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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.

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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 racial justice.

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 experience.

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 American community

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 article in AsAmNews 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 be there.

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 San Francisco.

I don’t expect to hear many of my former neighbors saying, “See you at the March.”

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.