April 21, 2015
Richard Aoki holds a sign stating "Yellow Peril Supports Black Power" as a part of the Asian American Political Alliance's support for the Free Huey campaign, ca. 1968. Looking on at left is Richard's friend Douglas Daniels.
Title: The African American and Asian American Shared Fight for Civil Rights
Key Words: Binary, “Model Minority”, “Yellow Peril”, Civil Rights
Description: This issue brief compares African American and Asian American’s experience of marginalization under the U.S. legal system and analyzes why Asian American’s civil rights efforts have been undermined throughout history. While Asian Americans have been used to further anti-black sentiment and are often portrayed as victims or passive bystanders to African American civil rights efforts, the brief sheds light on the ways in which African Americans and Asian Americans can unite to reform civil rights for all minorities.
Race relations in the U.S. tend to be framed around a black vs. white binary.
Both African Americans and Asian Americans have been victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and unequal protection under the law (e.g., Michael Brown, Vincent Chin).
Asian American’s civil rights efforts have failed to have as lasting a legacy as African American’s.
Engrained Asian American stereotypes have concealed the marginalization and prejudices that they have suffered as an ethnoracial group.
If African Americans and Asian Americans work together to fight for equal protection under the law, all minorities will benefit in the end.
When looking at the most publicized racially charged incidents in the U.S., such as Ferguson, discussions of race relations are often framed as black vs. white. However, incidents like Ferguson are much more relevant to Asians Americans than they may appear on the surface.
Although Asian Americans and African Americans differ in their journeys to the U.S., they share an experience of suffering from structural racism. The African American civil rights story began long before Asian Americans. Through the 16th and 19th centuries Africans were forcibly imported to the New World to aid in crop production (The History Channel 1). The legacy of slavery would continue to influence the African American experience in the U.S. a century after emancipation. African Americans would to face disenfranchisement, race-based violence, and segregation. “Jim Crow” laws, such as like literacy tests and taxes at polls barred African Americans from voting (The History Chanel 1). These injustices culminated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, where substantial legislative ground was made to alleviate civil rights abuses. However, there appears to still be work to be done, as recent instances of police brutality highlight the persistent discrimination African Americans
The history of Asian Americans in the U.S. is much shorter than African Americans, but has striking similarities in the forced segregation and barriers to voting that they have experienced. The first large-scale immigration of Asians into the U.S. was the Chinese, whom came in 1948 in search of wealth from the Gold Rush in California (Le 1). While this first round of immigrants came on their own free will, they experienced discrimination in the form of the Foreign Miner Tax. If they refused to pay the tax, they were subject to violence and even murdered. Since the law prevented Chinese immigrants from testifying against whites, many murders went free (Le 1).
This flow of Chinese immigrants was soon stopped all together with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese immigrants were replacing Americans with their cheap labor and there was a fear of Asian immigrants taking over western civilization with their strange foreign values. This fear became known as “Yellow Peril”. The act ended in 1943, but another group of Asian Americans would soon have their lives disrupted by the U.S. government. Following the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor during WWII, the U.S. government forcibly relocated and incarnated 120,000 Japanese Americans, whom 62% were U.S. citizens. Detained and stripped of their rights, Japanese Americans were at the will of U.S. government, a feeling reminiscent of African Americans during slavery.
Asian Americans continued to be forcibly moved, as Southeastern Asians arrived involuntarily to the U.S. From 1975 to 1979 many refugees were forced out by the communist government in South Vietnam to come to the U.S. Since many came to the country speaking little English and with few skills, they usually ended up in low-paying jobs and settled in to the poorest neighborhoods. Southeastern immigrants are more likely to have a decreased access to health care and do not understand how to use its benefits, which can be associated with cultural and language barriers and an unfamiliarity with Western medicine practices (Chang, Margret 310). Furthermore, similarly to African Americans, Asian Americans experience barriers to voting. Strict voter identification and proof of citizenship laws at polls were reported as disenfranchising Asian Americans during the 2012 Presidential election (Asian American Defense and Education Fund 1).
