By Danny R. Johnson
The struggles of the Black American narrative — the arc from slavery to Barack Obama — are celebrated, contested, and even sometimes disparaged. But there’s no denying that this narrative is well-known. We all grasp the importance of Black history to the American story, even if we argue over the proper emphasis.
The relationship between Asian American and Pacific Islanders and their place in American history is not, to many, nearly as obvious. The American racial conversation, in which African Americans are the default minority group, has impoverished our understanding of — and provided a poor platform for — the stories of others.
That is why, in a year with thousands of anti-Asian assaults, civil rights violations and instances of verbal harassment reported even before the Atlanta area shootings this month — in which six of the eight slain were women of Asian descent — most Americans are just beginning to engage with the Asian American struggle. That is why we sense that race is near the core of the Atlanta killings but have a harder time putting the tragedy in context or agreeing on whether these were, in a legal sense, hate crimes. That is why President Donald Trump wasn’t immediately drummed out of public life after calling Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” and appearing to give sanction to those who would exclude or attack people of Asian ancestry, rather than affirming Asian Americans’ place in the American family.
In our popular imagination, the snarling legacy of disenfranchisement does not as easily attach to Asian America, writ large. Asian Americans were not wiped out, like Native Americans, under the marauding imperatives of empire. A Civil War was not waged over their previous condition of servitude. There is not an Asian American figure as universally lauded for his contributions as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or, for that matter, Mexican American civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, whose likeness now sits behind President Biden in the Oval Office. But the impact of systemic racism in Asian American history is still right there: Los Angeles’s “Chinese Massacre,” a mass lynching in 1871 fueled by propaganda that Chinese Americans were “barbarians taking jobs away from whites”; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Vietnamese commercial fishermen in Texas facing racist confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s; six people gunned down at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012.
Chinese American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the Manhattan Project and Japanese American future senator Daniel K. Inouye was earning the Medal of Honor for his service in combat during the same war that Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps. During the Vietnam War era, members of the Hmong community fought a clandestine war in Laos on the side of American forces but experienced some of the same antagonism faced by other Southeast Asian refugees.
One reason is that vastly different communities are gathered under the AAPI umbrella, among them Korean Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Indian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Chamorro and Carolinian Americans in the U.S. territory of Guam and the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Each group was either already here or established itself here in different eras, for different reasons. Each has faced different hurdles. The “model minority” myth, too, helps obscure wealth inequality within Asian America. The concept also makes Asian American achievement a metric — or cudgel — by which to assess, or criticize, Black and Latino progress. Think of how former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan once evoked a shopworn trope about Asian Americans’ “solid two-parent family structures” to taunt Black communities and their allegedly inferior moral habits and domestic arrangements.
What’s more, many of our debates about American authenticity and meaning revolve around the Black-White binary. The equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment was first intended as a prohibition of legal discrimination against African Americans. The resistance from so many quarters to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which argues that Black America, and the racism it has confronted since the nation’s earliest days, are integral to our understanding of the American founding, speaks to the generations-old clash of interpretations that put Black history at the center of the American story.
By contrast, Asian American history is often footnoted or compartmentalized, recounted and analyzed as a subplot in the bigger narrative. For one, Asian Americans have been unjustly perceived as less assertive than African Americans in the fight for equality. For the same reasons that the AAPI community is a collective, the comparison makes no sense. The struggles and needs and timing of its constituent groups have always been different, but no less needed. And the persistence of stereotypes of Asian Americans — pernicious, clashing notions of passivity, on one hand, and subversion of American norms of decency and purity on the other — mock their contributions to national life.
Still, Asian American and Black history share something crucial: the burden of stereotype and scapegoating for the nation’s ills. Think of the hatred Colin Kaepernick absorbed for kneeling during the national anthem. Think of the ordeal Fred Korematsu endured to challenge the legality of Japanese American internment all the way to the Supreme Court. And think of martyrs, from George Floyd to Vincent Chin — a Chinese American brutally beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two White autoworkers who associated Chin with the success of the Japanese auto industry. At their core, attacks on people of color, whether Black, AAPI, Latino or Native American, are about blaming the other. It’s something most minoritized groups — that is, peoples defined in contrast to the White majority — have in common.
The Black American template exists for a reason. African Americans may have worked out our identities and cultural traditions on the margins of the nation, but our inventions and imagination long ago claimed center stage in the unfolding American drama. Our spirituals and blues, our jazz and hip-hop, our preaching and prophesying, our styles and performances, articulated the American soul. Without Black folk — from Frederick Douglass to John Lewis, from Mahalia Jackson to Jay-Z — America couldn’t possibly be what it is today. But neither would America be as viable without the Pulitzer Prize-winning writing of Jhumpa Lahiri, the poetry and hip-hop artistry of Mona Haydar, the trailblazing ceramic art of Toshiko Takaezu, Feng Zhang’s innovations on the CRISPR technique for altering DNA, or the pioneering work in semantics and politics of scholar-turned-senator S.I. Hayakawa, a polymath who earned a shout out on “Black Man,” Stevie Wonder’s epic tribute to the multicultural roots of the nation.
Disparate groups, having overcome oppression, have made this country whole. Until we understand the ways in which the Asian American story is in many ways like the African American story, we won’t be able to reckon with tragedies like Atlanta. Vincent Chin ought to be as well known, and as righteously mourned, as George Floyd. The best way to set us on our path is for the lived experiences of Asian Americans, like those of African Americans, to be viewed as essential to an understanding of the nation’s identity.