Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Where's the outrage?

Is there a reason that Howard Coble’s remarks about the Japanese-American internment haven’t generated the same kind of outrage as Trent Lott’s similar nostalgia for 1940s-style racism?

You bet. It’s really very simple: Bigotry against Asians, for many Americans -- evidently, many of them Republican -- doesn’t count as real bigotry.

As Eric Muller has been reporting at Is That Legal?, the Republican leadership in the House has steadfastly refused to confront the issue of Coble’s decidedly unenlightened views on the internment, as well as his refusal to apologize for them. And for that matter, as Muller reports, the House Democratic leadership likewise is utterly failing to hold Coble’s feet to the fire (rather like the Senate Dems’ response to Lott’s remarks). Atrios points out that at least one Asian-American congressman, Michael Honda of California, is trying to press the issue, but the lack of concern from the pundits and the press is becoming remarkable.

For Asians, this scenario is all too familiar. It is common for slurs against them to go unremarked or to be merely shrugged off as unimportant. (Mind you, they’re not alone in this. Didn’t anyone else find it strangely hypocritical when, back in 1999, a white aide to Washington, D.C., Mayor David Howard was forced to resign for using the word “niggardly” -- this, in a city that steadfastly roots for a football team that uses an overt racial slur for its nickname?)

The previous most recent case of this, for Asians at least, occurred in December when Lakers star center Shaquille O’Neal, in an interview with Tony Bruno on Fox Sports Radio, made clearly racist taunts aimed at Houston center Yao Ming, the NBA’s first Chinese player. “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,’” he said.

Worse yet, O’Neal merely shrugged off the resulting criticism (much of it originating with the magazine Asian Week) with a distinctly Lott-like disingenuousness: "I said it jokingly," he said, "so this guy [an Asian Week writer] was just trying to stir something up that’s not there. He’s just somebody who doesn't have a sense of humor, like I do.”

And -- following in the footsteps of Republicans before him -- he then issued a classic non-apology apology: “If I offended anybody, I apologize.”

To make matters worse, Bruno continued to play a recording of the taunt several times to his nationwide audience on Dec. 16 and 17. On the latter day, Bruno became an enabler of O’Neal’s bigotry, asserting that Shaq’s comment was “not racist.” He then invited listeners and radio commentators to call in jokes making racist fun of Chinese. For the next few hours, callers offered such knee-slappers as an offer of free bike parking to bolster Chinese attendance at NBA games.

Well, Yao Ming may have accepted O’Neal’s apology -- after all, he has to play against O’Neal, and he is still only a rookie in the league -- but not everyone else was quite so impressed. The Organization of Chinese Americans directed an official letter at O’Neal demanding an apology:
Your remarks show extreme ignorance and lack of concern over our nation's cultural diversity and how far we have all had to come to overcome dangerous stereotypes. Not only are these anti-Asian sentiments extremely offensive to the growing Asian Pacific American community, but they may incite anti-Asian sentiment that readily leads to racial violence.

The Asian Week writer who started it off, Irwin Tang, made a similar point in his column about the matter:
Forgive my bitterness. I grew up in Texas, facing those “ching-chong” taunts daily while teachers averted their ears.

Indeed, that very phrase is what caught my attention when I first heard it, because I’d heard it before, in a significantly different context. It arose in a trial I covered in the small Washington town of Ocean Shores about two years ago, in a case involving three young Asian men who were attacked by a gang of young white men who were presenting themselves as racist skinheads on the night of July 4, 2000, in what should have been a clear-cut hate crime (it wasn’t treated that way by local authorities, but that’s another story).

The ringleader of this gang, a 20-year-old named Christopher Kinison, and his friends used that very phrase to harass the three men on their way into a convenience store. As one of the three later testified:
He said "a man with a Confederate flag," (Kinison), yelled racial slurs at him as the group of white men mocked the trio's language with words like "ching chong" while the three Asian-American men walked by single-file.

(Kinison also stood at the window, rapped on it and drew his finger across his throat as they were inside the store; one of them stole a paring knife off the shelf for protection. When Kinison assaulted his brother as they were trying to leave, he pulled it out and stabbed Kinison to death. The jury voted 10-1 to acquit, and the prosecutor did not refile charges.)

Of course, one couldn’t expect O’Neal to know this. But he, like many other Americans, clearly has no idea, and clearly doesn't care, how such taunts sound to the ears of Asians -- how much fear, anger and resentment they engender, with due cause.

Moreover, as Tang observed:
If a white player had, for instance, made monkey sounds to taunt a black player, it would have been a national controversy.

Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine what would occur if a white athlete were to make similarly bigoted remarks about minority players on other teams. Remember John Rocker?

However, the refusal to criticize Shaq isn’t merely because he is black, though undoubtedly that plays into the thinking that allows someone like Bruno to assert that the remarks weren’t bigoted.

I found a simple encapsulation of this mindset the other day at the blog of Sgt. Stryker:
Unlike the attitudes towards the Black Americans, whose slavery was justified on the reed of racial superiority, the attitudes held by most pre-war Americans toward the Japanese was different. In talking to many of my parents' generation and reading what I have, the prejudice the average American felt wasn't racist in that the Japanese were inferior, but just the opposite, seeing the Japanese as a very capable resourceful people that looked different, behaved different, and believed different.

I would argue that this attitude has not changed significantly in the intervening years. As John Tateishi, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League, put it when I interviewed him last week about the Coble affair:

“When Coble made that statement, what I recognized is that kind of age-old attitude about Japanese-Americans as perhaps exotic, certainly foreign, can’t be understood and they certainly are not one of us. And so because we don’t know them, this was a necessary act.”

Moreover, many Americans simply accept this bigotry for similar reasons. And there’s a real pernicious quality to this thinking, because it implicates their thinking about all minorities.

Ignoring bigotry about Asians in fact underscores white Americans’ unspoken attitudes about blacks as well. That is, they know that there is now a great social stigma attached to expressing commonly held views about blacks -- that they are stupid and lazy and inclined to criminality, especially. So of course they don’t dare to express it, even if they may privately believe it. And even if they don’t believe it, they’re perfectly aware that this is the baseline view of African-Americans.

But when it comes to Asians, they don’t hold those particular views. Thus, by this logic, their attitudes about Asians can’t be bigoted -- even though these views are that they are inscrutable and untrustworthy and, ultimately, insect-like.

As Tateishi put it to me:

“It happens so often in this country, that if you’re not white, you’re not seen as a real American. But we’re interlopers in this country even after four or five generations.

“I get people with accents, you know, European accents, saying to me, ‘Go back to where you come from.’ Well, I tell ‘em, ‘Hey, I came from L.A., I hated L.A. I left L.A. for a reason -- I don’t want to go back there. And by the way, where are you from?’

“A lot of this comes down to race. And Coble’s comments are precisely that. It was a comment about race. And it was a comment about how he views us as Americans. And even though he issued a statement regretting his comment, it’s not good enough. He still doesn’t see what’s wrong.”

And apparently, for that matter, neither do very many Americans.

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