``You're Being Divisive If You Point Out My Divisiveness''

A call for a proactive approach to improving race relations yields only denial and rancor.

By Norman Matloff

footnote: Dr. Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis. A former Chair of the Affirmative Action Committee at UC Davis, he has long been active in work supporting minorities in programs such as MEP, MORE and SURPRISE. Professor Matloff has written extensively about minority issues, particularly immigration. He speaks Chinese and has been active in Chinese immigrant communities for more than 20 years. In 1995, Dr. Lester Hsin-Pei Lee, a prominent Chinese-American and former member of the University of California Board of Regents, appointed Professor Matloff to the Committee for Rational U.S. Relations with China. Click here for Dr. Matloff's Web site on minority issues, and for his biography.

September 8, 1998


On May 20, 1997 the San Francisco Chronicle ran an op-ed piece I had written, in which I called upon Asian-American community leaders to take a more proactive approach to reducing racist attitudes towards blacks and Latinos among Asian immigrants. As I had published much the same article a year earlier in AsianWeek without any reaction, I was shocked when my Chronicle piece caused an uproar in the Chinese-language print and electronic media.

Central to the controversy was San Francisco Supervisor Mabel Teng. In my article I had chastized Teng for insensitive behavior toward African-Americans. Sadly, Teng reacted to this in a highly bizarre manner, and subsequently showed further insensitivity to blacks when she was interviewed on a Chinese-language radio show a few weeks after my article was published.


In April 1997 an op-ed editor with the San Francisco Chronicle approached me to propose that I write an op-ed piece for the Chronicle on relations between Asians, Latinos and blacks in the U.S., because I had written rather extensively on minority issues, particularly in relation to Asian immigrants. Her suggestion was that I condense my article in The Public Interest, which I had published the previous year, on the adverse impacts high levels of immigration are having on minorities, and conflicts between blacks and immigrant-dominant minorities for resources, jobs and political clout. (For this and various fiscal and environmental reasons, I recommend that yearly immigration quotas should be rolled back to their 1989 levels, for all nationalities and immigration categories. This would be a reduction to roughly 600,000 immigrants per year, compared to the current level of 1,000,000. See my Stanford University speech.)

However, the length of my Public Interest article would have made it difficult to condense, so instead I suggested that I condense and update an article I had written for AsianWeek the year before, titled ``Missed Opportunities in Race Relations,'' with the theme being that Asian-American community leaders are not taking sufficiently proactive approaches to improving relations between Asians and other minority groups, particularly blacks. I faxed in a copy of that article, and the editor, who is Korean-American, and her African-American boss both liked it and asked me to proceed with condensing and updating it for the Chronicle. Since my article was critical of Asian leaders, they told me it would be paired with a piece by UC Berkeley professor Michael Omi, representing the Asian point of view on race relations.

Professor Omi's and my articles were published on May 20. My article is included here in an appendix. Omi's article turned out not to be a countering view to mine, and in fact was somewhat similar. In any case, it appears that mine turned out to be the one which became a lightning rod, drawing much fire from Chinese-American political activists. In retrospect this should not have been surprising, since I criticized the activists in my article, and since some of them already had been upset by my writings exposing the fact that well-off immigrants were bringing their elderly parents to the U.S. and putting them on welfare, reneging on their promise to support them financially. (See my congressional testimony and a translated radio transcript of a Chinese-language talk show on this subject, in which I was a guest.) Nevertheless, since my earlier AsianWeek piece had not generated any controversy, I was shocked by the response to this Chronicle article.

Reaction in the Chinese-Language Media

There was quite a reaction to my Chronicle op-ed piece in the Chinese media (print and electronic). The (World Journal) had a remarkable five articles (news items, not letters to the editor or the like) on me and my op-ed piece in three days (May 21-23).

footnote: The World Journal and (Sing Tao Daily) comprise the two largest Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S. (Curiously, there was nothing at all in Sing Tao Daily, in spite of the fact that activists such as Mabel Teng, a central figure in the controversy, tend to have a closer relationship with Sing Tao than with World Journal.)
There was also a report on Chinese-language radio.

