SOLUTION: University of California Los Angeles Asian Americans Experiences with Racism Essay

Rutgers University Press
Chapter Title: Introduction: Neither Black nor White
Book Title: Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience
Book Subtitle: Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience, second edition
Book Author(s): ANGELO N. ANCHETA
Published by: Rutgers University Press
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Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience
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Neither Black nor White
Neither Black nor White
n his 1989 feature film Do the Right Thing, filmmaker Spike Lee explores urban race relations by tracing the interplay of a set of characters during a sweltering day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. Lee’s
film tracks the life of a neighborhood during a twenty-four-hour span, punctuated by interracial tensions that culminate in violence and rioting.
A climactic scene near the end of the film features the movement of an
angry mob outraged by the killing of a black youth by white police officers.
The crowd’s rage is turned on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a neighborhood restaurant owned and operated by a white family. After Mookie, Sal’s only black
employee, throws a garbage can through the front window, others in the crowd
rush into the restaurant, ransacking and setting fire to it. As flames engulf
the pizzeria, the mob turns toward a new target: the grocery store across the
street owned by Korean immigrants.
Tensions build as three men lead the others to confront the store’s owner,
Sonny. Anxious and confused, Sonny swings a broom wildly through the air
in a desperate attempt to hold back the crowd. He shouts out:
I not white! I not white! I not white!
I black! I BLACK!
Several people laugh and scoff at Sonny’s pleas. He responds, “You, me—
same!” One of the men retorts incredulously: “Same? Me black! Open your
eyes!” But others in the crowd begin sympathizing with the grocer. They nod
their heads in agreement with Sonny and move closer to restrain the men
who first challenged him. Sonny extends an open hand in friendship, as
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another man says, “He’s all right. He’s black.” Tensions subside, and the crowd
turns and moves on.
Real life is rarely as tidy as cinematic fiction, but the imagery and dialogue from Do the Right Thing offer a glimpse into the potential violence that
many Asian immigrants encounter in the nation’s inner cities. And since the
film’s original release, reality has proved to be far more dramatic than fiction.
The country witnessed the destruction of thousands of Asian American-owned
businesses during the civil unrest in Los Angeles and other cities in the spring
of 1992, following the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department officers on
trial for the beating of Rodney King.
The scene illustrates the volatility of urban race relations, but it also encapsulates some of the distinctive problems that Asian Americans face as a
racial group. On one level, the idealistic and convenient ending to the mob
scene offers an insight into the parallels between Asian Americans and African Americans. The grocer identified himself as black and many in the crowd
agreed with him because Asian Americans and African Americans share similar histories and experiences with racial subordination in the United States.
On another level, though, the scene portrays a more complex dynamic:
the grocer, caught in the middle of a race riot, invoked an inaccurate but successful appeal to be treated as if black. The crowd initially equated the Korean grocer with the white pizzeria owner because of his store ownership and
his economic stature within the neighborhood. But the grocer took on a new
identity when confronted by the crowd. The entreaty “I black” placed him
squarely on one side of the conflict, resolving any ambiguity about his alignment within the neighborhood’s racial matrix.
The grocer’s transformation is an extreme example but it illuminates a
dilemma that Asian Americans typically encounter in matters involving race.
When discourse is limited to antagonisms between black and white, Asian
Americans often find themselves in a racial limbo, marginalized or unrecognized as full participants. The assertion of other experiences, different from
black or white, can be misunderstood, become trivial or ineffectual, or even
prove to be dangerous. Within a less perilous context, the grocer might have
been expected to declare a different identity—Korean or Asian American. But
placed within a conflict that had been reduced to black versus white, the grocer
assumed the safety of a black identity.
Race Relations in Black and White
“Are you black or are you white?” For Asian Americans the obvious answer
would seem to be “neither.” Yet, when questions of race relations arise, a di-
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Neither Black nor White
chotomy between black and white typically predominates. Formed largely
through inequities and conflicts between blacks and whites, discourse on race
relations provides minimal space to articulate experiences independent of a
black-white framework. The representation of Asian Americans is especially
elusive and often shifts, depending on context, between black and white.
Popular works on race suggest that expositions of Asian American experiences are peripheral, more often confined to the footnotes than expounded
in the primary analyses. Studs Terkel’s Race frames race relations through a
dialogue about blacks and whites, confined almost entirely to the opinions of
blacks and whites. Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate,
Hostile, Unequal contains, as its subtitle implies, extensive discussions of inequality between blacks and whites, but only a minimal analysis of inequality
among other racial groups.1 The controversial books The Bell Curve by Charles
Murray and Richard Herrnstein, and The End of Racism, by Dinesh D’Souza,
go to considerable length to expound arguments that blacks as a group are
less intelligent than whites and suffer from cultural pathologies that inhibit
advancement to the level of whites. When discussed at all, Asian Americans
are offered as a “model minority” group, to be contrasted with blacks and likened to whites because of their higher IQ scores and cultural values stressing
family, hard work, and educational achievement.
