Column: The View From Here: We Need to Learn New Ways of Judging People By P. M. PRICE

Friday May 06, 2005

In recent weeks both the San Francisco Chronicle and this newspaper have featured essays and letters lambasting the “arrogance” of UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s efforts to affirm the value of diversity, castigating black leaders and parenting skills a nd accusing blacks of using the “victim card” instead of acting more like Asians. And just how do Asians behave? 

I grew up in a well-manicured neighborhood in the Crenshaw section of Los Angeles nicknamed “Little Tokyo.” My brothers and I would run after the Japanese food truck ambling down our street, eager for seaweed wrapped rice balls and hot ginger snacks. I used chopsticks as easily as a fork and I knew how to say hello, thank you and count to ten in Japanese by the time I entered first grade. I al so experienced racism for the first time, not at the hands or from the mouths of white folks but delivered like a slap in the face from my Asian classmates at Coliseum Street Elementary School. 

I remember all of their faces, all of their names. The cruel taunting dished out by Joanne and her sidekick, Jodie. Hiroko, who invited me to her birthday party just so she could slam the door in my face. Jeanie’s mother, who refused to let me inside her house to play, saying I would track black magic into her carpet. I looked behind me all the way home to see if I was indeed leaving a dirty set of footprints behind. I remember the gangs of boys, often led by Danny, who would attack my brothers and steal their bicycles. They had none of the usual excuses. We were middle class, well-behaved and smart. I even skipped a grade. That only served to heighten the maltreatment. Years later I ran into one of my tormentors, Kenny. He asked me if I hated him and he apologized for his part in the relentless abuse. I felt his remorse. 

Most of my schoolmates’ parents and grandparents had spent time in the Japanese internment camps during WWII but nobody talked about it. Many came out determined to prove just how American they really were. In addition to fashioning themselves i nto model students and workers, another way to prove their loyalty to white America was to internalize racist attitudes and behaviors against black Americans. None of this prevents me from empathizing with Japanese Americans who suffered during those year s of legal but unjust treatment. The problem is that the compassion isn’t mutual.  

While many ethnic groups have suffered in this country, particularly Native Americans, the experience of the African American is unique. Millions of Africans were kidnappe d, sold, raped, tortured and murdered. Their languages, religions and families were destroyed. Our Founding Fathers participated in this travesty. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, along with thousands of other white men, fathered children with capt ive African women. Most of these encounters were rapes and most white men enslaved and sold their own children. It is the broken spirit of African Americans that we see manifested today in various self-destructive and anti-social behaviors. A broken spir it requires healing. But as long as Americans choose to remain ignorant of the true history of this country and acknowledge both the privileges and the pain born from the evils of racism and slavery, this country will never heal.  

Last night I attended a n awards ceremony for UC student service groups hosted by Chancellor Birgeneau. As he was leaving I introduced myself and told him that I was disturbed by some of the recent comments of affirmative action opponents and that I was working on a column about this issue. He paused thoughtfully and said only one thing to me before he turned away: “In the end, we have to think of other ways of judging people.”  

That, to me, is the bottom line. Who’s to say who are the “best and the brightest?” Test scores are only one measure. What does this country need? Students like those honored at the Cal Corps Public Service Center. Young people who are improving the environment and helping those in need rather than wasting time blaming and making unfair comparisons. When Asian and white kids fail, do we blame poor parenting? Their “leaders”? Too much TV? Bad genes? When Chancellor Birgeneau successfully pushed for more female representation at MIT did white women complain about quotas then? For a country that professes to be so religious and morally righteous, is anyone asking what Jesus would do? How about Moses? Buddha? Mohammed?  

The word “university” connotes inclusiveness, a bringing together of the whole. We need to learn how to value the individual differences w e all have. The Asian kids at my elementary school weren’t all bad. I also remember Sandy’s gentleness and Kathy’s kindness, Mark’s courage, Ricky’s good cheer and how Dennis always made me laugh. They were not one homogenous lump assigned race leaders, v alues, goals and shortcomings. 

Americans are afraid of racism. Afraid of how it might make them feel and what it might call upon them to give up. As long as we, as a nation, refuse to acknowledge and discuss racism in all of its manifestations, this country will never heal. In order for race to matter less, it has to matter less. And that’s not going to happen without some help from us all.