Missed Opportunities in Race Relations

                       Norman Matloff

                        Asian Week

                      December 1, 1995

It is no secret that many Asian immigrants harbor racist attitudes toward African-Americans and Latinos. What tends not to be noticed, though, is that Asian-Pacific American (APA) community activists are ignoring the problem. While nominally liberal on racial issues, most APA activists are sitting by idly, doing nothing proactive to deal with APA immigrant racial intolerance. And in too many cases the activists themselves have unhealthy racial attitudes.

For example, take the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA). In an editorial published in the OCA's Oakland chapter's newsletter, editor Peter Eng opined that even illegal Chinese immigration is good for society, while Latino immigrants are a burden even if they come here legally. Ordinarily this might be dismissed as an isolated incident, but the fact that the OCA is a respected civil rights organization makes this editorial quite significant. One does not find such comments in publications from other mainstream minority organizations such as MALDEF or the NAACP.

Astonishingly, even Henry Der of Chinese for Affirmative Action, whose support of non-Asian minorities is heartfelt, expressed this notion of a "burden" in his interview with me, saying "We could even take more Chinese immigrants if that were permitted. But that is not going to happen, because Chinese immigrants are broadstroked with [all other immigrant groups]."

One community activist, an immigrant from Hong Kong, prides herself in having represented APAs as a delegate to the 1992 Democratic national convention. She later complained to me (probably with justification) that she encountered prejudice against Asians at the convention. Yet five minutes later in that conversation, she started talking about "those lazy blacks." When I asked her how she reconciled juxtaposing a complaint about prejudice with a racial slur of her own, she replied, "What is there to reconcile?"

The APA activists compound the problem by alleviating the immigrants of the blame for their racist attitudes, shifting the blame to the American media and the cultural legacy of past Western colonialism in Asia. Yet any activist who interacts with immigrants on a personal, not just a professional level, knows that these theories do not work. Many Asian immigrants do not even see the "American" media, preferring newspapers, TV and movies in their native language, and the Western-colonialism theory doesn't apply to racist attitudes among immigrants from China, Korean and Taiwan.

Most importantly, the "politically correct" theories offered by the APA activists fail to explain why Asian immigrant prejudice toward African-Americans and Latinos is more widespread and at a higher level of intensity than among U.S. natives. For example, Quynh Tran, in her Stanford University study of Vietnamese immigrant high school students, found that the students who grew up in the U.S. were less prejudiced toward blacks than were the students who immigrated at a later age. A Los Angeles Times poll found that when asked whether Asians were racist, more black people answered yes than whites did. Many American-born children of Asian immigrants are deeply ashamed of their parents' racism.

Indeed, quite contrary to the PC claim that Asians are simply mimicking white racism, many educated Asians actually disdain, even laugh at, Westerners who have sympathy for the black underclass. A few years ago, there were protests by Westerners in Hong Kong against a toothpaste brand named Darky, whose logo featured a smiling black man. The company responded by changing the name to Darly, but retained the Chinese name, Black Man Toothpaste (Haak Yahn Nga Gou in Cantonese), and the logo. The Chinese portion of the new ads said, "Black Man Toothpaste is still Black Man Toothpaste," which the locals explained to mean "We changed the name to mollify those foolish Westerners."

The root cause of such attitudes may lie in the general Asian prejudice against even dark-skinned Asians. Lighter-skinned Chinese, for instance, will look down on darker-skinned Chinese, because dark skin is traditionally associated with peasantry.

But whatever the historical roots, the damage that results is real and tangible, and thus the lack of APA organizational attention to the problem is alarming. After the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, in which black perception of Korean immigrant racism was one of the factors, some Korean activists worked hard to resolve tensions. Yet they are the exception to the rule of APA organizational inaction on the problems of APA immigrant racism.

Most immigrant entrepreneurs are unwilling to hire black employees. Worse, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has never shown any interest in this problem, according to the Wall Street Journal. Why aren't the Asian-American Studies professors doing research on this situation? Why aren't APA organizations developing campaigns to get APA employers to hire blacks?

There is a plethora of missed opportunities. Asian-language community-affairs television programs regularly educate their viewers on how to avail themselves of social and community services, but how many such shows have been devoted to educating viewers on healthy racial attitudes? When congressional proposals surfaced to deny welfare to noncitizens, APA activists rushed immigrants into citizenship classes. But while they were at it, why didn't they work to include in those classes information on one of the most important citizenship issues of all---respect and understanding for those of other races?

People are, after all, products of the societies in which they live. Discussing prejudiced feelings harbored by many Chinese immigrants, Henry Der points out that Asian immigrants tend to come from racially homogeneous societies, and "are not educated in the American context," in which mutual respect among races is at least a goal, if not always attained. Sociologist Elijah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania has made similar comments. Well, why are the APA activists not working toward giving the immigrants that "American education"?

APA activists are fighting hard against proposed reductions in yearly immigration quotas. Yet the influx of immigration amounts to an inflow of imported racism. How can the activists possibly expect African-Americans, and those who sympathize with them, to welcome this "Asian import," when we still cannot even deal with racism of the home-grown variety?

The old 60's saying is of striking relevance here: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."


Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis, where he has served as chair of the faculty committee on affirmative action. A speaker of Chinese, he has been active in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years.