What Do Asian-Americans Owe The Civil Rights Movement?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, Michel Martin is away. Coming up, for some music fans, Robin Thicke's megahit "Blurred Lines" sounds distinctly familiar, kind of like an old Marvin Gaye song. The Barbershop guys step to the mic with their verdict. That's ahead. But first, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has given the nation an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King and the movement that he helped to shape.
But not a lot of people are talking about the civil rights movement's influence on equality for Asian-Americans. Scot Nakagawa hopes to change that. He's a senior partner for ChangeLab, a racial justice think tank. And he recently wrote an article called "Three Things Asian-Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement."And he listed immigration rights, voting rights and interracial marriage. Earlier, Scot Nakagawa told me more about what the ending of bans on interracial relationships meant for the Asian-American community.
SCOT NAKAGAWA: Asian-Americans are more likely to marry across race than other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. In fact, 36 percent of Asian women and 28 percent of Asians overall entered into interracial marriages in 2010. And, you know, it's really very much a part of the process of assimilation for many Asian-Americans to become parts of communities that they're apart of because, so often, we are minorities within those communities. And so intermarriage is one of the ways in which Asian-Americans have assimilated.
HEADLEE: Do you think that most, or even many, Asian-Americans feel the need to be part of a civil rights movement?
NAKAGAWA: Well, I think that many Asian-Americans, especially younger Asian-Americans, wish to be part of a rights movement to address racial wrongs and to win greater equity in the United States. I think we all see it as being within our interest to address the vast divides between us by race and to address the fact that there is a racial wealth gap in the United States.
HEADLEE: You know, it's very interesting. I read a Facebook post from a friend of mine who's Asian-American recently, and he was talking about these very issues. And someone responded by saying, how can you talk about such small, petty issues when there's people dying because they're the wrong color in another state, or there's people being denied equal rights to health care or equal rights to education? Why would you worry about whether somebody's using the word Oriental or not? What's your response to something like that?
NAKAGAWA: Well, I think that it's really important, the words that we use, because those words create the climate within which these other kinds of horrors can occur. As long as we continue to refer to Asian-Americans, for example, as Orientals, which is really a term that one uses for objects, our humanity is continuing to be put in question.
And so I think it's very, very important that we look at things that we say, that we understand that they create a certain kind of context or social climate, and that we carefully parse out those words that really serve to remind people, when they're uttered, of their subjugated status within a racial hierarchy in the United States that we would really very much like to do away with.
HEADLEE: And this, in some ways, to my mind at least, draws parallels with the civil rights movement, as you talk about, of the 1960s in which African-Americans were trying to take control of the way that they were described and what words were used to describe them.
NAKAGAWA: Absolutely. You know, we have gone through a great evolution in terms of African-Americans claiming their own identity and claiming the words to describe themselves. It's an act of power. It's a way of asserting ourselves on the scene and saying that we can define who we are. We no longer need to use your words and what those words mean in order to define who we are and what our experience is here. Asian-Americans have done the very same thing with the word Oriental, which really originates as a term of colonialism.
And claim the identity Asian-American in the 1960s as part of an activist movement to win ethnic studies on the University of California campuses. And so it has a real political meaning. It was meant to reach up across ethnicity to the vast diversity of people in the United States who are identified as now Asian-Americans, were then identified mainly as Orientals, in order to form a coalition that would participate in a broad civil rights effort to reform the public school system in that state.
HEADLEE: What are the biggest issues, do you think, for Asian-Americans right now? Are there social justice issues? Are they the most important, or maybe it's stereotyping Asian-Americans?
NAKAGAWA: Well, Asian-Americans have all the same kinds of issues and concerns that other Americans do. When polled, we are concerned about things like healthcare and jobs, the economy, for instance. And so we're really concerned about the very same things other people are concerned about. The thing about Asian-Americans to remember, though, is that Asian is a term that was chosen for us. Asian-Americans are actually a vastly diverse group of over 40 ethnic groups, speaking over 100 dialects.
We are here in the United States and have come here for a variety of reasons. You know, many of my ancestors came to the United States first through Hawaii in the 1800s. They came as contract laborers. Most Japanese-Americans who are in the United States, who've come since the 1960s, have come over as highly skilled workers or business investors. So they come to the United States and are joined by people like Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans and are told, upon arriving, you're now Asian-American. You belong to a race.
HEADLEE: This reminds me again, Scott, of - to a certain extent - the experience of African-Americans. Many people don't actually realize how vast and enormous the content of Africa is.
HEADLEE: ...How many different peoples and languages and cultures there are there, as well. I mean, so, to a certain extent, your article gets right on the nose in terms of all these parallels between these two cultural movements - all of whom are American, but in many ways have parallel struggles.
NAKAGAWA: Well, all of us by race are, you know, mashed together. You know, white people are, you know, derived from many different European ethnic groups, some of which are at war with one another. We come to United States and we are placed in these racial categories that assume that we have shared racial characteristics when often we don't, and are quite different by culture, by language, by tradition and experience the United States in very different ways.
HEADLEE: So you called your piece "The Three Things Asian-Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement." What's, say, one thing that Asian-Americans of 2013 need to learn from the civil rights movement?
NAKAGAWA: In 2013, I think Asian-Americans really need to grapple with the importance of struggling to win racial equity for all of us, not just for Asian-Americans. For Asian-Americans today, there are many issues that we're concerned about like bullying and fairness in admissions to colleges and universities, a variety of other kinds of issues including immigration, for instance. But we need to look broadly and try to figure out where the points of connection are between Asian-Americans and other groups of people who have been discriminated against by race, and figure out where those intersections exist and organize around them.
To expand our understanding of what it means to be Americans and to be in America, struggling to create greater democracy and opportunity for everyone because that's where we will benefit, right? If we all can get together and start to look at the project of winning racial equity as a project of building democracy, of addressing the contradiction between our racist past and our democratic ideals, then when we struggle to try to win greater equity what we're really doing is trying to strengthen democracy.
HEADLEE: Scot Nakagawa is a senior partner for ChangeLab, a political and racial justice think tank. And he joined us from our New York bureau. Scot, thank you so much.
NAKAGAWA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.