Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Follow-up on University of Colorado’s “war against Asians” Campus Press column
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Follow-up on University of Colorado’s “war against Asians” Campus Press column

I’ve never seen Denver’s Asian American community rally so quickly around an issue like they have around the botched satire, “If it’s war the Asians want… It’s war they’ll get“, that ran on the website of The Campus Press, the University of Colorado’s venue for budding journalists.

There’s been a blizzard of emails flying around town from groups and individuals, outraged postings (including mine as well as Joe Nguyen’s commentary on AsiaXpress), and TV and print media news reports.

A collective of APA students who’ve organized a Facebook group called Colorado Asian American Organizations organized a meeting yesterday at Denver University, where about 40 people showed up. Erin attended, and also sent out notices to some of the local media, so there were TV crews from several stations on hand to cover the discussion. Attendees included not just students, but community activists, older APAs and also African Americans and Latinos.

Although CU’s Chancellor posted a message on the school’s website, the group felt the “apology” was a typical non-apology that seems to follow so many offensive statements. “I want to personally apologize to the individuals who may have been wounded or offended by the column,” wrote Chancellor G.P. “Bud” Peterson. Erin sees through this ruse immediately, because it drives her nuts. It’s the old “I’m sorry if you were offended” tact instead of taking responsibility and admitting, “we screwed up and we ran something that was patently offensive to all.”

Paul S. Voakes, the Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication also posted a statement on the same page that outlined some tangible steps that will be required by the Campus Press to “preclude such editing lapses in the future.” I applaud Voakes for the meeting with the CP editors and faculty advisor, and hope the steps taken, which include diversity trainig for all, help.

Most troubling is the inadvertent (I hope) timing of this flap. The column was posted online on Monday, the day before Day of Remembrance. Feb. 19 marks the anniversary of the date in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the Army to round up and incarcerate 120,000 people of Japanese descent — including half who were children who were U.S. citizens by birth — and put them into concentration camps away from the West Coast. The column also ran on the eve of the school’s annual Diversity Summit. Maybe the Campus Press saw this as a good hook for a racist rant, just to jar people and get them thinking. This wasn’t it.

The group that met yesterday is drafting a statement and a list of demands they’ll present to CU.

And, lest anyone think this is a minor incident that will fade as soon as the sting of the shock goes away and the offended students go back to classes (they are, after all, members of the “model minority,” aren’t they?), other organizations are taking up the cause. The Colorado chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals issued this statement yesterday:

The National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) in
Colorado is deeply concerned by the broad stroke view of Asian
Americans on the CU Boulder campus presented recently by Max Karson in
The Campus Press, and the lack of appropriate guidance provided by the
University of Colorado relative thereto. The apologies issued by the
Chancellor and the Editor in Chief of The Campus Press speak,
primarily, to the journalistic lessons that can be learned from the
mistake of publishing Mr. Karson?s article and little to the damages
to the Asian American and other minority communities this article and
similar inappropriate practices can cause.

NAAAP Colorado is an association of Asian American professional
leaders in Fortune 500 and other businesses across Colorado. Diversity
recruiting from universities and inclusion in the workforce is a major
focus of these business organizations. In order to re-gain the trust
and support of the diversity leaders in these organizations, and the
businesses themselves, we strongly urge the University of Colorado to
communicate how it intends to improve diversity practices and reach
out to the minority student body on campus and the surrounding
minority communities.

And, the national APA civil rights organization JACL (full disclosure, I’m a national board member of JACL and the Editorial Board Chair of its national newspaper, The Pacific Citizen) sent this letter directly to the editor of the Campus Press:

Ms. Cassie Hewlings
Editor-in-chief
Campus Press
University of Colorado, Boulder

Dear Ms. Hewlings:

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) is deeply disturbed by student columnist Max Karson’s February 18, 2008 column, “If it’s war the Asians want… it’s war they’ll get.” More recently, you characterize Mr. Karson’s column as “satire…a commentary on racism.” In candor, it is difficult to find the humor and commentary in what appears to be nothing more than an attention-seeking stunt carelessly laced with hate speech.

If satire was the intent, it fell abysmally short in its display of judgment and sensitivity. Satire is a difficult literary form, and even the best writer occasionally finds his or her readers misguidedly accepting ironic or sarcastic statements as hard fact. Yet while satire often provides the reader with insightful social commentary or thought-provoking questions, Mr. Karson’s column is hardly tongue-in-cheek. It is just offensive.

