I write to my African-American friends to suggest three reasons for including Asian Americans in the civil rights movement for the benefit of the historic struggle for Black equality.
I am humbled by my time at Howard University, which made me who I am as a thinker, changing my attitudes as no amount of scholarly study could have done for the child of Asian immigrants raised in Detroit suburbs that were overwhelmingly White.
I am inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, whose dedication as a race man to the uplift of African-Americans as a race could not be doubted, in his role among the founders of the NAACP and his advocacy of the Talented Tenth who had rights and responsibilities. His most famous proclamation, from the profound 1903 collection The Souls of Black Folk, is rarely fully quoted: he was prescient in predicting that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line, but he then continued — as is not usually mentioned — by defining it as “the lighter to darker races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Yet I realize that there is mutual suspicion. Asian Americans are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as well-to-do, self-interested, late-arriving bigots and, in the interests of reaching out, we can bracket for now any protest that these allegations are themselves based on stereotypes.
To be clear, my suggestion is that African-Americans ought to involve Asian Americans from time to time, since it helps African-Americans themselves. And I hasten to add, I am forceful in calling out Asian Americans on their need to appreciate how Asian Americans owe a debt of much more than mere gratitude and should be principled. Asian Americans, some no doubt, have their own prejudices and, whether they appreciate it, enjoy privileges, as well.
All of that is complex and deserves further discussion, but the prerequisite is generating interest. With the utmost respect, and without moral equivalence that tends to be facile but false, hear me out.
First, there are the facts. A picture of race that is literally Black and White does not correspond to reality. Asian Americans are now abundant rather an obscure oxymoron, the most sizable group on many college campuses and in some metropolitan areas, and increasing in numerical terms as well as in proportional terms.
Asian Americans already are participants in our shared racial drama. Interpretations of sensitive situations that exclude them are based on erroneous premises, so any resulting policy proposals are likely to be ineffective. Asian Americans, like other communities, will object to their omission. African-Americans and Asian Americans will fight when they need not or more than they must.
Second, there is the risk of exploitation by those who prefer the strategy of divide-and-conquer to that of bridge-building. Especially if progressives ignore Asian Americans, others will not.
Asian Americans are actively courted by those opposed to traditional civil rights. They are held up as examples for that argument verging on taunt: “They made it — why can’t you?”
Asian Americans, described as “the model minority,” have long been used as pawns, some willingly. Asian Americans are substituted for Whites in rhetoric attacking African-Americans, as if Asian Americans are victims if African-Americans are beneficiaries of government programs or diversity efforts. The mistreatment of Asian Americans held to higher standards than Whites, for example in college admissions, then is ignored. That is regular discrimination and not so-called “reverse” discrimination.
Third, there is the alternative of appealing to our better natures by forming coalitions. On issue after issue, African-Americans and Asian Americans — joined by Latinos, Arab Americans, Jews and everyone else, have common cause.
Racial profiling, for example, affects African-American young men walking down the street and African-Americans of all ages and both genders who are driving their cars. It is a factor in daily life in a manner that could hardly be imagined by those without the experience.
Racial profiling, however, also results in Asian Americans, even those who are native-born citizens, being suspected of espionage or other treachery. White nationalists are opposed to all people of color, sometimes targeting one group one day, another group another day.
Different faces present the same legal rules and moral principles. Asian Americans have been the primary parties in Supreme Court cases that establish the doctrine about “strict scrutiny” of any “suspect classification;” birthright citizenship, as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment; and due process as balanced against national security claims during wartime, whether with respect to internment camps or travel bans.
Thus, it would be a mistake in practical terms for African-Americans and Asian Americans to fail to come together. There is no doubt about the difficulty: people who come home after a day at work have to be coaxed to venture out once again to support the ideals they believe in, much less to rally for others whom they do not know well and might not be comfortable surrounded by. Everyone holds biases, even those who are fighting it on behalf of “their people.” There are those who encourage us to perceive the world as what economists call “zero sum,” meaning that a plus for one side necessarily results in a minus for the other side.
African-Americans and Asian Americans, like all Americans, are converging and diverging simultaneously. Among the disadvantaged are Afro-Asians, in some instances shunned by both sides of their own families, though Blacks, to permit a generalization, have tended to be more accepting. Individuals who in the vernacular are “Blasian” represent the demographic trends of our democracy. Their blended bloodlines are the possibility of real equality without regard for the prejudices of the past.
Any amount of dialogue among African-Americans and Asian Americans would be an improvement over the current lack of communication. I am convinced we are ready to talk. There is more to say. I am committed to listen.
Frank H. Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean. His blog appears monthly.