Anti-Asian Bias and the Work to Do

My two favorite Korean-American (and African-American) boys, in Seoul, 2019.


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It’s been my longtime observation that Asian Americans battle a "model minority" trap.

In many circles they don't get seen as fully "American," no matter how many accents they lose and flags they wave. They don't get to be minorities, either — because of the cohort's success, Asian Americans too often get treated as if they have nothing to complain about.

That dynamic — that contradiction — is a big part of what has led us to this moment. We're facing a spike in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism tracked hate crimes reported to police in the 16 largest U.S. cities. The number of reported hate crimes rose from 49 in 2019, to 122 in 2020. And that 149% jump came as overall hate crimes dropped 7% as businesses and events shut down for most of the year. And it doesn't include acts of hate and discrimination that wouldn't result in a police report.

I condemn these acts of discrimination against Asian Americans, as many people have. I also want to say more about it. Because we have a trend in our culture now where we feel social pressure to post or share a message of support or condemnation. But there's less pressure to confront the cultural forces that brought us here, and ponder what it will take to change them.

Let's start with who gets seen as "American."

Our country is a tapestry of cultures and stories, injustices and ideals, woven together in the pursuit of a grander purpose. When we've been at our best, who is "American" hasn't been defined by who has been here the longest or who looks like a descendant of George Washington. Rather it's been defined by those who embrace democratic principles and work ambitiously to move their families and communities forward.

This rise in reported hate crimes against Asian Americans shows that the fabric of America needs serious work. We live in a time when dividing people is more profitable than ever, whether that's into targeted advertising categories, political ideologies or grievance groups. The way to balance out this divisive moment is to articulate our most essential American values repeatedly, defend them, and embrace our neighbors in the process.

Then there's the other part of the "model minority" trap: the idea that Asian Americans have done well enough that they have less reason to speak up and point out problems.

I'm a strong believer in communication and engagement, and that a more just and principled society benefits everyone. When we understand the struggles and triumphs of Asian Americans, we better understand America itself and how to move it forward. When we spend time listening, we see points of connection.

One example: Lesson 1 of The Black Experience in America: The Course focuses on double consciousness, and the tension between being American and African but being seen as insufficiently either. W.E.B. Du Bois articulated the concept in his important work, The Souls of Black Folk. While double consciousness is central to the Black experience, we can see parallels in the Asian-American experience.

I share the picture above because it's quintessentially American, and shows my connection to this issue more than anything else could. It shows our two Korean-American sons, in 2019, getting their picture taken by a photographer cousin during a family trip to Seoul. It shows our African-American sons, connecting with part of their heritage and weaving it into their American story.

To me, it represents the work ahead of us as a country, to support our Asian-American neighbors, our children, in building a more perfect union and a more supportive community.

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