We see little reason for the column to have been published, particularly when there is no underlying message. Instead, the column runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and plays dangerously with myths about Asian Americans.

Sincerely,
William Yoshino
Midwest Director
Japanese American Citizens League

The City of Denver’s Commission on Human Rights also sent a letter, signed by the Denver Asian Pacific American Council and supported by a number of other city agencies and organizations, to the community at large and to CU:

February 22, 2008

On Monday, February 18, a columnist at The Campus Press, an online news service provided by the University of Colorado, published an extraordinary column that played upon racial stereotypes and promoted a hateful and alarming message. Needless to say, the Asian Pacific American (APA) community in Denver and throughout Colorado is outraged not only by the words of this particular columnist, but also by The Campus Press’ decision to publish the column online.

There is neither a good time nor place for such a message, but the timing of this column was especially dubious. The column appeared the same week CU-Boulder planned to host a Diversity Summit, and a day before the “Day of Remembrance”, when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and relocated to internment camps during World War II. We can hardly take seriously CU’s commitment to diversity when its journalism department publishes a racist column online. In addition, calls by the columnist to, among other things, “find them all” reopened wounds that still run deep in this community over sixty years later.

There are those at The Campus Press who defend this article under the guise of freedom of the press. Just because there is a freedom of speech does not mean that freedom should be abused. Denigrating a race or ethnicity and defending it as free speech is to make a travesty of said freedom. Standing behind this columnist’s words is not making a stance for free speech; it is a flat-out endorsement of racism and bigotry.

Furthermore, we live in an era where high school and college students have vented their anger on others by using firearms and taking lives. What if students heeded this columnist’s wishes to go to “war” against APA students? What if angry APA students retaliated in a destructive manner? These words are not satire, as The Campus Press and their columnist would like to have everybody believe. We are supposed to make the educational experiences of our sons and daughters as safe as possible, but words like those from this columnist serve only to endanger the well being of CU’s community as a whole, not just the APA community there.

As those who are able to vote for members of CU’s Board of Regents, as well as send our children to CU, we think we have a stake in how the University of Colorado conducts itself. We would like to believe that the people who work for and study at the University of Colorado do represent some of the best and the brightest the state has to offer. For the sake of promoting diversity, a safe learning environment and the sharing of thoughtful ideas, we call on the leaders at the University of Colorado to do what is right. We urge the leaders of the University of Colorado, as well as the staff of The Campus Press, to open dialogue with ethnic communities and organizations, in order to improve the environment at CU not just for Asian Pacific Americans, but for everybody.

Respectfully submitted,
Denver Asian Pacific American Commission

With support of:
The Denver African American Commission and its members
The Denver American Indian Commission and its members
The Denver Commission for People with Disabilities and its members
The Denver Commission on Aging and its members
The Denver GLBT Commission and its members
The Denver Latino Commission and its members
The Denver Women’s Commission and its members
Karen Nakandakare, Advisory Board At-Large member, Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations
Pat Steadman, Advisory Board At-Large member, Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations

In the end, the flap isn’t about this drivel of a column, or the Campus Press, or the university’s lack of oversight that allowed it to be published. Max Karson will be forgotten as soon as his 15 minutes of fame runs out (this round, anyway — he was in the media spotlight last year for making what seemed to be threatening statements after the Virginia Tech shootings, and has been covered previously by the press for other publicity stunts).

It’s about the continuing attacks on Asian American identity that underscore the fact that APAs are OK to target with ridicule and jokes and stereotypes in a way that is no longer acceptable against African Americans, Latinos or other people of color in the 21st century. It’s about Asian Americans’ continuing cloak of invisibility in the mainstream media and the American consciousness.

And maybe, it’s about how Asian Americans need to get together, get loud and be proud enough to fight back when these types of offenses are smeared in our face. I for one, am tired of all of these incidents where the common response is “come on, can’t you take a joke?” Rosie O’Donnell wasn’t funny when she stated “ching-chong ching-chong” on national TV. Adam Carolla wasn’t funny when he ranted “ching-chong” on national radio. Racist kids aren’t funny when they taunt me with “go back to China where you came from” when they see me on the street.

It’s time to let everyone know. It’s not funny.