I was recently featured as a guest on the National Public Radio program Tell Me More in the week leading up to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, The interview was a discussion of a piece I wrote called Three Things Asian Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement. Close on the heels of that broadcast was the release of a video interview I did with GritTV’s Laura Flanders about the unique place of Asian Americans in our national civil rights history.
Too often, the history of race and rights in this country is a story told only in terms of black and white, as though the rest of us aren’t part of the plot. Getting some national coverage of an Asian American civil rights story was gratifying. It felt like a little bit of a victory.
But then the TV coverage of the 50th Anniversary March started airing and victory fell to a sense of defeat. Even in the face of rapidly changing U.S. racial demographics, driven in large part by Asian and Latino immigration, the story of race on television is still mainly just black and white.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. Failing to recognize the pivotal role anti-black racism plays in driving racism more generally in this country is a mistake. But to focus on the experience of black and white people to the exclusion of almost everyone else? That’s both historically inaccurate and politically dangerous.
With that in mind, here are four reasons to move beyond the black-white racial binary:
1. Ignorance of our multi-racial history is the enemy of civil rights.
Here’s an example. In the 1990s, the evangelical right rose to power in part through exploiting widespread homophobia. But, while they appeared to be narrowly targeting LGBT people, they were using those attacks on LGBT rights to simultaneously talk about civil rights more generally. They did so by contrasting LGBT people with blacks who they said have a “legitimate” claim to civil rights because, they argued, blacks were able to pass a litmus test of suffering and morality without which civil rights cannot be conferred. Therefore, civil rights are special rights.
The success of that argument relied upon the widespread belief among what we nowadays refer to as “low-information voters,” that civil rights are black rights, not American rights that have historically been withheld from black people. Right wingers exploited this confusion and doubled down on it, inciting anti-black racism by claiming these (black) rights were being taken too far by a civil rights lobby LGBT people wanted a piece of because it had captured control of Congress.
2. We are all profiled differently by race, but all of the different ways in which we are profiled serve the same racial hierarchy.
For instance, in the 1960s, just as the civil rights movement was cresting and black urban uprisings were dominating the news cycle, news stories appeared profiling Asian Americans as a model minority. That profile, which privileged Asians as a super-minority that was “out-whiting the whites,” claimed that Asians in the U.S. had managed to climb to success not through protest nor by way of “riots,” but through hard work and quiet cooperation with the powers that be.
This story of Asian success begged the question, if Asian Americans can do it, why can’t black people? The media provided the answer: blacks aren’t succeeding because they’re a “problem minority.” Ever since, the model minority myth has been used as a lever of racial injustice on the fulcrum of anti-black racism.
3. Race is central to the struggle over citizenship in America.
The contest over voting rights, for instance, is a fight about citizenship rights, who has them, and who gets to decide in the matter just as much as is the question of the right to citizenship of new immigrants, including those without documents. At the center of these fights is a struggle over nationality, power, and control that revolves around race.
We will never resolve these questions until we are able to grapple broadly with the issue of race and citizenship as regards all people of color. Until then, we are all just fighting different battles in the same war, but without the common cause necessary to build a winning coalition.
4. In order to achieve racial equity, we need to complicate our understanding of race. The black-white racial binary is as much a part of the fiction of race in America as dubious science about brain size and intelligence. The truth may not, by itself, set us free, but it might at least get us headed in that direction. As we head toward a “majority-minority” future, we’d do well to acknowledge the complexity of the story of race in America. Just ignoring it might be good for ratings, but it won’t make it go away.