Last year, I asked the question, What If Trayvon Martin was Asian? The post, included below, is timely now in light of all of the warnings against rioting in reaction to the verdict in the George Zimmerman case that all seem to target African Americans. The sentiment seems to be that when African Americans don’t get their way, violence is likely to follow.
But the reality is that the most damaging race riots in U.S. history have been led by whites against people of color. In 1923, in Levy County, Florida, a white woman accused a black man of sexually assaulting her. Over two-hundred whites descended upon the city of Rosewood, the town in which the alleged assailant resided, and rioted, resulting in the deaths of at least six blacks and two whites and completely destroying the town which was later abandoned.
In Bellingham, Washington in 1907, hundreds of whites marched against Sikh immigrant workers, demanding they be fired immediately. When their demands weren’t met, a mob of 150 whites rioted, assaulting Sikh workers and corralling them into the basement of Bellingham City Hall. Police officers cooperated, and used the same rationale that would be used 40 years later to imprison Japanese Americans in concentration camps, claiming that holding the Sikhs hostage would reduce violence. No rioters were brought to trial, and their actions were widely supported by white people in Bellingham, some of whom claimed Sikh men had insulted white women.
In 1951, 4,000 whites rioted in protest against a black family moving into the all-white Cicero neighborhood of Chicago. Police did next to nothing to little to stop the rioters who also stoned firemen called to put out fires they started. It took the Illinois National Guard to finally stop the riot.
And these are just a few incidents in which angry whites have rioted and taken the lives of both white people and people of color. And this doesn’t even begin to address the long history of white-led organized terrorism against people of color waged through organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, in spite of all of this evidence of potential violence by whites, the speculation concerning riots in the wake of a verdict in the Zimmerman trial all seem to revolve around the fear that black people will riot.
But what if Trayvon Martin was Asian? Here’s what I had to say about that last year:
In a Daily Kos article, Laurence Lewis asks the provocative question, “What if Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman were Black?” I’m guessing you to get the point. Clearly, if the races were reversed, things would be very, very different.
But this got me to thinking, what if Trayvon Martin had been Asian, say Japanese American for example? Would he have been profiled as a potential menace? Would he have provoked George Zimmerman to say, as revealed on the 911 recording, “These a**holes always get away”?
I’m guessing, no. Moreover, a Japanese American Trayvon would be exempt from the kind of character assassination being attempted by right wingers. No one would be combing his school records for evidence that he was a troublemaker. And if it turned out he was once caught with a little pot, it’s not likely he’d be labeled a drug dealer.
And would White conservatives be defending the adult Zimmerman by presenting evidence that an Asian minor, described by his teacher as a cheerful A and B student, was suspended from school? I doubt it.
Nor would Bill O’Reilly speculate that an innocent verdict for Zimmerman “could very well lead to violence as we saw in the Rodney King case.” The Japanese American community up in arms rioting is not exactly the nightmare vision keeping conservative white folks up at night.
In fact, imagining the victim of this tragedy as Asian American makes our society’s negative stereotyping of African Americans especially apparent. Why? Because Asian Americans are subject to a different kind of stereotype that was created as a foil to the racist, victim-blaming narrative of African Americans that continues to serve as a justification for attacking the welfare state.
That stereotype casts Asian Americans as the model minority: a group of mathletic (though not athletic) super-achievers, overcoming prejudice and economic disadvantage, not by protest, but through hard work and uncritical patriotism.
The model minority myth popped up in the media during the Civil Rights era in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” Until then, Asian Americans were mostly labeled as evil outsiders in order to justify immigration limits and Japanese American internment during World War II. But in the midst of Black uprisings and protests, the article recast Japanese Americans as a group that had quietly and politely pulled itself up by its bootstraps in spite of terrible obstacles (like being put in a concentration camp because, well, you’re making white people nervous ‘cuz you’re Japanese American).
The article made the claim that Japanese Americans have a strong culture that values work, family and education which prevents J.A.s from becoming a “problem minority.” Problem minority? W.T.F! But the idea caught on, and over time, the myth expanded to Asians in general.
By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan twice publicly congratulated Asian Americans for their success, while smacking down African Americans for supposed dependency on welfare. And in a “some of my best friends are Black” move, Reagan used Black conservative Alan Keyes as a wing man in this strategy. Reagan’s crazy false logic says that if Asian Americans can succeed in spite of terrible obstacles, then persistent poverty among African Americans must be a product of a defect in Black culture or Black people.
And while Reagan was praising Asian Americans, the architects of the Reagan revolution were confounding attempts on the part of Black people to achieve success by ginning up anti-Black racism in order to attack welfare. I’d call Reagan a genius, except, well, that would be a compliment, and I just can’t go there.
Nowadays, the model minority myth is just accepted as truth, even by lots of Asians. In fact, many Asian Americans commit what they presume to be a victimless crime by taking cover behind the myth of the model minority. But there are victims, and they aren’t only non-Asians. The victims include 54% of Asian American kids who claim to be bullied at school, at least in part, as a result of stereotyping. And, it includes the members of Asian ethnic groups that haven’t been so successful, such as Bangladeshis, Laotians, Cambodians and the Hmong, all of whom have lower per capita incomes than African Americans. The model minority myth marginalizes, even makes invisible, their suffering.
But the greatest danger of anti-Asian stereotyping, whether it is “positive” or not, is that it continues to hold Asian Americans separate from other people. And this makes us vulnerable to the flip side of the myth of Asian exceptionalism: the idea of Asian Americans as a threat to “American” jobs. It was this kind of stereotyping that led to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by displaced auto workers in 1982 during the U.S. vs. Japan auto wars. And, BTW, neither assailant ever did any jail time.
And today, as China’s rise as an economic superpower inspires anxiety, even hatred, of the Chinese, the specter of more Vincent Chin’s ought to get us wondering, is it ever a good thing to be used, no matter what the pay off?
Today, in the wake of the innocent verdict in the George Zimmerman case, I feel compelled to add this: The stereotypes that afflict African Americans and Asian Americans may be very different, but they are really flip sides of one card; a race card if you will. And it that card is being played against us all the time. We would be wise to recognize this, and work together to destroy these stereotypes of the model and problem minority, or future Trayvon Martin’s may, indeed, be Asian.