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Unity of Purpose vs. Unity of Identity: Of Missed Opportunities and the Hope for New Ones


The United States has a penchant for corralling people into stables of identify for their own supremacist, segregationist purposes, all the while enticing each group to believe self-segregating spaces are best for “unity” and “identity.” White people come from every conceivable place on Earth where the credentials consist of ancestral and current European geographical lineage, little to no melanin in skin pigment, and assignment of the color white by a government of wealthy white elites, as noted in the census for Egyptians and some other Northern Africans and Middle Eastern countries. Everyone should understand by now that the Africans who arrived in chains to the American shore were from a number of western African countries, with different ethnicities, varied languages and cultures, all brought together into one corral and called “Negroes,” and “Black.” Even the indigenous peoples of America, Hispanics, Latinas and Latinos are a wide-ranging set of different ethnicities and geographical heritages.


In the case of people in America who identify as Asians, whether they were from India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, or any number of Pacific Island nations and principalities, these people, not monolithic in any of their respective nationalism, ethnicities, cultures and ideologies, were cast as Orientals and then Asians. Moreover, for these people with ancestral and geographical lineage from the far east side of the globe and who have lived in the United States since its inception, there is one fact they can count on like other ethnicities, nationalities, genders, sexes and linguistically marginalized groups: they all have experienced some of the same discrimination, denial and brutality as Black people here in this country, albeit in some cases, not to the same extent as the continued aggression toward Black people by white people. Asian people, however, have a uniquely interesting history with Black America and throughout the some of the same periods in history, with the exception of the Enslavement itself. In fact, there was a direct parallel during the Civil Rights movement for Black people and when a similar Civil Rights movement for Asian people began.


Dubbed “Yellow Power,” during this period of the 60s and 70s, Asian activists fought for inclusion through ethnic studies in higher education, for ending the Vietnam war, and for reparations for Japanese people held against their will in internment camps during World War II. According to journalist, Nadra Kareem Nittle, writing for Thoughtco, Asians “identified” with the plight of Black people and their struggle to “expose institutional racism and government hypocrisy.” Realizing they, too, were being discriminated against, Nittle explained, “Black activism played a fundamental role in the launch of the Asian American Civil Rights movement.”[1]


Over time, however, once their demands for inclusion were met and the war ended, Asian assimilation and integration into the United States and its American culture brought with it a measure of wealth and success both economically and socially for many, and during the period of the Post-Racial Color Blind era, none of the various ethnicities within their huge umbrella were saddled with the after effects of the backlash Black people received from the Black Civil Rights movement. They actually received what they fought for. Nittle wrote:


After the Vietnam War, many radical Asian American groups dissolved. There was no unifying cause to rally around. For Japanese Americans, though, the experience of being interned had left festering wounds. Activists organized to have the federal government apologize for its actions during World War II.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Proclamation 4417, in which internment was declared a “national mistake.” A dozen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which distributed $20,000 in reparations to surviving internees or their heirs and included an apology from the federal government.[1]

During the same period, there were no reparations for the Enslavement, Jim Crow, the system of Racism as it existed during the entire 20th century, state sanctioned violence against Black people or lynchings. Moreover, there is still no national Anti-lynching law or other respite for Black people who struggled during the same period of the 60s and 70s. There has still been no national apology for either the Enslavement of millions or the atrocities that were a consequence of the overthrow of Reconstruction. Racism as a system for denial and discrimination was only expanded to include limited apportionment of opportunity in the areas of education, housing and employment, although barriers in those areas remained overall.


During the Post-Racial Color Blind era of the late 60s through the end of the twentieth century and throughout the beginning of the 21st century, Asians did not appear to complain of discrimination except where it related to Affirmative Action in higher education. It also appeared that lawsuits being brought up over Affirmative Action were efforts being used to assist right wing conservative elements who had been chiseling away at the only reparative relief granted for Black people for the generations of discrimination in education and employment. It also appeared as if their efforts would destroy the last best hope for Affirmative Action. If there were causes to rail against or celebrate, they were largely ignored by the media and the government and Asians remained the group least likely to complain; one among many other stereotypes that ensued: Smarter, more well-adjusted families, genius children who excelled in math and the sciences, mild, timid, exotic or oversexualized, and subservience-driven women, and people generally prone to acquiescence. They were the good minority, as that term “minority” is still used to denote value subliminally in white supremacy as inferiority, rather than simply its numerical value. In their case, they were touted as better than the Black minority, a major step up. It appeared to many people that Asians were even superior to white people educationally, becoming the very epitome of meritocracy and achievement aspirations or fears of failure for both white and Black people.


