"How do Asian Americans advocate for equality without throwing other people of color under the bus?" That was the compelling question I heard at the recent Advancing Justice conference in Los Angeles. I doubt there is an answer, a satisfactory answer anyway. But above all, I appreciate the discussion, and, because a certain response would be more confident than correct, I offer a set of observations. My perspective is personal, as is true for all of us -- even if we forget that on the vexing subject of race we all form the subject together. It is provisional, to be adjusted for the changing circumstances around us.
The best attended session at the gathering of more than 800 progressive Asian Americans, which would have been impossible until recently, was convened for Asian Americans supporting "Black Lives Matter." That stance has not been without controversy. I have seen the word "Judas" used for Asian Americans allied with African Americans.
The next day, I moderated a panel on Asian Americans as "the perpetual foreigner," which featured a coalition: Zahra Billoo of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Sapreet Kaur of the Sikh Coalition; Karen Korematsu of the Korematsu Institute; and Ted Lieu, a member of Congress.
The greatest compliment I ever received as a public speaker on issues of civil rights was from an African American audience member. As an Asian American whose career was primarily at a historically black institution, Howard University Law School, I was honored when the elder, a woman who could remember the marches, said to me, "Well, you didn't say anything I haven't heard before. But I ain't never heard anyone who looked like you say it."
I recalled that moment as I explained these issues to a white friend prior to this conference. A liberal, a woman who likewise could recall an earlier era of activism, she was astonished when I alluded to a problem of which she was ignorant. While she supported the traditional struggle for black equality, was not aware of the concerns of Asian Americans -- or, more pointedly, that there is tension among African Americans and Asian Americans.
From time to time, I have been taken to task by other Asian Americans who believe I am overly sympathetic to African Americans. They are agitated, these cousins of mine literal and figurative, who feel excluded even from diversity efforts. They fault me for not attacking affirmative action in higher education, since they suppose Asian Americans are being adversely affected by the inclusion of African Americans and Hispanics (a counterfactual; maximum quotas appear more likely the result of preferential treatment of Caucasian competitors). They implore me to denounce black on Asian violent crime, which cannot be denied and ranges in motivation from outright hatred to selective targeting of easy victims.
Yet on this occasion, I received push back from the other direction. The high-tech set-up featured audience interaction via Twitter. I watched on my laptop screen live tweets attacking me for being anti-black. I have lost my street cred, if I ever possessed it.
Perhaps I have simply become old or am not as well-known as I imagine. My critics, one of whom had a handle describing himself as thirteen years old, do not know my record, and I should not expect them to.
I have made a choice. It is to define myself with, not against, African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color. But I continue to engage who do not share my cause. I am searching for the proverbial common ground.
The dilemma is not mine alone. The conference conversation, public and private, touched upon the tendency among Asian Americans to want to be white. They prefer white to black, understanding that to be normal, the formula for assimilation and upward mobility. They do not see themselves as "the other" even when politicians disparage folks for whom they might be mistaken -- for example, Sikhs being physically attacked because they are assumed to be Muslim, which is about as ironic as tragedy can be. Or they believe their own financial success will lead to their acceptance and protect them from discrimination, although it might have the backlash effect of generating envy and resentment. They don't even identify with less privileged members of their own ascribed community, the suburban professional Chinese being served by the Chinatown restaurant worker who would spurn any sense of kinship.
The phenomenon has precedent. White "ethnics," especially during controversies over school integration (through busing) two generations ago, positioned themselves at odds with African Americans. Their frustration was borne of insufficient whiteness; they were not old-stock Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They had Eastern and Southern origins on the Continent, were more likely Catholic, and they had been subjected to immigration quotas and informal prejudices.
It may be that two factions have developed: an Asian American movement identified with the lineage (a contentious dynamic more than a single line) from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to MLK and Malcolm X, and another Asian American movement diametrically opposed and aligned with, well, it isn't quite clear with whom. These movements parallel one another. They might divide by immigration status: newcomers who arrived as Asia ascends feeling as if they are diaspora or perhaps exiles destined to reclaim a homeland, compared to native-born minorities who identify as such. They may correlate to religious faith: Asian America encompasses evangelicals, fundamentalists, or converts to such cosmologies, a demographic category hardly known to those who do not belong to it.
Asian American organizers, me among them, suggested that a take-away message for the crowd was "stand up and speak out." Instead of the Asian attitude encapsulated by the aphorisms "the nail that sticks up is pounded down" (Japanese) and "loudest duck is shot first by the hunter" (Chinese), which inculcate deference to authority, we embraced the adage, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," the quintessential American encouragement.
The catch is that we might not have anticipated the resulting anger. Instead of being directed at the majority, it could be oriented toward the marginalized, as if the primary challenge for Asian Americans seeking a seat at the table was how to displace others who had only just settled into place.
As Kaur said in closing, like me paraphrasing earlier dissidents, until African Americans have first-class citizenship, none of the rest of us will either.