Right Here, Right Now: Paul Igasaki

Ed. Note: RH,RN is a series of commentaries on the immediate issues that we face.

It’s About Race.

By Paul Igasaki. Posted September 14, 2018.

Racism is pervasive in our society.  It affects all of us.  For most people, they are not racists or non-racists.  It is hard not to be influenced by media images or even our own limited experiences. Much of the racism that affects us comes from ignorance and stereotyping.  Many resist exploring problematic racial assumptions because of this absolutism about racism.  The most racially conscious examine their own assumptions.  There are racists who hate or scapegoat entire groups or who believe that they are superior to all, like David Duke and the neo-Nazis that won the right to march in Skokie, IL where I did much of my growing up.  But they seemed relatively small in number then and were not taken too seriously into the ‘70’s and beyond.  There was real hatred out there, but it was largely hidden and rejected by even most conservative people, enough to serve as a barrier to political impact.

I saw racism come out in a more open way a number of years later when I was back in my hometown of Chicago The first Black Mayor became possible when Harold Washington, a progressive Democrat, got the Democratic nomination.  The vast majority of white machine Democrats crossed party lines to support an obscure white Republican.  These voters had supported any Democrat in most elections.  But Latinos and Asians and enough progressive whites stayed with the nominee and helped elect Harold Washington.  Even people who refused to vote for Harold eventually thought his election was good for the city because of how Chicago valued its differences more.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington with Asian American Liaison Paul Igasaki.

Yet it seemed that even with setbacks, racial justice continued to be achieved.  We made progress, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but it continued.  While we weren’t making much progress with immigration, we had some help from Republicans.  While it took great effort, Japanese American redress was won, ultimately with the signature and support of President Reagan and then President H.W. Bush.  While immigration reform still was not achieved, at least efforts were bipartisan.  Unfortunately, excessive deportations were also bipartisan.

Then came 2016 and Donald Trump.  One person and one election unleashed a reversal of racial progress. Trump cut his teeth on public policy by calling for the execution of five Black men prosecuted for a rape they did not commit in Central Park;  he would not back down even after the 5 were exonerated.  Trump also manufactured a campaign to suggest that the first African American President, born in Hawaii, was foreign-born.  Trump, running for President, used fear of immigrants and of Muslims.  He suggested that immigrants from Mexico were violent criminals and that a Latino judge had to be biased against him only because of his ancestry.

Once elected, it got worse.  His team first suggested that the Japanese American concentration camp cases justified a religious and ethnic based travel ban.  Trump himself suggested he didn’t know if the relocation was justified or not, changing the view of every President since Reagan.  He pushed the Muslim ban as we passed the anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first overtly ethnic immigration ban.  And then, when neo -Nazis and other white supremacists marched in a Virginia university town, carrying tiki torches, waving Confederate flags and swastikas, shouting against Jews and immigrants, attacking counter demonstrators and killing one with a car, the President felt that there were good people “on both sides.”

His team is now examining expanding his attack on immigration to legal immigrants and including denying passports to Latino citizens living near the border.  He called Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries that he didn’t want immigrants from, as opposed to “desirable” nations, like Norway.

This President has crossed the race line even before taking office.  It isn’t clear what he truly believes, but he is consistent on one thing, he is a racist.  He won’t denounce the KKK or the Nazis, but his actions speak loudly enough.  And his actions led to a normalization of racism and an explosion of divisiveness.

White supremacists,the KKK, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, VA on Aug. 11, 2017.

In addition to the hate groups that marched and spilled blood in Charlottesville, we have seen some with ties to them, serve in the White House.  They are no longer small, isolated extremists.  They are numerous, dangerous, and coddled by the President and his allies.

And beyond the organized hate, disorganized hate crimes have swung sharply up.  Thanks to smart phones, we have seen incident after incident of people assaulting African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans in stores, on transit trains and buses, against neighbors, or maintenance or other workers.  People are calling the police on people of color for being in parks, coffee shops, mowing lawns, or shopping.

The more violent and irrational racism or xenophobia was not specifically called for by the President, but when our leaders go too far verbally, through policies, or by acts of omission, the more unstable, the angry and violent are “inspired” to go farther.  It is now OK, to act against people based on race, religion, nationality or gender.  The very fabric of our diverse society is being frayed, even torn.

The level of racism seems driven by a fear of no longer being the majority, which is to happen by expected 2042.  There is no reason to expect that there will be dramatic or immediate change.  Diverse groups won’t act as one simply because they’re a majority, nor would they discriminate against whites as they had experienced.  One can hope that the lack of a majority will lead to greater respect for all.  Despite the anti-immigrant and divide and conquer efforts of white supremacists, they will not stop the growing diversity, in this country as it is in the world.  What they are doing is increasing conflict and threatening our laws.  We must not play into their divisiveness.

We are not able to explore real reform to bring immigrants into the light.  We can’t challenge extreme federal judges, even after a Republican Senate refused to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court for a whole year.  A rushed review of a right wing approved nominee may even be completed before the November election.  Careful consideration was avoided in the massive tax giveaway to the ultra rich.  Voting rights have been cut back.  Legislation to defend our elections against Russia cyber attacks was refused, despite clear evidence of it.  No wonder with our President bowing to Vladimir Putin.  And Congress is about to deny health care to a huge portion of America.  Without change, the Dreamers will be forced out of their country.

Anti-hate rally in New York City.

This damage will not heal overnight.  We need to demand accountability.  It will not end with the election November 6, but it must begin there.  Elections these days are often close, and our numbers, if we vote, can make the difference, as we have in Virginia.  We need to be taken more seriously in this country.  Diversity can move us forward.  I have watched Asian American Congress persons speak out despite a resistant GOP.  Senator Mazie Hirono, Rep. Ted Lieu, Senator Kamala Harris, and others have led challenges to the administration.  Just think what can be done with hearings and the votes to act.

Author’s Bio:

Paul Igasaki is a retired civil rights advocate.  From Chicago, he was a lawyer at legal aid in Sacramento, CA, ED at the Asian Law Caucus in SF, Pro Bono director for the American Bar Assoc., DC representative for the JACL, Vice Chair & Chair of the US EEOC, Asian American Liaison for Mayor Washington, and Chief Judge for the US Department of Labor ALRB.  A founder of both the National Asian American Bar Association and the Chicago Asian Bar, he served as Chair of the ABA’s Civil Rights & Social Justice Section.  He is a graduate of Northwestern and UC Davis Law School.  He lives with his wife Lou in Alexandria, VA. 

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