The most notable reaction was that of Mabel Teng, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Teng, a rising political star who is a key ally of San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and a daily fixture in the Chinese-language media, had a startlingly bizarre response. For example, Teng claimed that after she read my article she had called me and discussed it with me, which is absolutely false; she never called. Amazingly, she even provided made-up details of our alleged ``conversation,'' saying that during the conversation I had asked to meet with her and she had refused. Again, this is pure fiction---she did not call me, she did not leave a message on my answering machine, she did not have any contact with me whatsoever, and thus of course we had no conversation.

Teng's bizarre claims did not end there. She also said that I was falsely claiming to be a professor; that I was unemployed; that I had looked everwhere for a job but failed to find one; and that this failure is the reason I wrote my article---again all absolutely false and outrageous (and libelous) statements.

I am including translations of Teng's comments below, in an appendix.

No Lessons Learned

Much more sadly, the Chinese-American leaders who reacted negatively to my article were so busy defending their honor that they completely failed to recognize the problems which my article had called on them to address. In particular, the theme of my article had been that the leaders had not been taking proactive approaches to dealing with racial tensions; in short, the ``leaders'' were not leading.

A prime example arose during Teng's guest appearance on a Chinese radio talk show in San Francisco on June 3, about 10 days after she had ranted and raved against my article. A caller, complaining to Teng about some rough black children at her son's school, repeatedly used the term ``haak gwai'' (``black devil''), a derogatory Cantonese word for African-Americans. Yet Teng did not object to the caller's language. Eventually the show's host, Joseph Leung, stepped in and asked the caller to stop using the offensive term. But as a prominent Chinese community leader, Teng should have been the one to speak up and set a good example for the show's large audience.

Another example can be seen in Peter Eng's reaction in the World Journal's interview. I had cited Eng as an illustration of the fact that not only are Asian-American community leaders doing little or nothing proactive to reduce racist attitudes of Asian immigrants toward other minorities, but also many of these leaders themselves look down on other minorities. Eng, as newsletter editor of the Oakland chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, had written an editorial in which he suggested that Chinese immigration is beneficial to the U.S. while Latino immigration is a drain. Yet when the World Journal interviewed him about my Chronicle article, Eng still did not get the point, saying (I am paraphrasing) ``Oh, I didn't mean anything. I just meant to say that we Chinese are superior.''

Opportunities for Me to Reply

I had been out of town in the first part of the week in which my Chronicle article appeared, so upon my return on May 22 I was unaware that I had been the center of a controversy in the Chinese media. Fortunately, the World Journal called me for an interview on that day. The reporter, Monica Xu, had interviewed me on other topics in the past (all the World Journal's reporters who had interviewed me had been quite supportive of me), and she told me that she knew I was not the ``enemy'' that Teng and the others had been portraying me to be. She said that for this reason she was writing an article on my longtime activities in support of Chinese people, and she asked me to provide a few examples. Her article appeared the next day.

On the other hand, Xu's article did not give me a chance to correct Teng's misstatements, since I was unaware of them at the time of her interview. Later I read the article in which Teng had made her strange attacks, and I called both the World Journal and the Chinese radio station, asking that they issue retractions.

The World Journal city editor, Lily Lu, was quite nice about it. First, she had her reporter re-interview Teng, to ask her reaction to my statement that Teng had lied when she claimed to have called me and discussed my article with me. Amazingly, Teng now compounded her earlier lie. Teng now conceded that she had not talked to me as she had claimed, but said she had ``left a message on Matloff's answering machine and hung up the phone.'' This was, sadly, another lie; she had never left me a message. But even worse, her new statement, claiming to have left me a message, contradicted her earlier statement in which she had given ``details'' of the phone ``conversation'' she had claimed to have had with me; recall that she had claimed that during that ``conversation'' I had asked to meet with her and she had refused. The World Journal later published my letter to the editor on these points.

