Cose on Black-Asian Tensions

That an Asian-American writer is confident enough of his place in American society to publicly advocate racism against blacks may represent progress of a sort.  It’s hard, however, to find anything else good to say about Kenneth Eng or his column, entitled “Why I Hate Blacks,” published in the February 23 edition of AsianWeek. In that essay, Eng argued that blacks are “weak-willed,” anti-Asian bigots—and, therefore, suitable objects of discrimination.

The column, predictably, set off a tempest that culminated last week with calls for the heads of the author and his editor. The first loud objections came from a coalition of Asian-American notables, who were quickly joined by a multiracial group of activists and public officials—who complained most vociferously in California, the San Francisco-based weekly’s home. By week’s end, Eng, a 22-year-old self-styled “Asian Supremacist” and “God of the Universe,” had been dismissed; the newspaper had apologized; and thoughtful people across America were debating what the brouhaha said, if anything, about tensions between minority groups, the limits of free speech, and racial attitudes among the young.

Had his diatribe been posted on Eng’s personal website or published under the aegis of some homegrown hate group, it likely would have been greeted with the indifference it deserved. But its publication in a small newspaper that considers itself the voice of Asian Americans—“Asian America's only national, Asian Pacific American newsweekly,” as it bills itself—left people scratching their heads, and raised questions not just about one presumably troubled young man but about the editors who had provided him a forum.

To its credit, AsianWeek covered the contretemps it had caused and gave prominent placement to the statement by Asian-American leaders that urged the editors to apologize, fire Eng, and “review their editorial policy and process.” At a press conference held in conjunction with the local chapter of the NAACP, editor-at-large Ted Fang promised last Wednesday that Eng would no longer write for the publication. On its website, AsianWeek acknowledged that “the promotion of hate speech is not appropriate, nor should it be encouraged.” And in a public meeting  held in San Francisco’s Chinatown last Friday, Fang promised the paper would do better in the future. A call and email to AsianWeek editor-in-chief Samson Wong was referred to Fang, who did not respond to an email from Newsweek seeking further insight into the editors’ thinking.

Fang and Wong could hardly have been surprised by the sentiments Eng expressed in his most recent—and, as it turns out, final—column for the paper.  In January he wrote a column titled “Why I hate Asians,” in which he confessed to hating “many of my own kind.” He accused Asian Americans of demeaning themselves by trying to “suck up to whites” and of discriminating against other Asian Americans.  In November, he wrote an equally idiotic piece in which he set out to prove that “whites inherently hate us.” In that essay, he observed, “If someone makes a negative comment about a black person, all of the whites get hopping mad. Make a negative comment about the Asian race and nobody cares.” He also complained that civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks had gotten more attention than she deserved and wondered “Whatever happened to the age of Sun Tzu when we used to kick ass?”

In the statement from Asian-American leaders, Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, correctly pointed out that many Asian Americans would never have made it to the United States if not for the black-led civil rights movement. While Eng may have been oblivious to that history, and to the battles waged to end laws that explicitly barred various Asian groups from coming to this country, it is unlikely his editors could have been so ignorant.

One can only assume they showcased his drivel because they thought they had a hot talent on their hands, one whose provocative—albeit uninformed—broadsides could generate buzz and attract readers. Their impulse may have been essentially right. Had they hired someone equally provocative but with more sense and better judgment, someone who understood something about history, they might have accomplished some good.  There is much that can be fruitfully explored about inter-ethnic relations and about the evolving role of “minority groups” who are increasingly competing with one another as they become ever more prominent on the American scene. Indeed, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black Los-Angeles based writer who convened a meeting of fellow activists and writers to focus on Eng’s commentary, thinks that Eng may have unwittingly triggered a useful discussion. Had the editors pulled Eng’s column, argued Hutchinson in a web posting, “the public would not have known how widespread the myths, misconceptions, and negative stereotypes about African-Americans are among some Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.”

Though relations between blacks and Asian Americans seem no worse than those between blacks and other ethnic groups in America, Eng’s ramblings make it clear that neither Asians, nor other so-called racial or ethnic minorities, are immune to racial prejudice. The once widely held assumption that people of color in American inevitably would unite and find common ground is not necessarily true. Indeed, in one setting after another, people of color find themselves pitted against each other. Some clear-headed thinking is needed  if  the largely minority American of tomorrow is to avoid the ethnic conflict that has defined too much of our nation’s past.

Eng clearly was incapable of shedding much light on such things. And while no one can deny his right to say and think pretty much whatever his wants, the newspaper clearly had no obligation to give his ramblings its imprimatur. Perhaps the lesson for Eng’s editors is that even angry, would-be literary provocateurs need to be able to form a coherent argument. The other lesson is broader, and one that most Americans already grasp: that those who hark back to the good old days, to a time when bigotry had a socially useful purpose, are really harking back to a time that never was. We are better off, in other words, for having moved beyond the era when Eng, whatever his abilities, would have been relegated to some menial job—as fitting, in his particular case, as that fate might be.