At the University of California-San Diego, a fraternity mocking Black History month by holding a “Compton Cook-Out” with an invitation steeped in racial stereotypes, the subsequent noose in the library, and the recent KKK hood placed on the head of a statue outside the library has foregrounded the larger issue of declining numbers of black students on the campus (1.6% of the student population).
As public outrage grew, some countered the demands of the UCSD Black Student Union with fears of “unqualified” students taking seats from “deserving” students and the specter of the notorious Asian quotas of the nineties, when Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were denied entry because their numbers were considered too high, is resurrected. However, like the frog who has lived his entire life on the bottom of the well and assumes the whole world is the size of the opening above him, they have defined the issue too narrowly and the bigger picture is missing.
The original cry of 1960s was for open admissions and self-determination, not just diversity and achieving a certain number of colored faces. Affirmative action in education was supposed to be about transforming education from a vehicle which mainstreams us into society into a tool for social change and bettering the world. Affirmative action was also about ethnic studies and relevant classes, financial aid, retention programs, and bridging the campus and community divide. To deny a community access to education was to deny them a chance to improve their communities and that education was a right and a necessity for the functioning of a democracy, not the exclusive realm for the few. It was really a case of fighting for a bigger pie, not scrambling over each other for bread crumbs.
Now, racism in the 21st Century is different. Currently, this is the millennium of the Model Minority. In the 1990s, Mari Matsuda described how political opportunists would pit AAPIs against other communities of color as the “good” hard-working minorities. With the election of Barack Obama as president and the advent of the first Latina on the US Supreme Court in a period where affirmative action has been dismantled on a number of campuses, black and Latina/o students on a university campus have now been thrown into the ranks of the new model minority despite their small numbers. As for AAPIs, they are still considered by many non-AAPIs as the model minority but they have become the tipping point in turning a campus like UCLA for the first time in history to be majority people of color. AAPIs now have to make a decision.
AAPIs must choose to either embrace their history or reject their past. They must decide whether to remember that we as community have rode on the shoulders of African slaves and their descendants across oceans and onto the campus. It was the success of the Civil Rights Movement that forced a nation to re-examine itself and remove the last vestiges of racism in immigration law and pass the 1965 Immigration Act which opened the gates for AAPI immigration. It was the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement that forced the doors to education to part for all communities of color to step through which first began with their efforts to fight segregation in schools across the nation. Let us not forget that when Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” in the 1960s to supplant “Oriental,” it was to signify an alliance with a global Third World movement of all races, not to segregate themselves—“All Power to the People!”
Mari Matsuda once said that the hymn of the “model minority” was not “We Shall Overcome” but “We Will Not Be Used.” With the Census Bureau projecting that whites will no longer be the numerical majority by 2042 (white children become the minority by 2023), these words become more salient. What happens in majority people of color campuses like UCLA may forecast the promises and challenges of a multiracial nation. The model minority may show us the future of race and racism in this country.
A black minister once told me that his generation, the Civil Rights Generation, was also known as the “Moses” generation and how tragic a blow it was when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, soon after his mountaintop speech, was killed in 1968. He also said that the generation 40 years after them is the Joshua Generation and added that it was not Moses who brought the people into the Promised Land but Joshua.
In 2008, after 40 years wandering in the desert, this new generation had enough and elected the first black man to the US presidency. In fact, in places like South Carolina, white and black voters over 30 years of age largely voted along racial lines but the younger generation voted across race for Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.
A younger generation of AAPIs must now decide our future again. Will AAPIs continue to be a minority fighting for their own selfish interests or will they join the Multiracial Majority who wants self-determination for all people?
Will it be bread crumbs or a bigger pie?