Fun With China

In Media Merriment, Fine Line Between Humor and Hate

Those who dismiss the notion that a silly spy plane standoff could set off a xenophobic explosion don't realize there's much more at stake than aeronautics secrets.

"Asian Americans are becoming the sacrificial lamb to secure the U.S.'s position as the superpower of the world," declares Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "They are positioned as the domestic threat—foreign, unassimilable, loyal to the motherland." Fanning the flames of anti-Asian suspicion, she suggests, is a way not only to boost patriotism among the masses but also to divert attention from such gaping chinks in the nation's ideological armor as booming prison numbers and racial profiling in law enforcement. "It goes back to the U.S.'s being the greatest, the place where everyone should be happy to be living," Ling says.

Shock jocks didn't know they could be so deep. Well, their profundity remaining up for debate, it's safe to say their shenanigans do contribute to a general atmosphere where it becomes acceptable to mock or do worse to people who look and sound a certain way. What sets members of the media apart from some yahoo holding court in the local bar is the power to reach millions of eyes and ears and "give the sense that this stuff is OK out there in popular culture," according to Asian American Journalists Association national president Victor Panichkul. He argues that commentators should therefore take care to "express an opinion intelligently, without resorting to pejorative racial stereotypes."

"I'm a third-generation American, and there's talk of us being sent back to our own country. This is our country!" —George Ong, Organization of Chinese Americans national president.

For every prank executed by the media, civil rights groups suspect, there are dozens that Asian Americans experience on a more intimate level in workplaces, on buses, in the streets. Not even Capitol Hill is immune, according to Diane Chin, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Recalling a recent gathering of civil rights organizations where Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke, Chin paraphrases the senator's words: "The mood in Washington is increasingly anti-Chinese. You need to do something about that." Chin says, "I think of her as one of the most conservative Democrats. That that's what preoccupied her, as a civil rights issue, was fascinating to me."

Even before the current diplomatic crisis, recent controversies involving Asians, such as the Wen Ho Lee case and campaign financing scandals, helped fuel a "media hysteria" that documentarian Chen says carries distinct overtones of 1950s alarmism. Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) national president George Ong is frustrated that even decades later the "forever foreigner" suspicions about Asians haven't lost their potency. "I'm a third-generation American, and there's talk of us being sent back to our own country. This is our country!" he exclaims. "How dare they say we should be sent elsewhere."

During times like this, advocates counsel, Asian Americans should be on the alert. According to the most recent audit of anti-Asian violence, which covers 41 states, 486 incidents occurred in 1999, up 57 from the previous year. "A lot of the research around hate violence indicates that the beginning is the dehumanization of whatever group it is. There can be a correlation drawn between when a group is cast as "other," or demonized with whatever stereotypes work against that group, and hate crimes against that group," says Chin.

The current climate reminds more than one observer of the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. Two unemployed white auto workers beat the Chinese American man to death with a baseball bat, allegedly having mistaken him for being Japanese during a time of strong popular frustration over what was perceived as an encroaching Japanese economy. As memorable in some circles as the Rodney King or Amadou Diallo incidents, the killing is famous for having galvanized a nationwide Asian American rights movement.

The less obvious costs of anti-Asian sentiment can be even greater. A history of popular intolerance and government scrutiny effectively stunted Asian American political organizing for decades, activists say, rendering the community even more vulnerable to attacks. Persecution is no less possible today, they argue.

"I would certainly not be surprised" if government agencies were "looking at people's allegiances" as a result of the tensions with China, says First Amendment activist Kit Gage, who coordinates the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. "It's so easy to justify," she says, in light of the 1996 anti-terrorism act that granted the FBI sweeping powers to investigate even constitutionally protected activities. With Arab Americans, she explains, the FBI are routinely "going to people's offices and workplaces, asking about their attitudes toward the Middle East."

According to Gage, "word will spread" of the government's probes, "and it has a nice chilling effect." She points out that it is perfectly legal for anyone—visitor, resident, or citizen—in the U.S. to express pro-China sentiments.

But the true space for such free expression, according to the OCA's Ong, is narrow, given that even contributing to the Democratic and Republican parties is tougher for Asian Americans. In the wake of the China-related campaign finance commotion of the 1990s, he says, "The whole Asian American community suffered." Asian Americans "were singled out because of what happened," and "you had to furnish proof that you were an American citizen" to make a donation to the major parties.

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