Ignorance vs. malice: comparing racism in Asia and the US

This was my latest piece from the online editon of August 17 Nikkei Aisan Review, reprinted in the magazine in shorter form as a "Tea Leaves" column.  This generated a fair amount of commentary on Twitter, and a number of re-postings.  Leave m your thoughts in the comments section below.

Ignorance vs. malice: comparing racism in Asia and the US


Watching from afar the shocking racial violence roiling American society and disrupting political life -- unarmed black men killed in encounters with police, eight police officers slain in two ambush-style attacks in July and recent riots over another fatal police shooting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- I am reminded of two questions I have frequently encountered while living and working in Asia as a black American journalist. One question is an old one, the other more recent. In different ways, they lead to the same explanation for America's current condition.

The first question, almost always asked by white Americans: "How is it for you in Asia," they wanted to know, "because aren't Asians really racist?"

My answer almost always surprises the questioners.  "I love it," I would reply, "because Asians are a lot less racist than Americans."

Sure, Asia yields plenty of examples of racial stereotyping. In Japan, one still comes across "Little Black Sambo" images; South Korean schools have been slammed for hiring only white, English-speaking teachers; in Vietnam, "Amerasian" children left behind by black U.S. servicemen face more discrimination than their part-white counterparts; and in China, a recent TV advertisement for detergent showed a Chinese woman putting a black man into a washing machine to turn him Chinese.

But Asian attitudes to race often have more to do with economic status than color, with lighter skin being associated with a higher social class. Much of what I've seen in Asia can be attributed to the naive racism of ignorance -- not of the malice or aggression evident in the U.S.

The second question is related to the first one: "So why has America lately become so politically dysfunctional?"

After nearly eight years under President Barack Obama, the country's first black president, America has become even more polarized. And the reason is largely because endemic racism remains the country's most insidious and uncured illness, a legacy of slavery, called America's "original sin.".

Obama's election, while breaking a historic barrier, in many ways exacerbated longstanding racial animosities.

From the time Obama took office in January 2009, some of his critics -- political opponents and conservative commentators -- questioned not just his policies, but also the legitimacy of his election. That began with the so-called "birther" movement, which suggested that Obama was not really an American citizen and was thus ineligible to be president, because he was secretly born in Kenya, his father's homeland -- despite having a Hawaii birth certificate.

Newt Gingrich, a bombastic former Republican House Speaker and now a prominent rightwing television commentator, regularly trafficked in the racially-charged conspiracy theories about Obama's birth. Obama was "so outside our comprehension" that his actions could only be explained "if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," Gingrich said in 2010. "This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president."

Gingrich, who made his own failed run for the presidency in 2012, later began calling Obama "the food stamp president," which most black Americans took as a racial affront.

Glenn Beck, a reactionary TV commentator, said early on that Obama had "a deep-seated hatred for white people." Another prominent Republican, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, went further, saying, "I do not believe that the president loves America" -- an extraordinary statement for any U.S. politician to make about the American president.

One of Obama's signature achievements as president is also the one most derided by his opponents -- his expansion of health insurance through the use of online exchanges and subsidies. And here, too, there is a racial overtone. Expanding health care to the poor, and increasing taxes to pay for it, has come to be seen by many white conservatives as a black president taking their hard-earned money to redistribute, in the form of healthcare, to blacks and Hispanics at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Obama's critics of the past seven years have been accused of employing so-called "dog whistle" racist tactics -- subtle, often innocuous words that contain hidden but obvious meanings, such as Gingrich's references to food stamps, used widely by poor black families. This year, however, the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, appears to have dispensed with both the whistle and most of the subtlety.

Trump offensive

Trump, who launched his political career as a "birther," has made such offensive comments -- about Obama; about Mexicans (whom he has called criminals and "rapists"); about immigrants in general; and about Chinese and other Asian people, and Muslims -- that even other Republicans have distanced themselves from their standard-bearer.

Trump's unprecedented verbal attack on a U.S. federal judge presiding over a civil suit against one of his businesses, in which he accused the judge of being biased because of his Mexican-American heritage, was so shocking that House Speaker Paul Ryan called it "the textbook definition of a racist comment."

It is hardly surprising that Trump has been endorsed by various white supremacist groups -- but that has come at a price. When he visibly hedged in a TV interview at the chance to disavow the hate groups backing him, he was denounced by leading Republicans -- although most stood by their decision to endorse Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Politically, all this matters hugely, both to the U.S. and to the rest of the world. The police shootings of unarmed black men that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, and the retaliatory attacks on policemen in several U.S. cities have deepened racial fault lines that are deepening by the day amidst the presidential contest.

Clinton has largely sided with Black Lives Matter, regularly appearing on the campaign trail over the last months with the mothers of victims of police shootings, and inviting some to speak at her nominating convention in Philadelphia. Trump has dubbed himself "the law and order candidate," and has sided with the police, claiming that Black Lives Matter is "dividing America."

Trump at his convention decried the police killings but never mentioned the shootings of unarmed black men. In mid-August he traveled to Wisconsin and gave a speech about race and law and order before a largely white audience.

The split mirrors the national mood. Some 65% of black Americans, but just 40% of whites, support Black Lives Matter, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. But there is one area of agreement: another poll, by the Washington Post in the wake of the July shootings of police officers in Dallas, found that 63% of Americans -- including 72% of blacks, 72% of whites and 65% of Hispanics -- regarded race relations in the U.S. as generally bad.

So where do we go from here? It is hard to remain optimistic but one can say that America's great strength has always been its introspection -- and its ability to self-analyze and self-correct. That is how we ended up with a civil rights movement that became an inspiration to the world.

Unlike most Asian countries where the racism of ignorance is deeply engrained and little discussed, America will continue with its national catharsis until it ultimately gets it right. In that respect it is difficult to see an Asian country where a member of an ethic minority group -- a Tibetan in China, an ethnic Korean in Japan, an ethnic Chinese in Malaysia -- might emerge any time soon as a national leader similar to Obama.

The current violence could well lead to a Trump presidency, much as the chaos of 1968 helped the election of Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. After the election of America's first black president, this year could see a pendulum swing -- to the election of a president deemed by many to be xenophobic, racist and manifestly unqualified. The polls now show Clinton with a solid lead. But the electorate remains volatile, and pundits warn of a possible "October surprise," perhaps another attack on police or a fresh spate of racial violence, that could shift the vote.

I would not bet on any outcome right now. But whatever happens in the election, I would bet that Americans will eventually get it right.

Keith B. Richburg is an Asia-based writer and former foreign editor of the Washington Post.


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