How are Asian Americans reacting to the news from Ferguson?

One of the few times I heard a reference to Ferguson was in this panel: from left, Hansi Lo Wang (NPR),  Shefali S. Kulkarni (PRI), Ernabel Demillo (CUNY-TV), Emil Guillermo (AALDEF) and moderator Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man).

One of the few times I heard a reference to Ferguson was in this panel: from left, Hansi Lo Wang (NPR), Shefali S. Kulkarni (PRI), Ernabel Demillo (CUNY-TV), Emil Guillermo (AALDEF) and moderator Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man).

I just got back from a week in Washington, D.C. attending the Asian American Journalists Association’s annual convention. I sat in on a lot of interesting (and some not-so-interesting) sessions about social media and journalism, issues in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and lots of other current topics in the news.

But one topic was barely mentioned as part of the panel discussions: The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man who was shot by a local police officer in the small town of Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

He was killed on August 9, and for the next week – during the AAJA convention – the tension in Ferguson between protesters and law enforcement has been front and center in the news.

The scenes during the first nights, when local police brought their military hardware and went after protesters with tear gas, evoked nothing less than the civil rights era of the early 1960s, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or anti-war protests on college campuses across the country and the deadly volley of gunfire that killed four students at Kent State University in 1970.

That night led to a brief peace, when the state’s governor assigned state patrol to take over for the over-militarized local police force. The state troopers are led by an African American Ferguson native who chose a community-based, non-confrontational approach to calming the neighborhood.

But tensions and violence resumed after a bungled announcement of the name of the police officer who shot Brown, and the next night the governor announced a curfew. The National Guard have been called in.

It’s been a huge ongoing breaking news story, and it’s not over yet.

It’s easy to assume that the original shooting, the heavy-handed military reaction and curfew are racially-based. The suburb of Ferguson is mostly black, but the local police department of 53 officers only includes three black officers. That’s why images from the civil rights struggles – marchers being attacked with water cannons and snarling police dogs – come to mind with little prompting.

These parallels should have all of us, including AAPIs, thinking about the state of race relations in America, both then and now.

At the AAJA convention, if conversations about Ferguson were held, they were among attendees, not on panels. I’m sure it was mentioned more than I know because I couldn’t be in every session, but I personally heard Ferguson mentioned only twice, once in a panel about covering the Asian American community, and then by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist who’s an undocumented immigrant, who mentioned Ferguson during his Gala dinner talk.

Richard Prince, an African American columnist for the Maynard Institute, an organization for training journalists of color, noticed. He attended the AAJA convention and wrote a column titled “Do Asian American Journalists Have a Stake in Ferguson Story?” that calls out the lack of reaction to Ferguson. (The column also ran on The Root)

I don’t have an easy answer why Ferguson wasn’t the official buzz at our convention. The programming was decided months ago, and the organizers probably weren’t prepared to fold in an all-new topic in an ad hoc fashion; and “people here are focusing on jobs and career, and you tend to be in a bubble” at conventions (according to AAJA’s president).

When I think about it, there haven’t been many instances of Asian Americans protesting and marching as a group. Individuals have been involved in political activism – some high-profile Japanese Americans were involved in the civil rights movement, for instance, and marched alongside black leaders (and even with the Black Panthers, though it turns out, as an FBI informant). There were protests during the era that established Asian American studies in universities. And there were protests after the Vincent Chin murder in 1982, arguably a pivotal moment when an “Asian American” identity came together.

But there weren’t mass protests when Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps during World War II.

Maybe our cultural values keep us from such public displays of anger and frustration, until we’re pushed too far.

I wish the speeches at the gala dinner mentioned Ferguson more than just by Vargas. It would have been cool to change a panel on the fly and turn it into a discussion of Ferguson. I hope we as a group didn’t keep quiet because we think this is “not our problem.” I know we don’t think that. And I hope we don’t let our cultural values hold us back in the face of such injustices anymore.