The Chinese radio station's general manager Tim Lau (who also is the general manager for Sing Tao Daily, which is owned by the same company) suggested his reporter would interview me on the Chinese reaction to my Chronicle article. I would have a chance to correct Teng's claims, and the interview would then address the issues raised by my article. The interview did occur on June 12, and lasted about 30 minutes. However, the station only broadcast my statements that Teng's wild claims (about calling me, about my being unemployed, etc.) were completely false; none of the rest of the interview was broadcast, which is a pity, since the reporter did bring up some interesting questions. The station then asked Teng to comment; Teng's response was, ``No comment.''

I also was asked to be a guest on a Chinese-language talk show hosted by Dong Shi, to discuss my op-ed piece, on May 28. The other guest was Celia Yang, a Taiwan immigrant (and longtime American) whose business is consulting for Fortune 500 companies on race relations. We had a very good, constructive 55-minute exchange, each of us finding much on which to agree with the other, quite a refreshing contrast to the attacks by Teng. I also was contacted by some much more moderate Chinese-American political activists, and had some useful conversations with them.

The Confucian Influence

One interesting comment Celia Yang made on Dong Shi's talk show arose in the following way: I had said that my own personal theory was that the reason Chinese do not care about other races is that the Confucian tradition places so much emphasis on one's own family, and by extension one's own ethnic group, to the virtual exclusion of the rest of the world. As an example, I pointed to surveys which show that Asians have the lowest rate of volunteerism among the major American racial groups (white, black, Latino, Asian). Yang agreed with my analysis, but replied that she also found that Confucian family tradition to be a source of strength, and she is unwilling to give it up simply because it creates problems for Chinese immigrants in the U.S. She thus very neatly described what I believe is one of the major dilemmas which many immigrants face.

This problem of the inward-looking consequences of the Confucian legacy was also illustrated when two Chinese-American political activists (one of them a political appointee to an office in the Bay Area) graciously invited me to lunch after reading my Chronicle piece. We had a very nice talk, but a point of disagreement arose in the following way. To counter what I had said in my article, one of them proudly mentioned that his organization of Chinese-American business owners was a participant in the lawsuit then pending against Proposition 209, the ballot measure which outlawed affirmative action programs in the state of California. But I pointed out that his organization had not joined in another suit, this one specifically against the University of California Regents' elimination of affirmative action in UC admissions (which had occurred a year earlier than the passage of Proposition 209, and would remain standing even if 209 were overturned in the courts). My point was that the Chinese business people want to overturn 209 because they want access to minority business contracts---the ``good for Asians'' part of affirmative action---but they are opposed to affirmative action in university admissions, which they view as being harmful to Asians. In other words, their Chinese business organization's opposition to Proposition 209 was not based on altruistic concern for other minorities after all, but rather on advancement of Asian interests only.

Epilogue and Conclusion

I was quite startled by the negative reaction my article received, especially since the original version in AsianWeek had not had any reaction at all.

footnote: One Chinese-American told me she felt that if the Chronicle had retained the title of my AsianWeek article, ``Missed Opportunities in Race Relations,'' rather than the Chronicle's title, ``Asians, Blacks and Intolerance,'' the reaction would have been positive, but I am skeptical about this. I think World Journal reporter Monica Xu's theory is more likely to be correct; Xu believes that the disparity between reactions to the two articles is that the Chronicle is mainstream, much more ``public'' than AsianWeek.

I believe that the most troubling aspect of the incident is the fact that Supervisor Teng would engage in repeated outright lying. Granted, political figures are known to take liberties with the truth now and then, but it was highly unsettling to see Teng tell the Chinese press about nonexistent conversations she claims to have had with me, falsely tell Chinese radio audiences that I am not a professor and that I am unemployed and so on.

Teng's attitude indicates an ``us versus them'' attitude in which fanatics justify achieving the end by any means. In this mentality, anyone who raises concerns about immigration is viewed as the personification of evil, with any and all means being used to stop them.

