Do Asian-Americans have cause to worry about the current round of Japan-bashing in the United States?
Emotions have run high during the debate on the Green Line train proposals. So many anti-Asian comments surfaced that it prompted Mayor Bradley to call for a stronger stand against racism and bigotry in Los Angeles.
Yet some have questioned whether the concern in the Asian-American community is exaggerated. After all, Asian-Americans constitute 40% of the entering class at UCLA, compose the largest bulk of minority-owned businesses in California and make up close to 20% of the professional and technical staff in several aerospace corporations.
However, rising violence and other indicators suggest that times are changing.
Two months ago, a Japanese-American community center in Norwalk was vandalized with racial epithets scrawled over the walls. A Japanese-American man who was incarcerated in 1942 commented that "It's happening all over again." Statistics support a disturbing elevation of this problem. The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission reported a 150% increase in anti-Asian hate incidents in 1990, its latest reporting year, making Asian-Americans the second most victimized ethnic group in Los Angeles after African-Americans.
Other tensions have also fueled these incidents. Anti-immigrant sentiments continue to surface and will likely escalate. Friction between African-Americans and Korean-Americans arise from a complicated mixture of economic despair and cultural misunderstanding. This dynamic has led to positive efforts aimed at resolution, but also to an escalation of incidents where Asian-Americans are targeted simply because of their racial features. Recently, a Thai woman was pulled from her car and beaten because she was thought to be Korean.
The most vexing development flows from the growing estrangement between the United States and Japan as well as other countries in Asia.
Few other racial minority groups in the United States have been so dramatically affected by the changing relationships between countries as have Asian-Americans. From the exclusion of Asian immigrants, beginning with the Chinese in the 1880s, to the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942, people of Asian heritage in this country have suffered grave losses of rights and abusive treatment as relations between the United States and Asian nations e deteriorated.
In these times, it would be a serious mistake to remain complacent. There are a number of steps that Asian-Americans can take to constructively meet the challenges posed by increasing racial tensions.
Asian-Americans must articulate a position against scapegoating and for increased investment in American jobs and workers. Particularly during discussions on trade and the economy, racial epithets and derogatory remarks made of any nationality should not be tolerated. Politicians, business leaders and the media should be closely monitored and criticized for such irresponsible remarks.
The unfair singling out of Japan or Asian countries as the prime culprit behind our economic problems must be challenged. Americans must examine our own contributions to troublesome economic developments. It is also important to note that the "bashing" rarely takes the form of anti-British or anti-Canadian activities, although the foreign investment in the United States by those two countries combined far exceeds that of Japan.
On the positive side it should be urged that political and economic action be taken to invest in America--its workers, industries and regions--rather than simply blocking foreign products and services. Our criteria for contracts or purchases should emphasize how they improve productivity rather than exclusive use of nationality.
Articulation of such a position should not be perceived as surrogacy for Asian corporations. In fact, Asian-Americans should be highly visible in encouraging and pushing Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other foreign-based companies to improve their community relations and business practices in the United States, particularly in hard-hit inner cities.
Asian-Americans must begin a concerted community relations and development strategy. The relative political and social isolation of many Asian-Americans from their communities must change. Education can strengthen our cohesiveness and improve our poor track record of reporting incidents of hate crimes instead of hiding from the problems. This effort must be matched by developing consistent ties with other ethnic and community groups. In this economic downturn, Asian-Americans are not the only ones being scapegoated.
In this process the values of Asian-Americans will be put to the test. Can our reverence for family be extended to others in our community? Can our hard work in education and business be matched by initiatives in bettering human relations?
Finally, the proactive outreach to other communities must be complemented by a strong response capability. Already a national network against anti-Asian violence has made an impact on cases and communities from North Carolina to California. Our legal center here has joined with our counterparts in San Francisco and New York to form the first national pan-Asian consortium focusing on legal initiatives to combat racial violence and tensions.
Rather than waiting to see if scapegoating once again dominates our politics, Asian-Americans must join with other Americans in ensuring that it never happens again.