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The 28th of August marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the great turning points of the black Civil Rights Movement. The anniversary got me thinking, what do Asian Americans owe to the black Civil Rights Movement?

Asian American Parade

I know that probably seems like an odd question. I mean, many of us, not just people of color but LGBT people, people with disabilities, women, religious minorities, and, to boot, people of all creeds and colors who wish to live in a country where there may one day be true, broad-based, inclusive democratic participation owe an obvious debt to the the Civil Rights Movement. That movement cast a bright light on a glaring contradiction that, nonetheless, managed to escape the attention of millions Americans; the contradiction between our democratic ideals, and the reality of the existence of anti-democratic laws and deeply ingrained racist customs that excluded the vast majority of black people from full political and economic participation in our society. The black-led Civil Rights Movement made that contradiction visible and inspired many of us in subsequent generations to take action to reconcile the many other contradictions of American democracy.

But, the Asian American model minority myth -- that unfounded but nonetheless popular lie that claims Asians in America were able to rise to success without the help of government programs and political reforms -- makes the answer to my question unclear to many. Did Asians just lift themselves up and out of poverty and exclusion by our boot straps, or do we owe a debt to the black Civil Rights struggle?

Most Asian Americans of my generation, the generation born in the U.S. in the 1960s, know the answer to that question is, emphatically, yes. We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Instead, we owe a great debt to the Civil Rights Movement. I say the upcoming anniversary of the March is as good a time as any to start talking about it, regardless of our generation, and loud enough for the public to hear.

Here’s a start, but just a beginning. Here are three among many debts Asian Americans owe to the Civil Rights Movement:

  • Ending bans on interracial marriage: 36% of Asian women and 28% of Asians overall entered into interracial marriagesin the U.S. in 2010, making us the most likely to marry outside our race among all groups in that year. These marriages might never have been possible if not for the Civil Rights Movement. Specifically, Loving v. Virginia, a case brought in 1967 by a white man and a black woman, ended the ban on all interracial marriages in the U.S. The Lovings were supported in their case by many civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fundand the Japanese American Citizens League.
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  • Voting Rights Protection: Chinese Americans were made voting citizens in 1943, largely as a result of international pressure on the U.S. from foreign allies during WWII. Asian Indians followed in 1946, and other Asian Americans in 1952, all before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the 1965 Voting Rights Act provides critically important protections to Asian American voters. For instance, withoutSection 2 which prohibits discrimination against people belonging to language minority groups, the voting rights of many Asian Americans would mean little or nothing.
  • The Immigration and Nationality Act: The Act ended racist immigration bans that once excluded Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans from immigrating to the U.S. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the racist bans were viewed an embarrassing contradiction to the Johnson administration’s civil rights agenda and thus the Act was signed into law by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in 1965. Today, the U.S. immigration histories of the majority of Asian Americans begin after that date. We would not number 18 million, and be rising faster than any other racial group as a percentage of the population if not for that Act.

There is much more we owe. As the anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, we would do well to try to take ownership of that debt publicly as a first step toward repaying it.

Scot Nakagawa

Republished with permission

Friday, 2 August 2013