Why Ferguson Should Matter to Asian Americans

A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 25, 2014. Adrees Latif—Reuters
A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 25, 2014.
Adrees Latif—Reuters

Ferguson isn’t simply black versus white

A peculiar Vine floated around social media Monday evening following the grand jury announcement in Ferguson, Mo. The short video shows an Asian-American shopkeeper standing in his looted store, with a hands-in-his-pockets matter-of-factness and a sad slump to his facial expression. “Are you okay, sir?” an off-screen cameraman asks. “Yes,” the store owner says, dejectedly.

The clip is only a few seconds, but it highlights the question of where Asian-Americans stand in the black and white palette often used to paint incidents like Ferguson. In the story of a white cop’s killing of a black teen, Asian-Americans may at first seem irrelevant. They are neither white nor black; they assume the benefits of non-blackness, but also the burdens of non-whiteness. They can appear innocuous on nighttime streets, but also defenseless; getting into Harvard is a result of “one’s own merit,” but also a genetic gift; they are assumed well-off in society, but also perpetually foreign. Asian-Americans’ peculiar gray space on the racial spectrum can translate to detachment from the situation in Ferguson. When that happens, the racialized nature of the events in Ferguson loses relevance to Asian-Americans. But seen with a historical perspective, it’s clear that such moments are decidedly of more colors than two.

Michael Brown’s death has several parallels in Asian-American history. The first to come to mind may be the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American killed in 1982 by a Chrysler plant superintendent and his stepson, both white, both uncharged in a racially-motivated murder; like Brown, Chin unified his community to demand protection under the law. However, most direct parallels have often had one distinct dissimilarity to Ferguson: they have not spurred widespread resistance, nor have they engraved a visible legacy.

There is the story of Kuanchang Kao, an intoxicated Chinese-American fatally shot in 1997 by police threatened by his “martial arts” moves. There is Cau Bich Tran, a Vietnamese-American killed in 2003 after holding a vegetable peeler, which police thought was a cleaver. There is Fong Lee, a Hmong-American shot to death in 2006 by police who believed he was carrying a gun. None of the three cases resulted in criminal charges against the police or in public campaigns that turned the victim’s memory into a commitment to seek justice. One op-ed even declared how little America learned from Tran’s slaying.

While Ferguson captures the world’s attention, why do these Asian-American stories remain comparatively unknown?

One possible answer could be found in the model minority myth. The myth, a decades-old stereotype, casts Asian-Americans as universally successful, and discourages others — even Asian-Americans themselves — from believing in the validity of their struggles. But as protests over Ferguson continue, it’s increasingly important to remember the purpose of the model minority narrative’s construction. The doctored portrayal, which dates to 1966, was intended to shame African-American activists whose demands for equal civil rights threatened a centuries-old white society. (The original story in the New York Times thrust forward an image of Japanese-Americans quietly rising to economic successes despite the racial prejudice responsible for their unjust internment during World War II.)

Racial engineering of Asian-Americans and African-Americans to protect a white-run society was nothing new, but the puppeteering of one minority to slap the other’s wrist was a marked change. The apparent boost of Asian-Americans suggested that racism was no longer a problem for all people of color — it was a problem for people of a specific color. “The model minority discourse has elevated Asian-Americans as a group that’s worked hard, using education to get ahead,” said Daryl Maeda, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But the reality is that it’s a discourse that intends to pit us against other people of color. And that’s a divide and conquer strategy we shouldn’t be complicit with.”

 

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SOURCE: TIME Magazine – Jack Linshi

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