My Debt to Dr. King


This week Scot Nakagawa wrote a piece on the debt Asian Americans owe to the civil rights movement. Here is an excerpt from Colorlines:

As an Asian-American, I’m often cast as an ally rather than a stakeholder when I show up at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. Occasionally, someone will even come right out and thank me for showing up, like I’m doing folk a favor or something. It’s awkward to be treated like I, as a person of color, have no dog in the fight for racial equity. But I get where the notion that Asians aren’t real stakeholders in racial justice comes from.

For one thing, media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement centered on the fight against Jim Crow in the South, where very few Asians lived at the time. Moreover, Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in concentration camps in 1942 and continued to live under the supervision of the War Relocation Authority until 1946—critical years in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Chinese were the other major group of Asians in the U.S. at mid-last century. Until 1943, they were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese migrants from entering the U.S., and denied citizenship to the Chinese immigrants already here. What’s more, racist immigration bans restricted the number of Asians who could enter the U.S. until 1965. Most Asian-Americans currently in America came since that date, long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

And if that isn’t enough to ensure that Asian-American interest in the legacy of Dr. King is regarded as exotic, there’s the Asian-American model minority myth. That myth, created mainly by the media, first gained popularity during a time when the news was full of images of the black urban uprisings of the 1960s, uprisings that were framed in the media as acts of rage-driven black criminality, driving white Northern voters to shift away from support of civil rights.

Read the whole editorial on Colorlines


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.