Essay on Asians and Blacks Sharing a Civil Rights History and Vision

Reprinted in full is an essay published March 27 on the New America Media website.

A Shared History And Vision

By Stewart Kwoh & Julie A. Su, APA Legal Center

Editor’s Note: A column published in Asian Week entitled “Why I Hate Blacks” promoted dismay across the ethnic media and prompted NAM to host a discussion with ethnic media leaders about journalistic responsibility. This is a comment from Stewart Kwoh and Julie A. Su. Stewart Kwoh is the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. Julie A. Su is Litigation Director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Project based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Asian Week’s recent publication of an article by a Chinese American columnist entitled “Why I Hate Blacks” has created a stir among Asian Americans and African Americans, with swift calls from Asian American leaders for apologies from Asian Week, termination of that writer’s column, and accountability from the paper. We initially resisted writing about it, thinking that it would only give more air time to an article that does little more than remind us of the ignorance that fuels racism, but the lesson of this hateful article provides an opportunity for us – Asian Americans (and specifically, Chinese Americans) – to reflect and to act.

Today, high poverty rates characterize many Asian American ethnic groups, including Vietnamese, Hmong and Bangladeshi. The relatively high family income statistics for Asian Americans often result from multiple generations in the workforce rather than high individual incomes, an important distinction if we seek to measure success in the workplace and financial well-being. But it is true that, particularly in the Chinese community, a growing number are professionals or run their own businesses; own homes and send their children to good public schools. Last year, for the first time, Asian Americans became a majority in the University of California system. Nine Asian Americans currently serve in the California legislature.

Lest we forget, such achievements are not simply a matter of hard work and individual initiative.

Asian Americans owe a debt of gratitude for the rights we value, privileges we enjoy, and even presence in this country to our African American sisters and brothers. Changes to immigration laws in 1965 that opened the door to the wave of Asian immigrants who make up much of today’s Asian American middle class would have been unthinkable without the African American civil rights movement. Prior to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision barring states from setting up separate schools for Blacks and whites, it remained legal to segregate Chinese children from white public schools. African Americans defeated “separate but equal,” which paved the way for Asian American students to attend integrated schools.

As African Americans sat in at lunch counters and boycotted busses in the South, their calls for racial justice broke down barriers for Asian Americans. The passage of the Voting Rights Act, a victory achieved primarily through the struggles of African Americans, made possible voting districts where Asian American votes would not be diluted and includes the federal requirement of bilingual ballots utilized by so many Chinese and other Asian immigrants. How many Asian American government contractors, firefighters and police officers, and college professors would there be today had doors not been opened to us by affirmative action?

Asian Americans who know of our history in the U.S. – a history filled with both great cost and great achievement – know that our destinies were transformed by African Americans who fought for a better, more just world. It is our obligation as Asian Americans to remember this not only because of what it means about our collective past, but also for how it should inform our future; whether we as beneficiaries of civil rights continue to expand and protect their promise, or be silent in the face of regressive efforts to curtail them. Whether we enjoy our relative privilege without attention to the unfinished business of racial justice, or say we will not be content to rest while so many are denied a decent education, job, home, or real opportunity, because of racism.

Today, examples abound of Asian American-African American community building efforts, though they often occur beneath the media radar. The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Los Angeles Urban League, and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are engaged in a historic effort to organize and empower parents to improve education in Los Angeles. Just last month, a parent summit attended by over 300 African American, Latino and Asian parents from Los Angeles County demonstrated the power of a multiracial network of parents to join together for change.

In 1991, APALC initiated a partnership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, League of United Latino American Citizens, and Central American Resource Center to develop a training curriculum called Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR). Today, LDIR includes a school-based component that brings our philosophy of moving beyond “celebrating diversity” to serious engagement on the root causes of racial, ethnic and cultural tensions to high school students. APALC has also joined in coalition with the NAACP LDF, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and other allies in the African American community and communities of color to sue educational institutions and private employers for discrimination against African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. Last fall, APALC helped the Los Angeles Urban League organize a delegation of Black leaders to China, a sign that growing ties between the two communities is not only a local phenomenon, it is global.

School children across the country learned about Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks last month as part of African American Heritage Month. We embrace such lessons, not only for what these heroes accomplished for African Americans and for all Americans, but because they embody the courage, leadership and vision for a just world that lifts us all. We, Asian Americans, should embrace that vision and work alongside African Americans to realize it.

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