But this essay is not meant to be a historical overview of the specific plight or advantages of Asian people in the United States. History is already replete with plenty to research.


This essay is intended to be a discussion of identity unity versus purpose driven unity, missed opportunities and a way forward. Of tremendous importance is the context from which I am drawing the connotations conveyed for comprehension of the essay’s objective. It is important to draw upon the contextual framework of identity unity versus purpose-driven unity.


No two groups had more reasons to coalesce around the atrocities brought on by white supremacy than Asians and Black people during the 60s and 70s, since both groups were experiencing degrees of discrimination. Now, both groups are experiencing violence and terror and there is a dramatic difference this time, because the 21st century iteration of Racism as it is described today is skewed in how it defines Racism from the way it was defined during the movements of the 60s and 70s. Back then the issue had turned from equality, equity, opportunity and justice for the formerly enslaved and their descendants to “desegregation” of “white spaces,” which was easily broadened to include other Races similarly situated. In addition, as a result of the broad, abstraction given to the definition of Racism today and the term itself when used to describe individuals of all Races and ethnicities, the ever-rearticulating ideology of whiteness and its associated supremacist view of behavior among its own people has convoluted what even constitutes Racism or Racists, creating Racists of the very people still being perpetually victimized by Racism.


While both Black and Asian people experience violence and terror from white supremacists, crimes against Asian people stemming from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is directly a consequence of behavior borne out of the ideology of white supremacy, and that term is not being used loosely but deliberately throughout this essay and is why there is an extremely important idea that must be stressed in confronting the concept of unity of purpose and of identity. It cannot be stressed enough how much people need to understand racialized terminology and how it is used within the lexicon of white supremacist ideology. Words and their use can unite and divide, therefore it is important to completely comprehend what is actually being said, read or written in order to unite under a purpose driven reality rather than the rhetoric of identity.


It is at this juncture the term, white supremacy must be used where it applies and not substituted with the term, Racism. The reason cannot be stressed more emphatically:


The system of Racism sustains the ideology of white supremacy, and although one could not exist without the other, one indeed existed first, before the other, and it existed as a belief system rooted in superiority, exclusivity and supreme sovereignty over the planet and certainly the new world before Racism as a structural system for denial and discrimination existed.


This is extremely important to understand because it is the one term that is always treated as an afterthought in conjunction with Racism as though Racism is primary if referenced, spoken, written or read, and not actively explored. The fact of the matter is, white supremacy existed among the wealthy elite who needed a way to control and subjugate the enslaved people with dark pigments as well as those poor masses from Europe who shared theirs. After Bacon’s Rebellion frightened these wealthy elites with the prospect of the poor, indentured and enslaved from the lower class uniting with a common purpose of overthrowing them, they found convenience and expediency in the two colors, black and white which were already fixed as light and dark, good and evil, and associated them as a merit metric for superiority and inferiority, assigning them to the bodies of the people they would continue to control to this day.

Therefore, the questions become:


What is the overarching similarity that has remained for both Asian people and Black people, and what has not been the case for either since the dawn of the Post-Racial Color Blind era?


During the 60s and 70s, both Black and Asian people unified under their own, unique banners of shared identity. There were no “colored” Asians. They were not considered the “colored” people by Black people or white people, nor did they identify with the term, “colored.” That was exclusively for the Negroes. Asian people didn’t have to identify with Black people as colored during that time. They were identifying as “yellow.” Besides, Racism was understood as a Negro system, a Black thing. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act was passed that more identities began to move into the growing marginalized corral of so-called protected classes. Today, however, is interesting to note more and more Asians are identifying with the term, People of Color and the acronym POC, along with their own AAPI in their most recent struggle against the specter of violence and actual violence they have suffered, and that is part of the enigmatic dichotomy of using the terms, Racism and Racist today to describe what they are experiencing. In identifying as people of color, they are representing themselves in an even larger corral of diversity in the 21st century iteration of how Racism now “expresses” itself.


