The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: Why Asian Americans should be there marching, dreaming

August 19, 2013 1:05 PM

If you’re a card-carrying member of the Model Minority, the ones always vying to be first, then why aren’t you at the front of the line for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington?

The historic march in 1963—that galvanized a movement and brought on such landmark measures as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—will be replicated this coming Saturday, Aug. 24. But stay over and attend the special ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 28. It’s the actual day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech. President Obama is scheduled to deliver what could be his most significant speech on race ever.

MLK.JPGThe gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. King’s tomb bears the final words of his “I have a dream” speech, which was given 50 years ago on Aug. 28. (photo by Emil Guillermo)

Whether it’s the speech or the Saturday rally, it’s a marker in American civil rights history. Fifty years later, a person of color may be president, but that alone doesn’t mean we can stop dreaming.

Are you going to be there? Or do you buy into the “post-racial” myth?

“Post-racial” and “Model Minority” are two myths that miss the mark.

If you buy into one or both, you are deluding yourself. But you won’t be alone.

Even well-meaning folks tend to forget about us in the fight for economic and racial justice.

The other day, I was listening to a former colleague of mine, the African American talk host Joe Madison, discuss the march on Sirius XM, and as he read off the march participants in what I like to call the “grand litany of peoples of color,” guess what?

He left out Asian Americans.

He’s no different from others who have seen that much ballyhooed fact that Asian Americans are at the top of the heap with the highest household incomes in America— $66,000, compared to $49,800 for all U.S. adults.

We’ve got it made right?

Not so fast. The income  numbers are one-dimensional and don’t tell the whole story. For example, in Asian American families, more people tend to live in a household, thereby pumping up the income number. Eight to ten people working fast-food shifts adds up, but isn’t quite “making it.”

The misleading use of household income actually goes back to President Ronald Reagan’s use of the tactic.  But it’s even more misleading now, considering the greater diversity within the community.  With more than 50 countries represented, and different waves and types of immigration (personal/political), it’s much harder to peg Asian Americans these days.
For example, just looking at the top six communities (Indians, Filipino Japanese, Chinese Vietnamese and Korean, all  way above the U.S. population number of $49,800) won’t give you the true sense of the Asian American economic experience. 

You surely won’t grasp the reality of recent Hmong and Bangladeshi immgrants. In fact, the poverty rates of those two groups rival the levels in the African American community

Indeed, if you compare Asian American poverty levels to whites, the income numbers are contradicted. Poverty rates for Asian Americans are at 12.3 percent vs. 9.3 percent for non-Hispanic Whites.

On top of all that, remember that a third of the Asian American communities are in the largest and most expensive cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Austin Algernon of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington in an article in AsAmNews says that actually puts the Asian American poverty rate at about 2.5 points higher than the official rate, and closer to 15 percent.

The $66,000 a year figure is even more deceiving when you consider educational attainment. When you look at the actual population of Asian Americans without a high school education, that number is higher than that for whites, according to Austin. He says it results in a significant number of Asian American low-wage earners. When you compare those with just a high school diploma, white men make $10,000 more than Asian males.

If there’s a march for jobs and economic justice, you bet Asian Americans should be there.
Of course, there are still those of you who live in one of those 80/20 communities (by that, I mean communities that tend to be 80 percent white/20 percent Asian). They are the suburbs like the one I used to live in outside of San Francisco. 

I don’t expect to hear many of my former neighbors saying, “See you at the March.”

It’s too easy to think you have it made, and that none of this marching stuff is relevant to you.  Surely, two generations of Civil Rights have rectified some of the issues you saw in 1963.

But as newer immigrants come in, a whole new group is subject to the racism many of us thought we overcame.

And when they think they’re money buys them equality, they get a rude awakening about  how race works in America. 

You’ll recall the recent Oprah $38,000 handbag story. Oprah has apologized for the story getting out of hand, but she doesn’t deny how she felt when she wanted to see a pricey purse and was shown a lesser brand.

The Swiss clerk denies it was racism, but that still doesn’t change how the clerk’s action made Oprah feel.

It doesn’t matter how much money you have; they only see the color of your skin.