It would be a real shame if as a community, Asian American accept this meekly, like my own community accepted incarceration.

Because that was terribly wrong, the same way violence against people of color is wrong, the same way crackdowns on Vietnam war protesters was wrong, the way Vincent Chin’s murder was wrong, and the way Michael Brown died was wrong.

We should always call out what’s wrong in the world.


Here are some AAPI blogs and news stories about AAPIs commenting on Ferguson.

Aug. 20, 2014

OK, I feel compelled to add a mea culpa here. When I shared this blog post on my social media networks I called it “Early thoughts” and I I should have also noted that in the post. I’m not going to add it up top now because that would be a wimp out.

I’ve received some great comments and Facebook reactions about this post that I completely agree with.

I was half-assed and half-baked, and just plain dumb and forgetful in some of my assumptions: Asians certainly do have a history of protesting (Tiananmen and current ethnic protests, lots of Japanese protests, etc), and Asian Americans did protest in the ’70s and ’80s. not just for Asian American Studies programs in school and after Vincent Chin, but in response to black-Asian racial tensions.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Asians have cultural values that hold us back from protesting but I think in some ways this is true. Can I verify it scientifically? No. But within the JA community, I see it all the time, as a result of intergenerational transmission of trauma from the concentration camp experience, not to mention in more recent immigrant generations who are still fresh with Confucian values.

Here’s a terrific and passionate Tumblr post by madaznwithahat about my blog that’s worth reading: “Solidarity: You are doing it wrong. I agree with a lot of what he says, though I think he mistook my mention of Richard Prince’s column: I agree with Prince and I’m glad he called out the AAJA and Asian American journalists. I should be more outraged, I know.

AAJA should have put out a statement right away when the protests started. As it is, madaznwithahat points out AAJA did release a statement about Ferguson, but really it’s just about the treatment of journalists. That doesn’t surprise me — the org probably doesn’t want to take a stand on the militarization or the racial issues, because it’s a journalism org. By the way, I was appalled by the quote from the AAJA prez that attendees were more focused on the job prospects. I was glued to coverage of Ferguson every moment I was in my hotel room.

I’m more flabbergasted that JACL, the oldest Asian civil rights organization in the country, and an organization that has in recent years apologized for its position on internment during WWII and the treatment of “No-No Boys” and draft resisters, and has been pretty good about standing up for civil rights of all people, hasn’t come out with a statement yet.

Aug. 21, 2014

Great piece by Soya Jung in Race Files: Why Ferguson matters to Asian Americans

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans just announced its support for the protests in Ferguson.

The untold story, about Asian businesses in Ferguson that have been vandalized

From 18 Million Rising: “Three ways AAPIs can help seek justice for Michael Brown

This blog post was originally written and submitted in an earlier version for the Pacific Citizen newspaper of the JACL.

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15 Responses to How are Asian Americans reacting to the news from Ferguson?

  1. Gil – I think you’re wrong about Asian Americans not marching together in protest against social injustice. Big protests have taken place across the country against police brutality (Peter Yew, police shooting of Yong Xin Huang in NYC); hate crimes (Dotbusters attack on Kaushal Sharan; Joseph Ileto;); antiwar protests in the 1970s; against racist media stereotypes (Miss Saigon, National Review cover with Clintons, Rising Sun, Jimmy Kimmel show); racial profiling (Wen Ho Lee, post 9/11 surveillance of Muslims), affirmative action, voting rights…The list goes on. Asian Americans have come out in the hundreds and thousands to protest against these injustices…but journalists need to provide some context for Asian Americans when they cover what’s going on in Ferguson.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Margaret — I have to admit to ignorance about this. When Richard Prince asked me, I just couldn’t think of lot of examples pf AAPIs marching or protesting in large numbers except for in Corky Lee’s photos, or in my limited memory. I stand corrected!