In answering the previous questions, the overarching similarity has been terror and violence brought on by white supremacists with all of their insidious behavior and all of the damage they cause. However, what has not been the case for Asian people since their simultaneous movements with Black people in the 60s and 70s is Racism. For Asians to be experiencing Racism today as the term was originally created and how it originally operated, there would have to be a denial of equity, equality, opportunity and justice exacted on them as newly freed enslaved and their Asian descendants, in perpetuity, in order to sustain the ideology of whiteness as superior. Of course, this is ludicrous since Asians were not a part of the Enslaved. It is also disingenuous as a term since discrimination and lack of inclusion is not at issue for them today as it was during the 60s and 70s. Racism is the term for that system which ensures the playing field will remain inequitable and unequal, sustaining the fallacy of whiteness and superiority ascribed to the color white, inferiority of anyone relegated to the color Black, and the theory that skin pigment, or the assignment of the color white to imply skin color, granted the individual with certain natural rights and privileges not afforded to their Black counterparts. This is simply not the case for Asian people on any day.


Whether or not one subscribes to the original reason for the creation of systemic Racism, or its subsequent variations and iterations today, this much is clear: identity discrimination is not their issue. State sanctioned violence is not their issue. Injustice is not their issue. Inequity and inequality is not their issue. These issues are not being addressed in their most recent struggle, and that is the primary difference between the parallel movements of the 60s and 70s and today. White supremacist violence, terror and murder is their issue. What the Asians engulfed in the aftermath of the six who were murdered are experiencing is a resurgence of violence brought on by bigotry and hatred of ethnicities and ancestral nationalities, which is Xenophobia. While there are those who do try to conflate Xenophobia with Racism, especially those who believe Racism is the cause of individual behavior, attempting to conflate Xenophobia with the system of Racism is ambiguous and a fallacy simply because the system also includes the use of tools for the behavior borne of the ideology of white supremacy.


All of that being said, one of the major problems for so many years may be a lack of awareness of the historical parallels in the lives of both groups and of the almost simultaneous movements of both groups. It cannot be stated enough just how close Asian and Black people might have come to being a blended force against white supremacy. Instead, relations between the Asian and Black people have suffered over the years, and it cannot be discounted one of the reasons is probably just how close their movements were during the 20th century. Although many Black activists looked to some of the literature of Chairman Mao Zedong, and a member of the Black Panther party was a Japanese American named Richard Aoki who donated weapons and trained the Panthers in the use of the weapons he donated back then, the two movements were not intersectional, and there was no joining or coalescing of the two. In addition, due to the white supremacist practice of encouraging animosity against Black people over the generations, it also appeared some Asian people living here and who immigrated, seemingly bought into the white American narrative stereotype of the criminal and the thug. The culmination of their entrance into Black communities with many businesses that did not enrich those communities, the animosity some of them projected and individual, biased behavior continues to make it extremely difficult to find solidarity and comradery.


It is fascinating to imagine what might have happened in this nation if both groups of people disregarded their individual identities and unified under the one banner of ending white supremacy and systemic Racism, rather than one group taking a page from the playbook of the other and going their separate ways. Unlike Bacon’s Rebellion, when the groups came together out of a purposefully driven comradery to overthrow the barbaric wealthy Gentry, the question of whether the outcome of the Black and Yellow Civil Rights movements being more successful for everyone had they come together back then, will never be answered.


Still, this 21st century has caused a reckoning the likes no one has seen since that time during the 60s and 70s and perhaps this is the opportunity neither should let pass this time. Perhaps the key to true solidarity and unity is not in the identity of the participants but in the purpose for uniting, like Bacon’s Rebellion, but of course without the violence associated with it. Perhaps if both understood what was really driving the behavior and the violence there could truly be a unity of purpose. Perhaps if both understood how the terminology and the language of white supremacy affects everyone, and how the ideology has destroyed many, there could also be a unity of purpose. It is also clear that all affected groups will finally have rally behind Black people, who are still undeniably the vanguard, or the front line of the fight for equality, equity, opportunity and justice. Until then, there will always be a sort of jockeying for position in the identity war behind who is Racist and who is affected the most, instead of the real purpose-driven battle to end what is detrimental to us all, the battle to end White Supremacy.




[1] Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “History of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement.” ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2021, thoughtco.com/asian-american-civil-rights-movement-history-2834596.