So, I Ask You, What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?

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 incited a riot that resulted in the deaths of at least six blacks and two whites. The riot also completely destroyed Rosewood 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 with the rioters, using the same rationale that would be used 40 years later to imprison Japanese Americans in concentration camps: that holding the Sikhs in captivity 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 to srop a black family from moving into the all-white Cicero neighborhood of Chicago. Police did next to nothing to stop the rioters who also stoned the firemen who called in to put out the fires started by the rioters. It took the Illinois National Guard to finally put an end to the violence.

And these are just a few incidents in which angry whites have rioted, taking the lives of both white people and people of color in an effort to preserve white privileges. And, as long as the list of historic events of this sort is, it doesn’t even begin to address the history of organized terrorism against people of color waged through white-led organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, in spite of all of this evidence of potential violence by whites, there has been no speculation concerning riots in response to a guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial, and all concerns of a post-not guilty verdict center on Blacks. Makes you go hmmm, doesn’t it?

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 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 concerning 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 concentration camps 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 that 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 the 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 because he was mistakenly perceived to be Japanese. 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. We would be wise to recognize this, and work together to destroy these stereotypes of the model and problem minority, or Asians may be among the Trayvon Martins looming in our future. 

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

16 replies on “So, I Ask You, What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?”

Nice piece. I would add: The political motion of Asian Americans over the past 21 years is extremely positive. In 1992 only 32 percent voted for Clinton while 79 percent voted for Obama in 2012. This opens the way for the Model Minority stereotype to be turned on its head: instead of a divisive, anti-black category, Asians can use their unusually positive public posture to enhance the struggle against racism.

The article is certainly appreciated. Thanks, Scott. Always nice to hear your (written) voice.
But to the comment of VJ Hamilton…perhaps the 79% had more to do with the fact that President Obama has Asian relatives and also lived in Hawaii, than with any expression of solidarity from the Asian community toward African Americans, though there are a relatively few Asian activists fighting against anti-black racism, along with their own anti-Asian struggle, of course.

The sad truth of the matter is that regardless if it was self-defense or cold-blooded murder, he got away with murdering a child. This country could care less if a black person was slaughtered, I swear. Somehow the color seems to lessen our value apparently. A couple of days ago, that Glee actor died of a drug overdose, yet he is hailed a king, and remembered deeply, whereas if a black person died of a drug overdose, they could give less than one fuck. However, the questions isn’t black or white…this is regarding is Travon was Asian. If he was Asian, they wouldn’t even make the case, because they’d assume that he was a spy for the Japanese government or some kind of bullshit like that. There truly is no justice in America.

If he would have been asian it would not even be reported by the national media. Americans dont give a shit about asians.

Your piece exemplifies the selective-truth that pervades the Trayvon Martin case and makes any meaningful dialogue impossible. As a Korean American, I judge your conspicuous failure to mention the L.A. Riots as ethnically and intellectually discrediting you. That unrest involved a sustained attack by blacks on the Korean community there (including my own family), one fed my overt black racism against us. You cannot speak for “Asian Americans” if you cannot even acknowledge such a searing incident in ‘our’ history.

In fact you are conspicuously silent on post-1950’s America, when of course it is the Watts Riots, the riots in the wake of MLK’s murder, the Miami riots, and the Rodney King riots that were on people’s minds when they cast a wary eye at black America’s potential reaction to perceived injustice. Well that and the blacks specifically threatening to riot. But white people did something in 1907, so let’s talk about that instead, right?

The entire black-white axis is a simplistic media trope meant to elicit more emotion than reasoned analysis. George Zimmerman is a multi-racial man, not a “white”, who identified as Hispanic for official purposes. Trayvon Martin’s character is actually directly relevant to doubt over who initiated the violence. I know these facts are hard for left wingers to even admit. I still feel Zimmerman had other options than shooting Martin and deserved to be convicted of manslaughter, but spare me the simplistic narrative of “white” predator and innocent black teen.

@ K Woo:

Your racism is showing, and you’re showing that you have adopted a white supremacist mindset.

You go on and on about “black” riots and accuse Scot of signaling out one “white” riot. There have been “white” riots throughout history, including the Rosewood and Tulsa riots, and the “Red Summer” white riots of the early part of the 20th century. Almost all of these riots started because of the false accusation of a white woman accusing a black man of rape. And let’s not even forget all of the lynchings committed by whites against blacks. You don’t want to talk about that. Who is being selective here?

As for George Zimmerman being “white,” he identified himself as such, and a cousin who has accused him of sexual assault has stated that Zimmerman and his family “didn’t like blacks unless they acted white.” That goes to two other points:

1) If Zimmerman wasn’t white, why did whites support him so? It wasn’t because of who he is, but because of who he shot. He shot Trayvon Martin, who was black. That is the only reason why so many whites support him; and

2) Zimmerman had a history of violence, including the sexual assault accusation mentioned above, as well as an assault against a female police officer, and a restraining order filed against him by a former girlfriend.

You claim that liberals don’t want to discuss Trayvon Martin’s character and that it may have something to do with the “fight.” It takes racism and selective amnesia to ignore the fact that Zimmerman ignored direct orders by authorities to not get out of the car. He saw a black kid, and got out of the car (again, against orders) because he had a gun, and he knew that he could use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as an justification to use it. My point is that if Trayvon’s character is fair game (which it isn’t, because he’s the victim here), then Zimmerman’s character (or rather, lack thereof) is fair game.

I actually feel sorry for you, since you are a POC and refuse to recognize the existence of white supremacy and how it affects you.

The only other thing is that if Trayvon was Asian American, this case would probably not be considered a race issue and most likely would never have made it into the public eye.

If he were Asian you wouldn’t hear anything. No public outry because the Asians in this country don’t’ have a voice. Asians don’t have the Al Sharptons, Jessie Jacksons, or Oprah or the NAACP. Asians are the easiest to treat like crap because they don’t stand up and make themselves heard. They wouldn’t go on strike like Latinos or Blacks. When was the last time you ever saw an Asian riot supporting any Asians. Never happens and the people in power and everybody else knows that and it is a very dangerous place to be in for Asians. They need to stand up and use their rights to assemble and protest.

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