News media portrayals of racial minorities suffer from the same tendency
to reduce race relations to a simple black-white equation. Popular television
news shows such as ABC’s Nightline offer recurring programming on race relations, but typically confine their analyses to black-white relations. Public
opinion polls on race and civil rights usually exclude Asian Americans as subjects or as participants, or reduce them to the category of “Other.” News coverage of racially charged events is most often framed by black versus white
antagonisms. The murder trial of O.J. Simpson, for instance, provoked extensive dialogue on the impact of race and racism on the criminal justice system, but excluded for the most part any perspectives from Asian Americans
or Latinos, which is ironic for a trial held in Los Angeles, a city where half of
the population is Asian American and Latino.2
Public policies that reflect and reinforce race relations also approach race
in terms of black and white. Historically, the major landmarks denoting both
racial subordination and progress in racial rights have been measured through
the experiences of African Americans. Slavery and its abolition, the black
codes and the Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments, Jim Crow laws
and the desegregation cases culminating in Brown v. Board of Education, the
struggles of the civil rights movement and the federal legislation of the 1960s—
these are the familiar signs that have dominated the landscape of civil rights
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in the United States. Debates on affirmative action have occasionally shone
the spotlight on Asian Americans, but almost exclusively as unintended victims of affirmative action in higher education. Problems of ongoing racial discrimination and inequality among Asian American communities are largely
Not that focusing on black experiences is unjustified. African Americans
have been the largest racial minority group in the United States since the
country’s birth, and continue to endure the effects of racial subordination. By
any social or economic measure, African Americans suffer extensive inequality because of race. In describing the African American experience, the statement of the Kerner Commission resonates as strongly today as it did in 1968:
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate
but unequal.”3 But to say that our nation is moving toward two separate and
unequal societies, however disconcerting, is fundamentally incomplete. Underlying the Kerner Commission’s statement is the assumption that our nation’s
cities are divisible along a single racial axis. Cleavages between black and white
persist but American race relations are not an exclusively black-white phenomenon and never have been. The civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 is
just one example of the intricacy of contemporary racial dynamics, shedding
light on a host of race-based and class-based conflicts, as well as an array of
racial and ethnic groups—blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos—who were both victims and victimizers.
Black and White by Analogy
Dualism is a convenient lens through which to view the world. Black or white,
male or female, straight or gay—the categories help us frame reality and make
sense of it. In matters of race, a black-white dichotomy has been the dominant model, based primarily on the fact that African Americans, have been
the largest and most conspicuous nonwhite racial group in the United States.
But the legal history of the United States is punctuated by the abridgment of
rights among other racial and ethnic groups such as Asian Americans, and
the country’s changing demographics are mandating new perspectives based
on the experiences of immigrants. Still, the black-white model is the regnant
paradigm in both social and legal discussions of race.
How can Asian Americans fit within a black-white racial paradigm? Historian Gary Okihiro poses the question this way: “Is yellow black or white?”
Okihiro suggests that Asian Americans have been “near-blacks” in the past
and “near-whites” in the present, but that “[y]ellow is emphatically neither
white nor black.”4 Recognizing the dominance of the black-white paradigm
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Neither Black nor White
in the law, Frank Wu adopts a similar view proposing that Asian Americans
have been forced to fit within race relations discourse through analogy to either whites or blacks. He posits that American society and its legal system
have conceived of racial groups as whites, blacks, honorary whites, or constructive (legal jargon for “implied”) blacks.5
For most of the nation’s history, Asian Americans have been treated primarily as constructive blacks. Asian Americans for decades endured many of
the same disabilities of racial subordination as African Americans—racial violence, segregation, unequal access to public institutions and discrimination
in housing, employment, and education. The courts even classified Asian
Americans as if they were black. In the mid-nineteenth century, the California Supreme Court held in People v. Hall that Chinese immigrants were barred
from testifying in court under a statute prohibiting the testimony of blacks,
by reasoning that “black” was a generic term encompassing all nonwhites, including Chinese: “[T]he words ‘Black person’ . . . must be taken as contradistinguished from White, and necessarily excludes all races other than the
Similarly, in Gong Lum v. Rice, decided twenty-seven years before Brown
v Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sending Asian American students to segregated schools. Comparing its earlier rulings on the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Court stated:
“Most of the cases cited, arose it is true, over the establishment of separate
schools as between white pupils and black pupils, but we can not think that
the question is any different or that any different result can be reached . . .
where the issue is as between white pupils and the pupils of the yellow races.”7
In the eyes of the Supreme Court, yellow equaled black, and neither equaled
In more recent years, the inclusion of Asian Americans in civil rights laws
and race-conscious remedial programs has relied on the historical parallels between the experiences of Asian Americans and African Americans. The civil
rights protections available to Asian Americans are most often contingent
upon the rights granted to African Americans. Civil rights laws that apply to
Asian Americans, as constructive blacks, can usually trace their origins to a
legislative intent to protect African Americans from racial discrimination.
