“How Do You Like Your New Country?”
Below is an excerpt from Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future, by Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and Manuel Pastor. For more on the book, visit UncommonCommonGround.com.
This excerpt was written by Stewart Kwoh
I was once asked by a white waitress who was taking my restaurant order where my family was from. I answered that on my mother’s side of the family, my great-grandfather was a miner in New Mexico; my grandfather was a tailor in Oakland and Stockton, CA; and that my mother was born in Stockton. The waitress interrupted me without hesitation and asked, “And how do you like your new country?”
Although both of my sons were born in Los Angeles, I am willing to bet that they will be asked the same question during their lifetimes. Although the stereotype of the model minority has most recently been applied to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs), the most enduring image of APIs is that of the foreigner. No matter that the first Chinese came in large immigrant waves in the l840s to California, U.S. society still knows very little about the API community, although it is now over l2 million strong.
My own evolution into a civil rights advocate actually did not begin with the concern over Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It came as a result of growing up in Los Angeles—although I was born in Nanjing, China, because my parents were teaching there at the time—and experiencing the civil rights movement in the l960s. I was certainly influenced by my parents, who are dedicated Christians and givers to the community. In the early l960s, I also vividly recall the debates in my Presbyterian church. Our minister went to march in the civil rights demonstrations in the Deep South and came back to a partially hostile congregation in Los Angeles. That eye-opening experience led to my participation in the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), now the National Conference for Communities and Justice, and its brotherhood camp (now the brotherhood and sisterhood camp). Although I grew up in a racially integrated, moderate-income community of Echo Park and Silver Lake in Los Angeles, the NCCJ camp widened my interracial connections and understandings.
While I saw the Asian American and Pacific Islander student population in high school grow due to the l965 changes in the immigration laws that changed decades of exclusion and restrictions for Asian immigrants, I did not become familiar with racism against Asians until I attended UCLA in l966. Becoming a student activist after a stint in an Asian fraternity, I became part of the movement to begin the Asian American Studies Center and later became president of the Asian American Student Alliance. It was only through my involvement in Asian American studies that I began to understand the harsh racism against Asians, including immigration exclusion and World War II concentration camps for Japanese Americans. I have been the best man in three Japanese American weddings, and the parents of my friends never told me about their experiences in the internment camps. Stigmatization has long kept Asian Americans from looking at their own histories. My student organization helped to set up community service programs in communities like Chinatown and later organized demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The rest is history. I had to explain to my parents that instead of going to medical school, I was going to law school because I was so influenced by helping to bail out some of my fellow students who were accused of throwing rocks at the police as they invaded the UCLA campus after an antiwar protest. I had to explain that I decided not to participate in law review because I needed to help an undocumented Buddhist monk who had come to a legal service program that I had established. I had to explain that I rejected a number of job offers after law school because I volunteered to start a law collective that paid $500 per month salary.
In my work on civil rights cases dealing with Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos, it is always the valiant struggles of individuals and communities that continue to inspire me. In l983, just as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center was established, I heard about the tragic killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit, MI. Actually Vincent, who was celebrating his upcoming marriage, was killed in l982 by two white autoworkers in what I believe was a racially motivated killing. In l983 his two killers received sentences of probation and $3,000 fines for manslaughter. This case galvanized the Asian American community and many others. I met the family and supporters of Vincent and got involved in a campaign for federal civil rights charges to be filed against the two killers. Vincent would be the first Asian American to be covered by the civil rights law that authorized such federal charges. But it was his mother, Lilly Chin, who truly inspired me. After the sentence, she decided that she needed to speak out to get support for a more just sentence against the killers. I remember she came to Los Angeles and, in a crowded Chinatown restaurant, she asked the crowd to help get justice for her son. Then she fainted. A few of us helped to revive her. Later that evening during her stay at my home, I asked her if she was okay. She said, “Stewart, there’s nothing I can do to bring back Vincent, but I don’t want any other mother to go through what I’ve been going through.” While there eventually was a federal prosecution and a conviction in the first trial, an appellate reversal led to a second trial and acquittals. Mrs. Chin, whose husband died six months before Vincent was killed, decided to leave the United States and return to China. In 2002, she returned to the U.S., gravely ill, and passed away that same year.
It was that experience and the failures of our justice system that have led me to provide leadership to build the Asian Pacific American Legal Center into the largest API legal organization in the United States today, and to co-found the Asian American Justice Center, the first pan-Asian civil rights legal organization in the history of this nation.