  3. Keiko says:

    “I’m more flabbergasted that JACL, the oldest Asian civil rights organization in the country, and an organization that has in recent years apologized for its position on internment during WWII and the treatment of “No-No Boys” and draft resisters, and has been pretty good about standing up for civil rights of all people, hasn’t come out with a statement yet.”

    I’m glad it’s not just me! I’ve been wondering why the JACL hasn’t said anything. Maybe I should email my local chapter presidents and ask.

    There have been a few Asian American journalists on the ground in Ferguson (Amanda Terkel – HuffPo, Byron Tau – Politico, Huy Mach – St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Kalaya’an Mendoza has been doing some citizen journalism -he’s on the Amnesty team) but I haven’t seen any of them talking about Ferguson from a specifically Asian American perspective. Japanese American Allen Murabayashi wrote about Photography, Authority and Race, but with no mention of Asian American experience.

    I’ve been wondering why it seems like Asian American journalists don’t want to talk about Ferguson from a specifically Asian American perspective. Are they worried that people will think they’re inserting themselves into a story that isn’t about them since people think it’s only about blacks and whites? Are they uninterested? Do they think there’s no Asian American perspective? I’ve also wondered why no journalists (Asian American or otherwise) are talking about the Asians in Ferguson and how they fit into the larger picture of race relations. I heard an interview in which Mayor James Knowles stated that they have “a Hispanic and two Asian-Pacific Islanders” on their force but that’s not mentioned anywhere (media seems to cite somewhere between 47-50 white/3-4 black cops).* Why hasn’t anyone followed up on that?

    Apparently many of the looted businesses are owned by Asians. Did the race of the owners play a role in which businesses got looted?

    I watched just a few minutes of MSNBC’s livestream one night and was pretty sure I saw three Asian protesters (they didn’t seem to be together). Up until then I thought the only people out protesting were black and white because those were the only folks most media (mainstream and alternative) were photographing and interviewing.

    I was glad to see the AAJA put out a statement in support of journalists. Nearly 20 journalists were arrested. Some were also assaulted. Others had their lives threatened by law enforcement, sometimes on camera. I found the behavior of Missouri law enforcement astonishing. The fact that they were willing to say and do those things on camera showed how little they feared any repercussions which would seem to say a lot about their workplace culture. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be policed by them.

    I saw the quote about people being more focused on their careers and I thought it reflected pretty poorly on the AAJA . I’m disappointed to hear that there wasn’t enough interest for it to become a bigger part of the programming. I know conferences take a lot of advance prep but other conferences manage to change or shuffle programming at the last minute to factor in relevant current events when they’re important enough. It seems to say something about the lack of interest among Asian Americans. I’m sure if the National Association of Black Journalists had been meeting they would have found a way to squeeze it in.

    Thanks for talking about this. I started jotting down notes to write a blog post about it but my thoughts have been so jumbled and I’m still trying to read articles that I haven’t gotten anything coherent together yet.

    * I heard it on Last Week Tonight @ 3:18
    The clip is from the August 13th Steve Malzberg Show.

  4. Keiko says:

    Also, re: protesting over Japanese American incarceration during WWII, I seemed to recall hearing about riots at Tule Lake. I found this:
    Adult inmates were frustrated with camp conditions as well. Within the first five months, farm laborers and packing shed workers struck, mess hall workers held a protest, and rioting broke out over food shortages.

    but it’s not clear how accurate it is:
    Newspaper reporters spun sensationalized tales of an armed insurrection and riots at Tule Lake.

    I also thought I read about protests over the Loyalty Questionnaire but I can’t recall which camp(s).

    “Maybe our cultural values keep us from such public displays of anger and frustration, until we’re pushed too far.”