When I heard that story, it reminded me of going into a restaurant outside of D.C. in 1991. I had just finished eating with my family, went up to the register, and asked for the check.

The waitress looked at me and said, “The busboys get paid next week.”

Ho Lee Fuk, right?

Times like that, you see how it’s still all about race, not class.

But we’re marching for both this week. If you can’t afford to go, all the more reason to stand in solidarity in front of your flat-screen TV. It would be typically Asian. To be there in the relative privacy of your living room. But it’s the thought that counts? 

No, if you believe race is an issue than this is one time it’s worth it to take a stand and be the Asian face in the crowd. 

Building for racial equality for the next 50 years begins with the landmark march this week.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. Attending the march is fine but what good does it really do for the Asian-Americans? For one thing, blacks feel this whole civil rights movement stems from their struggles and don't exactly care to share with anyone else. It is their holy grail and they get defensive even when hispanics want to get involved. So what makes you think we have any chance in gaining their empathy? Let's not generalize and make a broad assumption that their civil rights movement equals ours. There's no comparison in reality, because our needs are way different than blacks. They have some serious internal issues that need to be addressed before they can go anywhere near Dr. King's dream. i.e. 80% of babies born out of wedlock, 70% of men leave and don't support their kids, over 65% of families led by women, etc... Until they get their house in order and stabilize the basic family structure, no amount of "victimhood" assistance from any entity will help. NO Asian-American communities, despite its even more diverse cultures and ethnicities than blacks, suffer such fundamental societal dysfunction. Our needs are simply differerent, and mostly derived of language barrier that often cause hardship in one form or another. You can serve our community better by addressing more specific needs rather than by urging folks to go on a feel good march. Most of us are too busy attending classes or running a business anyway. Most Asian-Americans find their own ways to pursuit of happiness without resorting to any kind of institutionalized victimhood.
Posted by: JW | Aug 29, 201310:15 PM

2. Race matters but class matters more as we get more diverse. Don't fall for all the propaganda. We are still regarded as perpetual foreigners whether we are foreign born or native born and not American. In spite of the fearful propaganda, my wife and her parents marched on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. We were there for the 25th Anniversary in 1988 with our toddlers marching with Korean drummers and many Asian Americans of all backgrounds. We are keeping the legacy of OUR movement alive and well for the 50th Anniversary. And as the DREAMers and their supporters sit down in front of buses to block agents from deporting "foreigners" in chains, we know that 700 mile wall in Arizona is crumbling before it is built. See you in DC on August 28th.
Posted by: sjx | Aug 29, 201310:17 PM

3. SJX, I'm a bit confused about your posted comment. Are you saying it was Dr. King's dream to have open borders for this nation and allow anyone to come in? If so, you don't believe America should have its rights as a sovereign nation and enforce any immigration laws? Please clarify.
Posted by: JW | Aug 29, 201310:17 PM

4. The DREAM and the March for Jobs and Freedom now and then did not demand Open Borders. The walls in our hearts and minds separate us and are much harder to scale. The militant young of then and now are breaking through these walls by siting in and taking action forcing the powers-to-be particularly the electeds and the privileged to act more humanely toward "foreigners'" seeking full citizenship as Americans. It is not their struggle but our struggle to secure human rights for all, and they are willing to pay the price for their militant actions of civil disobedience in the American tradition of the Civil Rights Movement.
Posted by: sjx | Aug 31, 201312:04 PM

5. ".... forcing to act more humanely toward foreigners....." What do you mean by that exactly? Are you even separating legal immigrants from illegal immigrants or that doesn't matter to you?? This country takes in millions of legal immigrants every year to give them new opportunities in life. This country takes in hundreds of thousands of ILLEGAL immigrants - primarily from third world countries with minimal job skills level - every year and still house them, provides schooling for their children, provides emergency medical care, and subsidizes their livelihoods by giving them "earned income credits" in millions of dollars. How much more humane do you need to see to be satisfied? Just name me one other country in this entire universe that caters to immigrants (legal or illegal) like that? Again, I see nothing but meaningless rhetoric from you when talking about "breaking down the walls in our hearts." Try to come up with something that's less philosophical in nature but truely specific in regards to helping Asian Americans.
Posted by: JW | Sep 2, 2013 2:33 PM

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