The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: Why Asian Americans should be there marching, dreaming
If you’re a card-carrying member of the Model Minority, the ones always vying to
be first, then why aren’t you at the front of the line for the 50th Anniversary
of the March on Washington?
The historic march in 1963–that galvanized a movement and brought on such
landmark measures as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act–will be
replicated this coming Saturday, Aug. 24. But stay over and attend the special
ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 28. It’s the actual day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
delivered his “I have a dream” speech. President Obama is scheduled to deliver
what could be his most significant speech on race ever.
The gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta,
Georgia. Dr. King’s tomb bears the final words of his “I have a dream” speech,
which was given 50 years ago on Aug. 28. (photo by Emil Guillermo)
Whether it’s the speech or the Saturday rally, it’s a marker in American civil
rights history. Fifty years later, a person of color may be president, but that
alone doesn’t mean we can stop dreaming.
Are you going to be there? Or do you buy into the “post-racial” myth?
“Post-racial” and “Model Minority” are two myths that miss the mark.
If you buy into one or both, you are deluding yourself. But you won’t be alone.
Even well-meaning folks tend to forget about us in the fight for economic and
The other day, I was listening to a former colleague of mine, the African
American talk host Joe Madison, discuss the march on Sirius XM, and as he read
off the march participants in what I like to call the “grand litany of peoples
of color,” guess what?
He left out Asian Americans.
He’s no different from others who have seen that much ballyhooed fact that Asian
Americans are at the top of the heap with the highest household incomes in
America– $66,000, compared to $49,800 for all U.S. adults.
We’ve got it made right?
Not so fast. The income numbers are one-dimensional and don’t tell the whole
story. For example, in Asian American families, more people tend to live in a
household, thereby pumping up the income number. Eight to ten people working
fast-food shifts adds up, but isn’t quite “making it.”
The misleading use of household income actually goes back to President Ronald
Reagan’s use of the tactic. But it’s even more misleading now, considering the
greater diversity within the community. With more than 50 countries
represented, and different waves and types of immigration (personal/political),
it’s much harder to peg Asian Americans these days.
For example, just looking at the top six communities (Indians, Filipino
Japanese, Chinese Vietnamese and Korean, all way above the U.S. population
number of $49,800) won’t give you the true sense of the Asian American economic
You surely won’t grasp the reality of recent Hmong and Bangladeshi immgrants. In
fact, the poverty rates of those two groups rival the levels in the African
Indeed, if you compare Asian American poverty levels to whites, the income
numbers are contradicted. Poverty rates for Asian Americans are at 12.3 percent
vs. 9.3 percent for non-Hispanic Whites.
On top of all that, remember that a third of the Asian American communities are
in the largest and most expensive cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los
Angeles. Austin Algernon of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington in an
says that actually puts the Asian American poverty rate at about 2.5 points
higher than the official rate, and closer to 15 percent.
The $66,000 a year figure is even more deceiving when you consider educational
attainment. When you look at the actual population of Asian Americans without a
high school education, that number is higher than that for whites, according to
Austin. He says it results in a significant number of Asian American low-wage
earners. When you compare those with just a high school diploma, white men make
$10,000 more than Asian males.
If there’s a march for jobs and economic justice, you bet Asian Americans should
Of course, there are still those of you who live in one of those 80/20
communities (by that, I mean communities that tend to be 80 percent white/20
percent Asian). They are the suburbs like the one I used to live in outside of
I don’t expect to hear many of my former neighbors saying, “See you at the
It’s too easy to think you have it made, and that none of this marching stuff is
relevant to you. Surely, two generations of Civil Rights have rectified some of
the issues you saw in 1963.
But as newer immigrants come in, a whole new group is subject to the racism many
of us thought we overcame.
And when they think they’re money buys them equality, they get a rude awakening
about how race works in America.
You’ll recall the recent Oprah $38,000 handbag story. Oprah has apologized for
the story getting out of hand, but she doesn’t deny how she felt when she wanted
to see a pricey purse and was shown a lesser brand.
The Swiss clerk denies it was racism, but that still doesn’t change how the
clerk’s action made Oprah feel.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have; they only see the color of your skin.
When I heard that story, it reminded me of going into a restaurant outside of
D.C. in 1991. I had just finished eating with my family, went up to the
register, and asked for the check.
The waitress looked at me and said, “The busboys get paid next week.”
Ho Lee Fuk, right?
Times like that, you see how it’s still all about race, not class.
But we’re marching for both this week. If you can’t afford to go, all the more
reason to stand in solidarity in front of your flat-screen TV. It would be
typically Asian. To be there in the relative privacy of your living room. But
it’s the thought that counts?
No, if you believe race is an issue than this is one time it’s worth it to take
a stand and be the Asian face in the crowd.
Building for racial equality for the next 50 years begins with the landmark
march this week.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.