This was also illustrated in the case of Yeh Ling-Ling, a Chinese immigrant who is active in campaigning for immigration reform. Yeh has been on Chinese talk radio several times in San Francisco, and has successfully been gathering a following in the Chinese community. She had also been given a very favorable writeup in the World Journal a year earlier. But starting in 1997, as it became clear that Yeh's pitch for reduced immigration had considerable support in the Chinese community (a 1996 AsianWeek poll of Asian-Americans nationwide found that one-third of the respondents would go so far as imposing a complete moratorium on immigration for five years, a remarkably high proportion for such an extreme measure), the Chinese political activists started opening fire on her. Annie Chung, one of the so-called ``Chinese community leaders'' said on the pages of Sing Tao, ``I call upon Yeh Ling-Ling to stop calling herself Chinese when she writes anti-immigration articles in the mainstream press in the future''--in Chinese culture an egregious insult to Yeh (July 23, 1997). The other community activists interviewed had similar comments.

As happened in my case, the fanatical manner in which the Chinese activists perceived Yeh Ling-Ling apparently escalated to outrageous untruths, including by Yvonne Lee, a Chinese immigrant appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by President Clinton in 1995. In a November 2, 1997 article in the San Jose Mercury News, Lee stated that she had challenged Yeh to a public debate in the Chinese community three times, and that Yeh had promised to appear but turned out to be a no-show all three times. This was outrageously false---Yeh has never been asked to debate Lee even once, let alone three times. (At Yeh's request, Lee's statement was removed from the Mercury's later editions, but the claim remained in the copies picked up through the wire service by other newspapers.)

Again, such outrages indicate a level of fanaticism among the Chinese political activists that strongly suggest that dialogue with other races---again, I am particularly worried about Asian-black relations---will be increasingly difficult in the future.

Whatever one's views are on what the best approach is in formulating our national immigration policy, the incidents chronicled here highlight the problematic nature of the increased complexity which immigration is bringing to American race relations. This was illustrated later in 1997 when Angela Oh, a Korean-American appointee to President Clinton's advisory board on race relations, argued with the board chair, John Franklin, concerning the board's charge. Franklin wanted a ``traditional'' focus on white/black relations, which Oh felt was outmoded, given the growth of other minorities, mainly Asian and Latino. Ms. Oh's point is a valid one, but the incident illustrates the fact that today the various American minority groups often have conflicting goals, and that solidarity among minority leaders will be extremely difficult if not impossible to attain. The Chinese reaction described above to my op-ed piece underscores this point.

In a June 25 letter to the Chronicle in response to my article, Chinese for Affirmative Action head Lisa Lim wrote that CAA maintains there is a ``need for each community of color to foster its own advocacy,'' and that ``Asian American activists must advocate for Asian American rights and issues.'' Though she insists that ``advocacy by Asian American activists [need not be] advocacy at the expense of other communities of color,'' she sadly did not address the examples in my article to the contrary. All of this augurs poorly for racial harmony in the coming years.

Appendix: Chronicle Op-Ed

``Asians, Blacks and Intolerance'' (this title was chosen by the Chronicle; I had wanted to use my original AsianWeek title, ``Missed Opportunities in Race Relations'')

San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed
May 20, 1997

Norman Matloff

It is no secret that many Asian immigrants harbor racist attitudes toward African Americans and Latinos. What is less noticed is that Asian American community activists are ignoring the problem, doing nothing proactive to deal with immigrant racial intolerance.

There is a plethora of missed opportunities. Asian-language community-affairs television programs regularly inform viewers how to avail themselves of social services, but how much time has been devoted to educating viewers about healthy racial attitudes? Many immigrant entrepreneurs are unwilling to hire black employees. Why aren't Asian community organizations developing campaigns to encourage Asian employers to hire blacks?

In too many cases, the activists themselves have unhealthy attitudes. In the newsletter of the Oakland chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, editor Peter Eng opined: ``Chinese-Americans will need to separate and distance ourselves from other ethnic immigrant groups'' and suggested that Latino immigration was a burden to society. Even Henry Der, former head of Chinese for Affirmative Action, whose support of non-Asian minorities is heartfelt, recently expressed this notion: ``We could even take more Chinese immigrants...But that is not going to happen, because Chinese immigrants are broadstroked" with all other immigrant groups.

