As a founder of Americans Citizens for Justice and a
spokesperson for the Asian-Pacific American community in the 1982 beating death of Vincent
Chin, journalist Helen Zia has long been known as a cornerstone of what can justifiably be
called an APA civil rights movement. Almost two decades after that landmark case, Zia
reflects on her own brush with anti-Asian hostility to gauge how far we’ve
come…and how far we have yet to go.
I should be over this by now, but it nags me like a
scabrous sore, itchy and fetid. The voice inside me won’t let up: Your guard was
down, you were complacent when you should have been ready, this is nothing new.
The scene is
still fresh and raw: the yuppie white woman and her white Volvo that almost mowed me down
as I tried to cross Spear Street in downtown San Francisco three months ago. She was so
enraged that I, a middle-aged Asian woman, would dare to slap her rear windshield so she
wouldn’t hit me as she backed up, that she jumped out of her car and onto me,
screaming hysterically at me the entire time. No racial slurs, though, or I would have
reacted differently, for sure.
As she and I grappled in the downtown street during the
busy evening rush hour, I repressed the urge to return her violence. You’re too old
to get into a brawl, I said to myself. So instead of hitting her, I tried to pin her arms
down so she didn’t swat me again, and muttered to her, You’re really sick.
Two Asian American men and a white guy yelled, Break it
up! and pulled us apart. We should call the police, the Asian men said. Two women, one
white and one black, waited with us for 45 minutes before the cops came. They told me, We
saw everything and we’ll be witnesses.
Of course the police were two white guys, of the age that
would want to date my assailant. No, they didn’t charge her with assault and battery.
Instead they advised me to drop it since they could charge me with malicious mischief for
striking her car.
Since then, I’ve been furious. Furious that she
attacked me, furious at myself for not punching her back, furious that for a moment I
thought that police might do the right thing. Furious because this white woman thinks she
can assault Asian women and get away with it, and she did. That’s the racist racial
dynamic at work, it doesn’t matter if she used a slur or not.
Beyond my anger, I’m sick and tired of this same old
bullsh-t. When Vincent Chin’s killers said, "It’s because of you
motherf-ckers that we’re out of work," some people said, That’s not a
racial slur, so it’s not a civil rights violation. We argued ad nauseum to convince
the likes of the Michigan ACLU, the Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the
news media and so on that Asian Americans experience racism and discrimination that goes
beyond words. Unfortunately, without a racial slur, a jury in Cincinnati couldn’t
make the link to racism, and Vincent’s killers were freed.
It was the same thing for Navroze Mody, whose killers
taunted him with "Hindu" and "Baldy" in the siege-like climate of
"Dotbuster" hate against South Asians in New Jersey. Prosecutors refused to
charge his Latino teenage killers with a hate crime. They served light sentences as
minors, and three of them are now police officers themselves. Isn’t that precious?
Henry Lau was riding a crowded subway train to Brooklyn
when a man eating an eggroll shouted, "Hey, Eggroll!" at him, then shoved the
eggroll in his face as he stabbed Lau to death. Police said that "eggroll" is
not a racial slur, so they didn’t consider the murder to be hate motivated.
A group of African American teenagers yelled, Get the
f-cking Koreans! before they smashed the skull of Tuan Ana Cao, a Vietnamese American, in
Flatbush, New York City only a few blocks from a prolonged, bitter boycott of a
Korean-owned grocery store. At first the police and the mayor made strong statements
against hate crimes, but then the police chief reneged, saying the youth were merely
Patrick Purdy donned his fatigues and semi-automatic weapon and gunned down an entire
school yard full of Southeast Asian children in Stockton, California, killing five
eight-year olds, the police chief refused to consider the possibility of a racial
motivation. Purdy’s former elementary school had become 85 percent Southeast Asian.
That night, Ted Koppel of ABC Nightline didn’t even ask if the attack might have been
racially motivated. The newsroom didn’t want to suggest it; to them, the possibility
of hate crimes against Asian Americans seemed so remote. It took an outcry from the Asian
American community to force a hate crimes investigation—and evidence was found that
Purdy, who killed himself, strongly resented Asians and had hate literature in his home.
The list goes on and on—incidents against Asian
Americans that are heinous in themselves, made worse by the refusal of law enforcement and
criminal justice, journalists and politicians, to take racism and discrimination against
Asian Americans seriously. The "Model Minority" doesn’t have problems that
other minorities face—and if we did, they believe, Asian Americans are too
mild-mannered and polite to expect anyone to do anything about it. Is it any wonder that
so few Asian Americans bother to report racial incidents in their workplaces,
neighborhoods and schools?
I was reminded of this yet again when a play about Vincent
Chin’s death and his mother Lily Chin’s struggle for justice was first performed
last summer. Carry the Tiger to the Mountain, by Cherylene Lee, movingly portrayed the
story through Mrs. Chin—an Asian American point of view. Yet the producers felt
compelled to "balance" the story with a white view, and printed a rebuttal by
the defense attorney in the program notes. Not surprisingly, the defense attorney wrote
that Vincent Chin died by falling on his head, that his clients weren’t racist and
didn’t commit a hate crime—an extraordinary misrepresentation. The Washington
Post review of the play, written by a white woman, cited the defense attorney’s claim
that no racial attack had occurred and rejected the play’s story line. The playwright
was merely oversensitive and overreacting, she implied.
The efforts to counter anti-Asian prejudice and anti-Asian
violence have grown significantly since Vincent Chin was killed in 1982. Where there was
no community infrastructure and no pan-Asian advocacy movement back then, today a strong
national voice against anti-Asian violence exists in the National Asian Pacific American
Legal Consortium, and numerous local and regional advocacy organizations have emerged.
Networks of students and community groups are educating Asian Americans across the country
on the importance of holding institutions accountable for words and deeds that can lead to
hate crimes. Schools, police, news media, Hollywood, the courts, politicians have all been
put on notice at various times. As a community, we are better prepared to deal with
anti-Asian attacks, whether verbal or physical, than ever before.
Yet on the neighborhood level, in the parking lot, at
school, when someone feels brazen and safe enough to assault an Asian American through
words or acts of violence, what has changed? My anti-Asian radar says that the hostility
level is higher than ever, and not just because of my own encounter. But my would-be
street brawl tells me that we have to do more. It’s not enough to wait until
there’s a hate crime victim incident to report. Somehow we have to make it clear that
attacks on Asian Americans are not acceptable and they will not go unpunished. Period.
That means our community has to become less polite and predictable.
We have to roar back sometimes.
As for my own confrontation, the moment for street level
vengeance has passed. Maybe I saved myself from a black eye in my restraint, but I have
pangs of regret. It’s not over. I’m still planning to hold my white yuppie
assailant accountable, and the San Francisco police department, too. That’ll be grist
for another column. But I am reminded that this woman is not alone or unusual: There are a
lot of angry, frustrated folks out there who are looking for someone to take it out
on—and Asians make easy targets. I’m not looking forward to a next time, but
when it comes, I’ll be ready. Will you?
Other Readings by Helen Zia