Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Past Horrors of (anti-Chinese) Racism and Why Culture Matters:

Sandefur discusses a California state supreme court case, People v. Hall, 4 Cal. 399 (1854), that “held that Chinese people could not testify in California’s courts” because a state statute declared “No Black, or Mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” And the court, through its wisdom (I’m being sarcastic here) concluded that the Chinese were “Indians” because both ethnic groups ultimately trace back to the “Mongolian” race.

And Sandefur describes the ultimate result of this holding:

As Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer notes in The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1973), this was practically a declaration of war against the Chinese, since violence against them would usually only be witnessed by the Chinese, who then could not give evidence against the perpetrators.


What I find interesting is that, although the Chinese faced such injustices, presently, as an ethnic group, they are doing just fine.  And by that I mean they tend to be better educated than average, have lower rates of poverty and crime.  In other words this past and any present day racism did not and does not equate into disadvantage.  This leads me to the conclusion discrimination and bias is a poor if not completely erroneous explanation for that the disparities between the different “social groups,”—racial, ethnic or otherwise—in this nation.

I think in this capitalist, meritocratic society, culture, attitudes, and individual decisions—or maybe I should say the sum of such decisions made by the “group”—matters, vitally matters, in terms of whether that particular group will do better or worse than average in those aspects of life that we all consider to be important:  educational success, literacy, income, wealth, crime rates, etc. 

I think many of such groups that are underrepresented could learn lessons from the overachieving Asians.  Frank Wu, a Professor of Law at Howard University, and radical egalitarian, takes strong umbrage with this line of reasoning.  He points out, accurately, that Asians never faced what Blacks did.

It’s true that no group—Asians, Hispanics, Jews, Gays, Women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.—has been through what the blacks have been through; maybe the American Indians, but I’m not even sure there.  However, as this post indicates, that’s not to say that these other groups haven’t faced tremendously unfair bullshit in the past:  Each of them has. 

But here’s the rub:  we don’t live in a world where “black only” is recognized as a civil rights category or a “right to complain about past mistreament.”  And I’m sure that Woo doesn’t want to live in that world.  For instance, Hispanics are also underrepresented in many areas, as are blacks.  And when poised for an explanation—often attempting to justify why Latinos, like blacks, deserve affirmative action—“critical legal theorists,” like Wu, tell us how Latinos were also subject to mistreatment.  And this is correct—as the California decision shows, more groups than just the blacks have been subject to terrible injustices.  But we can use Woo’s exact argument against the Hispanics:  Have they been through slavery and everything else the blacks have been through, and on that level?  NO. 

Let me make an assertion and please feel free to challenge it:  Asians, like every other group, have not been through what the blacks have been through, but historically have gotten it just as bad as the Latinos.  Not only that, Asian immigrants are subject to even greater cultural handicaps than Latinos:  The Latin cultures are more related to our Anglo culture than Asians cultures are related to Anglo in a few very important ways.  For instance, it’s a hell of a lot easier to learn the English language if your starting point is another Latin based language like Spanish than if your starting point is Chinese.  But perversely, it’s the children of the Chinese immigrants who are learning to speak and read English fluently at much higher levels. 

And many Asian immigrants who get here as adults, because of the challenge of going from an Oriental language to English, do not in fact learn the language too well, but manage to thrive anyway and raise children who are perfectly fluent in English.  I know this firsthand:  My partner is Vietnamese, immigrated here when he was 20, and only speaks broken-English.  There are many English sounds that don’t exist in the Vietnamese language that he struggles with.  And most of the Vietnamese adults I meet, who immigrated as adults, also speak the language quite imperfectly.  But they all work; none of them have problems finding work.  Because of the networks that they build up, there are jobs that English-illiterate Vietnamese people will have access to that native born whites (and blacks and everyone else) won't.  But all of these Asian immigrants with poor mastery over the language manage to have first generation American kids who speak and read it just fine. 

I think we need to accept that, if we live in a capitalistic-meritocratic society, and if such society is full of “different social groups” with differing talents, skills, abilities, educational levels, average age levels, geographic residencies, then there will be significant differences in group outcomes—that this will be the “natural and normal,” default outcome, what we should expect, something that ought not to raise suspicions of impropriety, as opposed to parity between groups in all or even most aspects of life.  The latter is something that exists only in the mind of an egalitarian utopian. 

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