Responding to racism


At the risk of giving undeserved attention to Donald Trump and the political spectacle created by his campaign, I feel compelled to respond to his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the context of the history of scapegoating, disenfranchisement, and criminalization of immigrants in the United States. Trump’s recent comments characterizing Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” that should be purged from the country fit a pattern of abuse that has been used not only against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but against many groups of immigrants in the history of our country.

Since the founding of this country, various ethnic groups have been targeted with the same attitudes of xenophobia, intolerance and fear, often with amazingly similar depictions and rhetoric. From Irish and Eastern European newcomers to the East Coast in the 19th century to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers in the West Coast and more recently immigrants from Mexico and Central America throughout the country, waves of anti-immigrant sentiment and discourse leading to discriminatory laws have been pervasive. In the mid 1800s, the Irish were seen as being violent alcoholics, illiterate, greedy and having large, unruly families. They were turned away from places of employment with the pronouncement that “No Irish Need Apply.”

The Chinese were also the target of intense and often violent acts of racism beginning in the 1800s. A newspaper editorial cartoon in 1899 entitled “The Yellow Terror in All its Glory” shows a menacing and crazed caricature of a Chinese man dressed in traditional garb, with his hair in a distinctive queue. He is brandishing a smoking gun with a knife clenched in his mouth while standing over a White young woman bloodied and lying lifelessly on the ground. The message is clear, the Chinese are dangerous “criminals” and “rapists” who are culturally alien and threaten the White race. The anti-immigrant spotlight was then cast on the Japanese as they became settled and gained more economic strength, particularly in California. Existing racial animosity climaxed with the start of World War II when Japanese and Japanese Americans on the west coast were rounded up and incarcerated. This may be one of the most horrifying examples of the criminalization of an entire immigrant community.

We, as People of Color and their allies, have the responsibility to respond to both public and private acts of racism and hatred, even if these attacks are not made on our particular racial or ethnic group. It is only in doing so that we are able to support the groups that are unfairly targeted and to build coalitions among diverse communities to work toward equality and fair treatment for all people in this country, regardless of citizenship status, country of origin or race. Interethnic solidarity is a powerful tool to counter intolerance.

Investing in interethnic community building especially at the grassroots level is more effective than particular groups working alone to advocate for themselves. As Martin Luther King so aptly said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As Asian Americans we can look to civil rights activists such as Yuri Kochiyama, who dedicated her life to advocating not only for Japanese Americans, but for African Americans and other communities of color.

In times when racism rears its ugly head, let us, as individuals, organizations, and community groups, stand with our neighbors and brothers and sisters to promote a humane and accurate depiction of the groups under attack. Then, we can say that immigrants are workers, parents, children, teachers, friends, neighbors, students and activists who will not tolerate being depicted as “criminals.”

For readers who are interested in learning more about the accurate history of immigrant communities in the United States, I point you to Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

Aimee Mizuno lives in  Watsonville, Calif., and is a board member of the Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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