Earlier this week, I was among a handful of local leaders who met with D.C. Council member Marion Barry about bigoted comments he made about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; first he talked about “dirty” Asian-owned carryouts and on Monday Filipino nurses were the objects of his spewing. These statements come on the eve of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
As a fourth generation Korean-American and a choreographer whose family moved to the U.S. in 1903 as indentured plantation workers for the sugar and pineapple plantations of Oahu, Hawaii, I have spent the past two decades creating art that addresses issues of identity.
In my testimony before Barry and the others who were gathered at the District Building I recalled the long line of troubling historical events that led us to this moment in time.
For example, I reminded them that, in 1882, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act permitted the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration. The ban wasn’t repealed until 1943. I described how President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 forced the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps, and how the Supreme Court’s shameful confirmation of that discrimination destroyed many lives and livelihoods for decades.
I reminded the gathering of the brutal beating death in 1982 of Chinese auto worker Vincent Chin in Michigan after layoffs in Detroit's automotive industry were attributed to the increasing market share of Japanese automakers. And I described the scene in 1992 when Los Angeles riots hit Koreatown harder than any other part of the city. Police were forced out by rioters, many Koreans were attacked and beaten and countless businesses were looted and burned. To this day, I’m haunted by memories of those 20-year-old images.
Mr. Barry’s recent comments add a new chapter to our country’s long and painful history of bigotry against Asian Americans. When people attack Asian Americans – whether physically or verbally – or any minority group, for that matter, the entire community suffers. I long for the day when we can look beyond color boundaries and start to understand diversity and inclusion as an American standard which enlivens our educational system, our economy and our community and is a basic fiber of our multi-faceted American tapestry.
Mr. Barry listened as I provided the historical context for his hurtful comments. Then, to my surprise, he blamed the press for his hateful words. I had a sense that an apology was the furthest thing from his mind.
As I left the District Building, a faraway memory crossed my mind. I recalled a six year old and his mother who were walking down the street when a stranger called out to her: “Tokyo Rose go home.” That six year old was me. It was hurtful then, and it is hurtful now.
I am more convinced now than I was earlier in the week: the best and most appropriate response is Mr. Barry's immediate resignation.
Read more in the Washington Post's District of DeBonis blog.