During a recent visit with Asian-Indian friends, my wife and I decided to take an afternoon walk around the neighborhood. We were joined by our host's 9-year-old granddaughter, Asha, and her friend, Roshni. As we left behind several rows of well-kept townhouses, we come suddenly upon a major road that triggered in me other thoughts â€” I remember a recent incident in Bellingham, Mass., near us. A 5-year-old Southeast Asian girl walking alone on a busy road near her home was apparently lured by a driver into his car and then raped and murdered. All of a sudden, I became protective of these two little girls, who are so open and trusting. So, I asked them if they would walk all by themselves on this kind of road. They assured me they wouldn't, that they had strict instructions never to do so.
At this point, Roshni burst out, "But Uncle, I have this friend in New York â€” she is 12 â€” and she goes all over, even to those streets where black people live. Her parents have told her many times that Blacks would rob her and kill her but she doesn't listen. She is a bad girl."
Young Roshni's words filled me with sadness. So, when we returned from our walk, I decided to talk to her parents. Embarrassed at first, they acknowledged their role in shaping Roshni's views. When my daughter made the point â€” with the righteous idealism of a 14-year old â€” that we all bleed the same human blood, Roshni's father released in mindless fury some of the worst stereotypes of black life.
I asked him if he has any black friends; he said no. But he asserted with confidence that Michael Jordan will soon go the way of Mike Tyson (rape conviction?) or Magic Johnson (HlV-AlDS?); that middle-class people like us are paying high taxes because of "all those Blacks on welfare"; that Blacks do not want to work or work hard; that Blacks had contributed "brown" but no "brain" to this country. When I reminded him about slavery and Jim Crowism, he informed us that he is not interested "in the past, only in the future." My daughter and I gave up, as I reflected upon Roshni's future if she grows up with such negative attitudes toward any one group.
In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, it is important for us to understand the "feel good" racism of many middle-class whites who try to rationalize that the stalemate in black lives in terms of the "good choices" that Blacks do not make but whites do through sheer character and determination. But it is equally important for us to examine the process by which new immigrants have for over a century (mis)translated black American presence into their perplexed lives. In his 1929 essay, "Our Greatest Gift to America," black journalist George S. Schuyler suggested, rather impishly, that American Negroes' greatest contribution to the United States was not buildings and bridges, King Cotton or Duke Ellington, but the "superiority" over Blacks that new European immigrants were able to maintain in adjusting to the painful realities of their American existence.
The new Asian immigrants since 1965 have not disengaged themselves from this mindset by which immigrants had empowered themselves as "whites" instead of remaining, say, ethnic Italian, or Irish. Like Roshni's father, many Asian Americans make up for this lack of whiteness by acquiring a "white" and eagerly assimilationist consciousness. And yet Asian Americans today are painfully aware of the many obstacles they face in their own pursuit of the American Dream. Often well-trained professionals, they have arrived here better informed than earlier immigrants about American life and ideology. Their expectations are higher, and so are their disappointments when confronted with glass ceilings in corporate life, or discriminatory quotas in university admissions. And they are frustrated with juries that have not returned strong convictions for the perpetrators of hate crimes directed at Asian Americans in Michigan, New Jersey and elsewhere.
Black-Asian interaction in the U.S. is not entirely without hope, however. At the same Asian gatherings where adults like Roshni's father lay bare their typical caste-ridden views of black life, I often find the younger people protesting the stereotypes. Unlike their parents, they sometimes have African American friends. With a sharper sense of how racism and poverty operate in our society, they know at some level that the alienation they feel at work or school is experienced even more intensely by their black peers. They are often in tune with rap and reggae, have seen movies like Boyz N the Hood, or read books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Black Boy. And they probably enjoyed Mississippi Masala and not shared their parents' discomfort at the love scenes between an Indian woman and a black American man.
By learning more about the long experience of Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans in fighting discrimination, all Asian American immigrants might develop a sense of responsible connection to the national history they embrace through their new citizenship.
Asian Americans and Blacks need to move beyond mutual suspicion, even though the sources of our urban despair lie much deeper than their misunderstandings. Historians Arnold Shankman and David J. Hellwig have shown that while some Blacks shared white nativist envy and ethnocentric contempt for immigrants, most have often "acknowledged that the source of their bitterness was American racism rather than the lowly immigrant." Most new immigrants, European or Asian, choose minimal interaction with Blacks or their communities. Koreans are the only ones in recent years to bring new capital and energy into "unsafe" black neighborhoods. But many blacks believe that Koreans have received favored treatment from American banks. Most Koreans and Hong Kong Chinese assert, however, that they have often invested their life's savings in their new businesses, Asian Americans are being scapegoated by many for the absence of capital in black communities, even though researchers tell us that reasons for such absence of savings among blacks are historically complicated and systemic. With help from local church groups and organizations such as the Urban League and the California-based Black-Korean Alliance, the two communities can overcome cultural barriers to become true partners in urban renewal. We need to fight not one another, but against discriminatory practices such as redlining, which have hindered minorities, especially African Americans, in the first place.
Asian American refusal to acknowledge how black American history defines the present American moment is no less problematic than the self-professed innocence of many of my white students, who prefer to think of racism against Blacks either as something that happened in the past, or as something that happens elsewhere (generally in the South), or both. While we bear no direct responsibility for what happened in the past, we cannot afford to ignore what gets done now, if we are to ensure a better tomorrow for all our Roshnis and Ashas.
Amritjit Singh is a Professor of English and African American Studies at Rhode Island College. His most recent publication is (with Peter Schmidt) is Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature (University Press of Mississippi Press, 2000).
PS: Originally published in Chicago Tribune