Part 1 – The Race Paradigm
Last week, the nation was stunned by a series of murders in the Atlanta area. A young man targeted three massage establishments and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
It is not my practice to become engaged in the particulars of these crimes, and I have no intention of dissecting this tragedy, either. The convergence of circumstance, opportunity, and demographics resulted in a disproportionate impact on one particular community, regardless of how we frame the killer’s state of mind.
In light of the past week’s events, I’d like to spend some time discussing something that doesn’t get a lot of attention: Southern attitudes toward, and bias against, Asians.
All except the most fierce denialists will admit that the South has an issue with racism. Given the history of slavery, segregation, and post-segregation nonsense like the current state of the criminal justice and public education systems, we understandably place anti-Black racism front and center in these discussions. We do not allot much time or energy to other groups.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is one of Dr. King’s most-quoted statements, and with good reason. The South has made Black people its bulls-eye target for numerous generations, but the psychic effect of such a race-driven system on people of other backgrounds is significant.
Put another way: when we decide that Black people occupy a certain designated space in our social sphere, we also imply that any other racial group has a designated place, as well. Segregation may not have been wielded as fiercely against Asians, but in a race-based society, there are still roles and positions they are expected to fill.
According to statisticalatlas.com, 3.2% of Southerners are of Asian descent. That’s fewer than 4 million out of over 120 million people. With much higher concentrations in certain urban areas, such as the 11% Asian population in Gwinnett County, Georgia, this means that many less populated areas have much lower percentages of people with an Asian background.
The point here is that Asians are treated as exceptions in the South. In the racially structured world we have inherited, Asians are expected to be in certain places – restaurants, personal service businesses, and in science-based and academic professions.
This is an awkward conversation to have, but it is a necessary conversation as long as these expectations continue to exist. If you are a fellow Southerner or American, examine your own assumptions. If you saw an Asian man collecting your trash, would you take note of that as an odd occurrence? Even if you “don’t have a racist bone in my body,” (which is one of my least favorite sayings), do you still make note of something like that as an oddity? There’s a razor-thin line between “you just don’t see that very much” and “that’s just the way things are.” They are mutually reinforcing statements which preserve the status quo.
I expect some readers, at this point in the conversation, to ask the question that has been asked for decades now: shouldn’t the Asian community be flattered with the status we have assumed for them? Asians, after all, represent the “model minority.” Asians have the highest average household income and the highest proportion of college graduates of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. They embrace innovation, entrepreneurship, and hard work, or at least that’s the story that the statistics appear to tell. Why is this bad?
Demonstrating competence and prosperity is by no means bad, but when we (and by we, I largely mean White people) lean on these statistical indicators instead of knowing and understanding the reality and the people behind those numbers, we risk making a lot of inaccurate inferences.
Chief among these inaccuracies is to write off anti-Asian racism as inconsequential. They can laugh at our racism all the way to the bank, right?
Well, when that racism manifests the way it did last week, not so much.