Featured Image: Dorothea Lange
During this first half of 2020, the world was brought to a breaking point with a global pandemic and a series of social injustices upending our lives. At nearly every turn, young people have increasingly taken to social media to demand action and push back against the hate and violence.
From the COVID-19 inspired racism towards the Asian community, to the ongoing and yet to be addressed police violence against the African-American community, to the attack on international students and their place in the United States, young people have taken centre stage during this special moment in time to protest these injustices and fight for the rights of minority communities. However, as more and more young people share their perspectives and arguments via social media, some common narratives have surfaced which may unintentionally harm the fight for progress.
Though I, an Asian man, greatly appreciate and find hope in the passionate fight for justice over the last few months, I also find it important to note some increasingly mainstream arguments used to justify progressive causes that people should be careful with in their day-to-day activism.
The Asian community doesn’t face as severe levels of racism as the Black community does.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained new, worldwide prominence following the death of George Floyd, many in the Asian community have used this argument to encourage their fellow members to support and advocate for BLM; while rebutting against the notion that, because racism against Asians doesn’t receive as much attention, it’s unfair that racism against Black people is receiving a global focus.
I want to make this clear: I understand and acknowledge the different experiences of racism that the Black community faces in the modern day, especially in the United States.
From a statistical point of view, this statement regarding the increased severity of the racism against the Black community is, in many ways, accurate. According to a recent analysis from The New York Times, Black Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 in comparison to white Americans, while Asian Americans are 1.3 times as likely to become infected compared to whites. Furthermore, Black Americans also constitute a disproportionate amount of annual killings by law enforcement officials in the United States, with the community representing 28% of deaths by police despite being only 13% of the national population, while Asians do not face the same level of disparities.
That being said, by bringing to the mainstream this specific argument, we may end up normalising the Asian-American racial experience, including the 2,000 reports of Anti-Asian discrimination and bias during the coronavirus, as a “more acceptable” or “tolerable” form of racism because it isn’t “as bad” as the Black experience. In doing so, we may unintentionally dismiss the history of systematic disadvantages and discrimination designed to disenfranchise Asians and Asian-Americans in this country, such as the deaths of many Chinese immigrants working on the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Instead of using the argument of comparison and competition between racism against the Asian community vs. the Black community, it might be more appropriate and effective to point out the decades history of Asian-Black solidarity in fighting against racial injustice and making the argument that racism in any form is harmful to all minority groups, and that we must stand with each other in the face of injustice, even though we belong to two different communities with unique experiences.
Immigrants come to the United States to do jobs most Americans wouldn’t do.
Since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, many progressives have begun advocating more strongly for immigration reform, with legislations such as the DREAM Act gaining increasing popularity among voters and legislators alike. However, in advocating for a more welcoming immigration system in the United States, many legislators and citizens have used this argument that the value of immigrants come from their willingness and ability to do work that ordinary Americans wouldn’t do.
Looking at the statistics, it is true that there are nearly a quarter of a million immigrant guest workers in the United States, mostly from Mexico and the rest of Central Ameica. Most of these guest workers are working in the agriculture industry, with many participating in activities on the fields, landscaping, or fishing. As the American economy has become increasingly digitised and focused on technology, it is true that these jobs have become increasingly difficult to fill by ordinary Americans.
However, by using this argument to advocate for immigration reform, we are actively dehumanising the immigrant experience and diminishing their value to the country. Not only does the argument perpetuate a transactional relationship between Americans and the country’s immigrants, where they are only welcome if they are willing to do work others wouldn’t do; but it also insinuates that the only capabilities that immigrants have as part of their participation in the American economy are in areas abandoned or left behind by ordinary American workers, which is factually inaccurate. Furthermore, the popularisation of this argument also normalises the heirarchic relationship between immigrants and citizens in which immigrants are viewed as secondary to U.S. citizens, and as people who come to this country for the sole purpose of solving America’s problems.
Instead of using this heirarchic and condescending argument to advocate for immigration reform, it might be more appropriate to highlight the immigrant-centric history of America’s founding, and point out the fact that 45% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants, who created economic opportunity for Americans and other immigrants alike to enjoy in the modern world.
International students contribute significant amounts of money to colleges and universities.
This past June, the Trump administration proposed new regulations through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement which would have forced international students currently staying in the States due to the ongoing pandemic to return home should they be enrolled in all online classes for the fall. The regulations were quickly met with scrutiny, with many taking to social media and signing petitions in support of international students in the United States.
In many posts and petitions supporting international students, however, the economic value of the students were often emphasised and highlighted as the primary reason why these regulations were harmful. Many characterised the regulations as harmful to American colleges and universities by taking away their primary source of income; while others went even farther to suggest that international students need to stay in the U.S. in order to prevent tuition and fees for American students from sharply rising.
According to The Power of International Education, it is statistically accurate that international students bring a large economic contribution to the scale of $45 billion per year with them as they pursue their studies in the United States. In doing so, they do provide a significant investment to the American economy that benefits many within the country.
However, by emphasising and/or exclusively highlighting the economic value brought to the American economy, international students are being monetised and dehumanised to a degree no different than that of an ATM machine. Furthermore, this argument also perpetuates the idea that the presence of international students are conditional upon their economic contribution, further alienating those with high academic capabilities but less wealth. By monetising international students, members of the American public are actively encouraged to impose an invisible class system whereby students of global backgrounds are expected to subsidise the cost of education for American students and grow monetary profits for American colleges and universities, placing the quality of their education second in priority.
Instead of emphasising the monetary value of international students in the U.S., it may be better to highlight the cultural value brought to American universities. Furthermore, it is also important to shed some light on the difficulties of cross-cultural relocations faced by international students in order to advocate against the second-class citizenship treatment imposed upon them year after year.
Over these last few months, many events have prompted young people to actively demand justice. In doing so, many have reutilised mainstream arguments to support these demands. However, as youth activism continues to see a rise in participation, it is important for us to be careful of the narratives we are imposing on the causes we advocate for, in order to make sure we don’t unintentionally dismiss, dehumanise, and degrade communities at the centre of the fight for social justice.