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.”