25 August 2014

The complicity cost of racial inclusion

The complicity cost of racial inclusion (Al Jazeera America, 24 August 2014)

For the past 50 years, Asian-Americans have been the so-called model minority — the minority group held up by politicians and the media to demonstrate the potential for success for people who aren’t white. It is no coincidence that this narrative arose alongside the black power movement in the 1960s. Asian-American success over time became a rhetorical bludgeon used to deny the real and ongoing effects of institutional racism and white supremacy on African-Americans. Ronald Reagan, for example, called Asian-Americans “exemplars of hope and inspiration” while denouncing black women on welfare. The existence of Asian-Americans was a way to deny the significance of whiteness and the hardship of exclusion from it.

One of the clearest examples of how Asian-Americans are afforded aspects of white privilege is the comparative freedom from police repression, which focuses so intently on blacks and Latinos. It’s one way that the dominant society hands Asian-Americans a toothbrush and a bar of soap while denying the same to other people of color. But even here, the porousness of the boundary between white and not white becomes evident, as not all Asian-Americans have access to the same privilege. Today Muslim South Asians may face discrimination that other Asian-Americans may not.

The cost of becoming white is hard to measure. It is ethical rather than material. By passively accepting the privileges of whiteness, Asian-Americans become complicit in America’s present system of hierarchy, a system in which the nation’s institutions inflict ongoing injustices on a racial underclass.