The Asian activists compound the problem by absolving the immigrants of blame for their racist attitudes. The immigrants, we are told, pick up racist views from the American media. Yet this is at odds with the fact that Asian immigrant prejudice toward African Americans and Latinos is more widespread and at a higher intensity than amoug U.S. natives. Quynh Tran, in her Stanford University study of Vietnamese immigrant high school students, found that students who grew up in the United States were less prejudiced toward blacks than were students who immigrated at a later age.

Given Asian prejudice against blacks, it is not surprising that many blacks resent Asian Americans. Many blacks targeted Korean American businesses during the 1992 L.A. riots. However, blacks' attitudes toward Koreans seem to be less negative than the attitudes of Koreans toward blacks, according to a University of Southern California study.

Asian activists are often exacerbating the situation, sometimes with Latino groups. Elaine Kim, a Korean-American UC Berkeley professor, has written that a major Latino organization suggested to her [actually to Korean community activist Bong Huan Kim--NM] that Asians and Latinos work together against blacks in an Oakland redistricting proposal. And an Asian/Latino coalition is suing Oakland, claiming it awards too many city contracts to black-owned firms.

Supervisor Mabel Teng, while on the Community College Board, boasted that due to her lobbying, no high-level Asian administrators were laid off during the 1994 fiscal crisis. But several black administrators were let go, and Teng was silent.

When welfare reform was enacted, great concern was expressed about its potentially heavy impact on the native-born poor, many of them blacks who are functionally illiterate and without job skills. But Asian activist groups succeeded in shifting the spotlight to the provisions regarding immigrants. The press has largely forgotten about how the native-born poor will cope.

Asian activists should devote some of their considerable energy to developing more sensitivity toward other minorities. The saying from the '60s is apt: ``If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

Appendix: Radio Interview

Interview of Mabel Teng by KEST, 1450 AM, on a Chinese-language news broadcast, May 21, 1997 (Reproduced here by permission of station manager Tim Lau.)

(This is a from a tape sent to me by a Chinese person who lives in San Francisco. She did not turn on the recorder in time to record the news anchor's anchor lead-in, except for the very end. The interviewer is Frances Lam.)

anchor: ...a severe criticism of the Asian community. Lam Fung reports.

Lam: Teng, using a tone which was anything but polite, denounced Matloff's article as being deliberately hostile.

Teng: Matloff just wants to hurt us (Asians). And at UC Davis, he isn't a professor. He only teaches one class. He's looked everywhere for work, but can't find a job, so he wrote this article against us.

Note by NM: A bizarre fiction. I of course am indeed a real professor, and have been for 22 years, all at Davis, and yes, am a full-time, regular faculty member. I am tenured and at the top rank. And I certainly have not been looking for a job.

Lam: Teng says that Matloff has always been anti-Asian.

Note by NM: Outrageous! I've been active in the Chinese community for 20 years, including a stint as a volunteer worker at a community agency when Teng was working there. I've publicly spoken out in defense of Chinese immigrants who have been victims of discrimination, such as Raymond Luh. I've protested vigorously, through my role as a member of the Committee for Rational Relations with China, against the China-bashing which is so common in the U.S. media (Teng shares my views on this). Etc., etc., etc.

Teng: His criticism of us is due to our standing up for Asian community rights. He's trying to get blacks to oppose Asians. This is a diabolical plot, very divisive.

Note by NM: Amazing audacity! Here my article asked the Asian leaders not to take so many divisive actions---such as collaborating with Latino organizations in actions which adversely impact blacks---and Teng has the gall to call me ``divisive.''

Lam: After Teng read Matloff's article, she called him and told him that his article was wrong

Note by NM: This is absolutely outrageous. She never called me.

and that his examples were five years old.

Note by NM: The various items in my piece (as well as another one deleted from my manuscript to save space) ranged in time from 0 to 4 years earlier.
Matloff's article said that though it is no secret that many Asians look down on blacks and Latinos, what is less known is that Asian community activists are doing nothing about this problem. This is Lam Fung reporting.