Asian Americans and African Americans also have a shared experience of racial profiling and police brutality. However, these civil rights violations involving African Americans have resulted in greater civil unrest than similar incidents involving Asian Americans. The August 2014 killing of an African American named Michael Brown by an unconvicted white Ferguson police officer sparked mass protests against police brutality and demands for equal protection under the law for African Americans. Similar incidents involving Asian Americans have not gained nearly as much national media coverage. The deaths of Vincent Chin in 1982, Kuangchang Kao in 1997, Cau Bich Tran in 2003, and Fong Lee in 2006 reflect the Asian American struggle to gain equal protection under the law. Two white men clubbed Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, to death while uttering racial slurs, yet both men only received probation (Wu 1). Kuanchang Kao, a Chinese American man, was unjustly shot by white police, who claimed his drunken “martial arts” moves posed a threat to them (Linshi 1). Cau Bich Tran, a Vietnamese American, was killed by police, who mistook a vegetable peeler she was holding to be a cleaver (Torassa 1). Police also shot to death a Hmong American named Fong Lee on the grounds that they wrongly believed that they saw a gun in his hand (Wu 1).
Vincent Chin’s death did result in a rare cohesive protest. With the support of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, the American Citizens for Justice was created to represent Asian Pacific American communities in Chin’s home state of Michigan. Yet, Chin’s death has not been remembered as a major civil rights violation on Ferguson’s scale (Wu 1).
There are two major factors contributing to such disparate treatment. First, there are fewer Asian Americans than African Americans in the U.S. to wage a mass resistance. The demographics of Asian Americans are complex due to their multi-generational and multi-ethnic factors. This is a barrier to unifying for civil rights, as languages and values differ across the group. Second, there are fewer concerns about Asian American civil rights due to the “model minority” Asian American stereotypes.
The “model minority” stereotype suggests that Asian Americans are universally successful as a result of a relentless work ethic and willingness to be educated. The term originated in 1966 to discredit African American civil rights activists by proving that other minorities, despite prejudice, have been able to climb up the socioeconomic ladder (Benson 1). The “model minority” stereotype has served as a form of discrimination, as Asian Americans are considered too successful to be given the traditional benefits of minorities, such as Affirmative Action. This stereotype has contributed to Asian Americans consistently being portrayed in mainstream media as invisible or in opposition to the black community. During the L.A. riots, Asian American storeowners were shown defending themselves from rioters in Koreatown (Mak 1). Similarly, in Ferguson, Asian American businesses were looted following Michael Brown’s killing. But small business owners do not hold resentment, but have come out stating that they believe authorities allowed for the looting of their stores because they are minority-owned small businesses and not a mainstream major corporation (Mak 1).
With a shared desire for greater minority protection on all fronts, Asian Americans have been able to attain greater attention to the civil rights violations they have suffered by partnering with African American civil rights efforts. For example, Richard Aoki was the only Asian American leader of the Black Panther Party and helped to challeng police brutality against minorities (Chang, Momo 1). Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama worked with Malcom X for during the Civil Rights movement and inspired a younger generation of Asian American activists. Once she built a following after partnering with Malcom X, in the 1980s she successfully pushed for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese-American internees through the Civil Liberties Act (Wang 1).
Today, Asian Americans and African Americans are continuing to partner to prove racial profiling and police brutality are not just a problem of black vs. white. Leaders of groups, such as the Asian American Center for Justice, National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans have all come out in support of the Ferguson civil rights protestor (Kai-Hwa Wang 1). Instead of staying out of the black vs. white dialogue of Ferguson, Asian Americans should insert themselves. Given the advantage in numbers and media following, Asian Americans can exert far more pressure for improvements that ensure the legal system protects their civil rights by standing in solidarity with another marginalized group, African Americans.
In front of an Oakland courthouse during the 1969 trial of Huey Newton, a black civil rights activist.
Members of the Asian American community at UC Davis are taking a stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and their continued struggle for survival in the face of police brutality
Teju Cole during the New York City Ferguson protests on December 13, 2014
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