanley Mark of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund argues in defense of the national Asian organizations that people hear less from the Asian leaders about black-on-Asian racism than white-on-Asian racism simply because there is less of the former than the latter. Mark insists he knows of no case where an Asian was seriously hurt or killed by a racist black American.
Underlining the disconnect between national and local perceptions, Liu Yu-xi, an organizer of the New York coalition of Chinese Americans that mobilized hundreds of thousands of normally politically apathetic Chinese to protest Indonesian violence against Chinese residents, chuckled at Stanley Mark’s ignorance of cases of black racism. Liu, who has known of many racially motivated physical attacks against Chinese in New York, observes, “Such crimes are reported often in the local Chinese papers, but the national Asian activists obviously do not know how to read Chinese.”
When asked why prominent Asians have said little about racial harassment by African Americans, Bill Tam of San Francisco’s Chinese Family Alliance flatly stated, “I think they are afraid to say anything.” To him, it appears that Asian leaders are often fearful of the national black leadership. National Asian organizations generally follow the lead of black civil rights groups like the naacp so slavishly, another Bay Area activist told me, that even when the latter’s stances (for instance, on quotas and preferences) are opposed to the interests and beliefs of many Asian citizens, the Asian activists don’t challenge their allies.
Rose Tsai of the San Francisco Neighbors Association was a little more blunt: “Most Asian leaders do not wish to acknowledge that there exists a problem because they do not want the minorities to fight amongst themselves.” As a result, national Asian spokesmen speaking for their brethren are without any inkling of the real problems they face, or what kind of racism is dragging them down. Recognizing the complex issues between blacks and Asians, Philip Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center has a simple proposal: “Fight, not against or for any group, but against racial discrimination.”