    I forgot to comment that this did resonate with me but I wonder if this is something specific to Japanese Americans of a certain age? I grew up on the East Coast in the 80s and I never heard or saw any JAs protesting about anything except for the fight for redress. (I missed Vincent Chin and only learned about all that earlier this year either because I didn’t hear about it or because I was too young to remember. Not sure.) There were certainly not enough Asian Americans in my predominantly white suburb to protest about anything regardless of level of frustration. Although my mom grew up in Hawaii in the 60s she didn’t raise me with any radical spirit. I remember much talk when I was younger about the Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down”.
    Our family wasn’t even sent to the camps (too poor). I remember getting an earful about being patriotic which seemed to include not questioning our government. But once I learned about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII, I don’t think I ever felt the same way about the US government or being American again. It most definitely wasn’t in the cultural values I was taught to say or do anything about that anger so it’s just kind of simmered for decades. But no one who knows me knows because it’s not something I talk about.

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Great comment and points and links, Keiko. Thank you!

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    I agree that the reticence may be mostly a JA thing, partly because of wartime incarceration. We grew up with that don’t complain/gaman/shikataga nai command in our heads. I also bet the “riots” at Tule Lake were spun as big violent deals when they weren’t…

  7. Keiko says:

    Well, I sent an email to one of my local JACL co-presidents expressing my disappointment that the JACL hasn’t released a statement on Ferguson. She passed it up the chain. I wonder if they’ve been getting emails from other members.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    My blog post was originally written for the PC so there’ll be something about Ferguson in there, but I expected JACL would react to Ferguson before that column ran!

  9. Keiko says:

    I heard back from my local chapter co-president. It seems that the JACL is part of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans so they may have felt it was unnecessary to put out a separate statement. Seems like it would have been a good idea for the NCAPA to list all their members in the press release.

  10. Gil Asakawa says:

    Agreed. If nothing else, JACL should have sent out a note to members saying the organization is a signee of the other statement….

  11. Keiko says:

    You would think so, right? Maybe they’re just waiting for the next newsletter? The more I think about it the more I’m surprised NCAPA didn’t list the member organizations in the press release. I’ve seen statements by groups in the black community and they list all the signers. Although maybe it’s different since none of those statements were put out by a single umbrella group.

  12. Bev says:

    Hey Gil,
    Always enjoy reading your op-ed columns in PC.
    I am a member of the JACL NY Chapter.
    Below is a petition I signed and left a comment on re: a 24 y.o Japanese student, Ryo Oyamada , who was struck and killed by an NYPD car going 70mph on a residential street. There are glaring inconsistencies in the NYPD report that among other things claims it was Ryo’s fault. Tampered NYPD video contradicts new video released from a NYC Housing. The NYPD were not aware of the NYCHA video. The petition calls for a very critical independent investigation into this case. You can read in more detail and hopefully sign and pass on the petition below:
    Thank you,

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Bev, thanks for the heads-up. What a horrible tragedy and injustice. I signed the petition.

  14. phil says:

    Gil: good article. When you have a moment, please check out the opinion piece “Mark Wahlberg doesn’t deserve pardon” by Jeff Lang. Yang talks about Wahlberg’s criminal offenses during the latter’s teenage years, which included aggravated assaults and racial slurs against two Vietnamese-American men, and also rock-hurling and use of the n-word against young African-American students.

    Yang points out that, if Wahlberg is truly remorseful for his appalling behavior as a teen, then he should reach out to his victims and offer them sincere apologies and compensation, and also get involved with charitable and philanthropic groups which help Asian and other minority communities in the United States.

    To quote Yang: “Meanwhile, Wahlberg, a wealthy white man with a more extensive criminal record than any of the young black men mentioned above (Martin, Brown and Garner), has been described across mainstream media as a ‘troubled’ youth who’s since made good.”

    Anyhow, please read it and maybe comment on it, either briefly or perhaps in a full article on your page. Thanks.

  15. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks! I’m familiar with Jeff’s commentary and agree with him, and agree with other AAPI bloggers who find it pretty cynical of Wahlberg to express this remorse for business reasons.

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