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What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?

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 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?

Scot Nakagawa

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

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