A friend shared the following tweet with me not long ago:
Adding to the dangers of using color in politics should look at the Asian community for instance. Now the wealthiest per household in the US. No ethnic leader. No victimhood. We fight for American dream. Feel enough people don’t travel to see how good we all have it.
— Jen Meredith (@meredith_jenOM) August 10, 2021
Whoever Jen Meredith is, she is hardly alone in sharing these sentiments. Few routes to acceptance by the still-predominant culture in the United States are shorter and more reliable than implicit or explicit criticism of the black community in America whose heritage here stretches back even before the founding of the country as we know it. There have always been people who buy into the model minority myth. The term “Asian” elides significant differences between its various subcultures (and erases the parts of that very large community which don’t support the immigrant success story in exactly the same way some white conservatives do). People from the Philippines have meaningfully different backgrounds than those from South Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam to take a few examples.
Meredith is (obviously) sub-tweeting American blacks with her entire comment, but the “no ethnic leader” part in particular betrays a very specific ignorance about the history of black people in the United States. Black people in this country have never just had one leader. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just the ones that recent history (the vast majorities of which have not been written by black people) has acknowledged. Less often-noted are men like Marcus Garvey, who while Jamaican (not American) nevertheless found a receptive audience among some black Americans (including the parents of Malcolm X). A. Philip Randolph was no less important than either of those men. The same can be said of Bayard Rustin, Fred Hampton, W.E.B Dubois, or Booker T. Washington.
Asians in the United States may not have had a singular figure that history chooses to recognize in this way (or a Cesar Chavez, like the Mexican-American community), but perhaps that’s in part because they haven’t really needed one. This doesn’t mean they haven’t even experienced racism in this country. The federal government passed laws against Chinese immigration and some were even lynched in California the way they did blacks in the South. Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps and had their property taken. But at least they had property to take, which could not be said of black Americans in many cases. One Asian-American experience which may not be broadly known, but is emblematic of the subtleties of racism in this country, is that of the Mississippi Delta Chinese. The entire project is well-worth reading and listening to in full, but here is one part which stood out to me:
After WWII, China was an ally to the United States and then the rules relaxed; I think it was in 1947 or 1948. After the war, Chinese kids were allowed to attend white public schools, so that was the year that I started first grade.”
Issac Woodard was just one of many black veterans of WWII who was attacked just for wearing his uniform around this time. Some black veterans fared even worse than Woodard. The US military didn’t desegregate until 1948. Over two decades would pass before schools in Yalobusha County, Mississippi (and the rest of the state) would finally desegregate. At the same time members of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community were attending better-quality schools and building wealth, many black military veterans were being denied the benefits of the GI Bill. Black people resorted to overpaying for housing via contracts, due to racist real estate covenants and redlining by the Federal Housing Administration. All of this happened before you even get to the ways in which federal civil rights, voting rights, and fair housing legislation have been actively undermined or passively neglected from the Nixon administration forward.
When your experience (and your parents’ experience) of the United States doesn’t include the combination of chattel slavery, pogroms, property theft, terrorism, segregation, and other aspects of the black American experience, you’re bound to see this country differently. That’s why you can (unfortunately) hear some of the same anti-black American sentiments from black immigrants to this country. Particularly as someone who writes software for a living and leads teams of software engineers, I have more common experiences with my fellow church members, classmates, and co-workers from India, China, and the Philippines than I do with some black people with hundreds of years of heritage in this country.
Finally, it is exceedingly unwise to underestimate the growing political power of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander community. This movement with “no ethnic leader” (as Meredith claims) got federal legislation passed against Asian hate crimes—in our current political environment—when we still don’t have a federal law against lynching after over a century of attempts to pass one. It’s all well and good to talk about having agency in one’s life. I am doing my best as a parent to teach my own children the same lessons about making good choices that my parents taught me. But criticisms of the American black community that fail to acknowledge how an unjust society increases the difficulty of making wise choices are dishonest.