The treatment of Asian Americans as “honorary whites” is more unusual.
In the Reconstruction-era South, Asian Americans were initially afforded a
status above blacks for a period of time during the nineteenth century; Louisiana, for example, counted Chinese as whites for census purposes before 1870.8
The status was short-lived: the Chinese were soon reduced to constructive
black status under systems of racial segregation. More contemporary race
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relations controversies appear to have elevated Asian Americans to the status
of honorary whites, particularly in the minds of those who oppose raceconscious remedies such as affirmative action. Asian Americans are often omitted from protection in affirmative action programs as a matter of course,
lumped with whites even in contexts where Asian Americans still face racial
discrimination and remain underrepresented.
The rigidity of the legal system’s treatment of race as either black or white
is evident in civil rights litigation filed by Asian American plaintiffs in the
earlier half of this century. Unlike the fictional grocer in Spike Lee’s Do the
Right Thing, Asian Americans sought to be classified, quite unsuccessfully, as
white under the law, in recognition of the social and legal stigmas attached
to being categorized as black. Gong Lum, for example, argued that his daughter Martha should not have to attend the school for colored children in Mississippi because “‘[c]olored’ describes only one race, and that is the negro.”9
Because his daughter was “pure Chinese,” Gong Lum argued that she ought
to have been classified with whites rather than blacks. The Court rejected
this reasoning and held that yellow was black when it came to segregation.
During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Asian Americans sought to be classified as white in attempts to become naturalized citizens.10 Congress enacted naturalization legislation in 1790 to limit citizenship
to “free white persons.” After the Civil War, the law was amended to allow
persons of “African nativity” or “African descent” to naturalize, but Congress
rejected extending naturalization to Asian immigrants. Asian immigrants
sought relief through the courts, but had little success arguing that they were
white: Burmese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Korean plaintiffs
were all held to be nonwhite; mixed-race plaintiffs who were half-white and
half-Asian were also held to be nonwhite.11 The United States Supreme Court
laid to rest any questions about the racial bar in Ozawa v. United States, ruling that Japanese immigrants were not white, and in United States v. Thind,
ruling that Asian Indian immigrants were not white.12 Asian immigrants were
prohibited by statute from naturalizing through the 1940s, and the racial bar
on naturalization was not repealed until 1952.
From today’s vantage point, these attempts by Asian immigrants to be
classified as white may seem absurd and even subordinative, because they symbolically pushed blacks down the social ladder relative to whites and Asians.
But when the legal paradigm limits options to black or white and nothing
else, curious and unseemly choices inevitably arise. The solution, of course, is
to develop and rely on theories that comprehend the complexity of race relations, which includes discerning that the experiences of Asian Americans are
not the same as the experiences of African Americans.
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Neither Black nor White
Racism in Context: Anti-Asian Violence
To better understand the experiences of Asian Americans, consider how racial subordination operates within a specific context: anti-Asian violence. Racial violence is not a new phenomenon, and the histories of all racial minorities
include extensive violence, whether it is the genocide of Native American
tribes during the expansion of the United States, the terrorism against blacks
in the South, the military conquest and ongoing border violence against Latinos
in the Southwest, or the attacks on Asian immigrant laborers in the West.
Incidents of anti-Asian violence reveal unique themes of prejudice and discrimination that illustrate the dynamics of racism against Asian Americans.13
Chronicling the growth of anti-Asian violence in recent years, a 1986
report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights concluded that “antiAsian activity in the form of violence, harassment intimidation, and vandalism has been reported across the nation.”14 The Asian American Justice Center
(formerly the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium) has measured anti-Asian violence since the 1990s and has tracked a wide variety of
crimes, including graffiti, vandalism, cross burnings, property damage, arson,
hate mail, intimidation, physical assaults, homicides, and police misconduct.
Calculating figures is difficult because of underreporting—many immigrants
face language barriers or are fearful of the police—and because of major weaknesses in law enforcement’s compilation of statistics. The numbers that are
available are sobering. During the eight-year period from 1995 to 2002, audits of anti-Asian violence by the Asian American Justice Center reported a
nationwide total of 3,581 incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with at least 400 incidents logged for almost every year during the
The most notorious episode of recent anti-Asian violence was the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982. Chin, a twenty-seven-y …
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