This is from an op-ed I'd written for the Pioneer Press after the Chai Soua Vang veridct last year on October 20th, 2005. Over a year later, I find that sadly, much of it remains relevant, particularly for my brothers and sisters in Detroit who are going through a very difficult time. I'm re-posting this in solidarity, and to remind us that we still have a long road.
Asian-Americans must speak up
BRYAN THAO WORRA
In the wake of the Chai Soua Vang verdict, now, more than ever, Asian-Americans need to talk candidly about race and racism, or the American dream shall never truly be ours. Throughout the trial, Asian-American leaders uttered little more than politically correct, safe pronouncements hoping for fairness and justice, but said little to help others understand: Yes, racism against Asian-Americans is serious.
The fear Asian-Americans have for their life is connected to a long history of racism we have every reason to take seriously. When Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 in suburban Detroit, his white killers never served a day in prison. They paid only a fine of $3,000. They called him a "Jap," caving his skull in with baseball bats. The scant punishment implied a license to kill Asians.
In 1998, a 13-year-old Hmong girl, Panhia Lor, was gang-raped, beaten and murdered, her battered corpse left to rot in a Minnesota park like a pile of trash. Her killers called her "gook" and "chink" as they raped her. We were told it was not a hate crime. It was not a racist act.
In 2001, Thung Phetakoune, a 62-year-old veteran from Laos, died after Richard Labbe cracked Thung's skull open on the sidewalks of New Hampshire. Labbe told police, "What's going on is that those Asians killed Americans and you won't do anything about it, so I will. Call it payback." Phetakoune risked his life for Americans stationed in Laos. Trying to rebuild his life, this is how it ended.
In January 2005, 36-year-old Tou Yang, a father of three, was shot at home by the Milwaukee police seven times, including three times in the head because the police could not find a nonviolent resolution, like tear gas or a stun gun. Tou Yang's case was eerily similar to that of Tong Kue, another 36-year-old Hmong man was shot at home in Detroit in June 1998 by police.
We're told: "There isn't a pattern. It's just a fluke." We're told to turn a blind eye to a culture that consistently depicts us as aliens, foreigners and the enemy. Every time someone calls us a "gook," "chink" or "Chinaman," ignore it like good Uncle Toms.
Why can't we laugh it off? Because words that demean us pave the way for greater violence. Filmmaker Gode Davis, researching "American Lynching: Strange and Bitter Fruit," estimates as many as 200 Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos died from American lynchings, yet we never confront this.
It's time we call things as we see them, because things only get worse, not better, from our silence. Whether it's politically correct can no longer matter. We must hold America accountable for how it treats Asians, or else the dream will fail us just as it failed the Chinese laborers who died ignominiously constructing the American railroad, or the Japanese unjustly forced into internment camps during World War II while German- and Italian-Americans were not.
After 30 years, most of the U.S. remains unaware of the Southeast Asians who died to protect Americans during the Southeast Asian wars of the 20th century.
The culture we get is the culture we make. So, someone needs to say it: Asian-Americans are sick of the slurs, ignorance and stereotypes. We're fed up with injustice against our community. We want life, liberty and happiness as much as anyone else.
And if that means speaking up, so be it. Because this is our country, too.