You may have heard that long-time civil rights activist and Asian American icon Yuri Kochiyama passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. Readers can learn more details about her amazing life through boted Asian American scholar Diana Fujino’s biography Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Prominent Asian American blog Reappropriate also has links to several other articles from major media outlets about her passing.

Yuri Kochiyama, © ColorLines magazine

The biography and articles highlight how she grew up in the Los Angeles area and had a seemingly normal middle-class life. All of that changed after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As history records, this eventually resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens) having their constitutional rights revoked and incarcerated, just based on their Japanese ancestry, in dozens of prison camps across the U.S., without any due process whatsoever.

Among those imprisoned were Yuri and her family and this experience forever changed her perspective on the state of race relations, racism, and the overwhelming need for social justice in the U.S. She eventually married a Japanese American GI and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she befriended a young Black nationalist named Malcolm X and in the course of her friendship, galvanized her determination to work toward social equality and justice on behalf of her community. She was there when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Thereafter, she became known for actively participating in the movements for ending the Viet Nam War, Puerto Rican independence (highlighted by being part of the group that occupied the Statue of Liberty in 1977), and for Japanese American reparations. In her later years in Oakland, CA, she kept up her activism and social justice work, particularly around the fight against racial profiling and rounding up of Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, as detailed in the excellent documentary “Lest We Forget” that highlighted the similarities between Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and Arab & Muslim Americans after 9/11. Here at my institution, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, our Asian American student center is named the “Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center” on her behalf.

For me personally, Yuri Kochiyama was a hero and an inspiration. Like Yuri, I grew up in a predominantly White community and was entrenched in an assimilationist environment. I did not care about my roots as an Asian American, an immigrant, or a person of color — I just wanted to fit in and be like everybody else around me. In doing so, I was ignorant of all the racial injustices that had been perpetrated against people like me throughout U.S. and world history and that was still taking place all around me in different ways.

It wasn’t until my later years in college and after I started studying Sociology and Asian American Studies that I finally woke up, opened my eyes, reclaimed my identity, and pledged myself to do what I could to fight for racial equality and justice. That’s when I first learned about Yuri Kochiyama. She represented not just someone who was determined to draw on her personal experiences of racism to fight on behalf of others in similar situations, but as an Asian American woman, she stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical images of Asian American women as meek, submissive, exotic, and hypersexualized “geishas” and “China dolls.”

In other words, she gave all of us — men and women, Asian American or not — a different example of what Asian Americans, particularly women, are capable of. It is these examples and memories of Yuri Kochiyama as a strong, determined, committed, and inclusive activist and Asian American woman that I will carry forth with me.

This is an update to the incident this past July at the The Valley Club outside of Philadelphia, where a summer camp of predominantly Black and Latino children were kicked out of the club’s swimming pools after White club members complained about their presence.

As MSNBC reports, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has completed its report on the incident and has found that despite its denials, the club is guilty of racial discrimination in its actions:

The club has maintained that there were too many children for the number of lifeguards on duty and that many of the children who were at the club couldn’t swim. . . .

[Email] messages quoted in the report include one from club board member George Whitehill to the rest of the board that said in part, “Race is an issue since every email of complaint mentioned race.” . . . The state report also noted that other large groups that came to the swim club did not generate the same reaction.

For example, a plumbing company has held an annual party at the club that draws about 100 to 125 people each year, about five to 10 of them black, the report said. It found that far more children were in the pool for those parties, yet no club members threatened to quit and guests did not report “inappropriate or rude comments” from club members.

Club lawyer Joe Tucker said Tuesday night that the decision “has nothing to do with the actual facts” and would be appealed. “The die was cast by the media firestorm. They had no choice but to reach the decision they did,” Tucker said.

Apparently almost everybody except the club itself can see that it was painfully obvious that race was a significant, and probably only factor in how the children of color were treated.

The saddest part is that, in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, the club continues to deny that race played any part and instead, chooses to blame the entire incident on the media. This is just another unfortunate example of colorblindness to the extreme and racial ignorance.

Or, as many would probably sum it up, it’s racism, plain and simple.

As all major news organizations are reporting, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy passed away last night at the age of 77. Other news sites and blogs will offer a comprehensive review and description of his personal and professional life, so I would just like to share my own thoughts on his legacy as it relates to racial/ethnic relations and civil rights, but also what it means to be a “liberal.”

Even though he grew up in wealth and privilege, he always stood up for the less privileged and powerful among us. Among his many causes while in Congress were his championing of the Patients’ Bill of Rights and perhaps most famously, his tireless efforts toward passing universal healthcare coverage. Indeed, in his four-plus decades of service in the Senate, he amassed quite an impressive record of legislation and public service.

I will also remember his work on behalf of racial equality and justice. He was an early, consistent, and strong advocate for civil rights, exemplified by his record on supporting and sponsoring legislation on voting rights, education, labor rights, and poverty that helped all Americans but disproportionately benefited people of color and the poor the most. As the New York Times notes:

He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid . . . . His most notable focus was civil rights, “still the unfinished business of America,” he often said. In 1982, he led a successful fight to defeat the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act. In one of those bipartisan alliances that were hallmarks of his legislative successes, Mr. Kennedy worked with Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, to secure passage of the voting rights measure, and Mr. Dole got most of the credit. . . .

At a pivotal moment in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Mr. Kennedy endorsed Senator Obama for president, saying Mr. Obama offered America a chance for racial reconciliation and an opportunity to turn the page on the polarizing politics of the past several decades.

“He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,” Mr. Kennedy told an Obama rally in Washington on Jan. 28, 2008. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly, without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view.”

But ultimately, I will remember Senator Kennedy for his uncanny and natural ability to balance two seemingly contradictory identities — on the one hand, being a true liberal Democrat and on the other hand, being able to cross ideological boundaries and to genuinely collaborate with Republicans on bipartisan causes.

Until recently and especially during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, due to the ideological clashes and culture wars within American society, it was a derogatory term to be called a “liberal.” Nonetheless, there are many of us, including me, who are proud to be liberal and I saw Senator Kennedy as a model for being a true liberal. As I mentioned, his congressional and public service record on behalf of traditionally “liberal” causes is unquestioned. Even when it was considered an insult to be called a liberal, Senator Kennedy never backed down from his beliefs and passion to achieve meaningful equality and justice for all Americans.

But in order to get things done and achieve results, the practical reality is that it requires collaboration. Understanding that, Senator Kennedy was extremely skilled at working with fellow Republicans and reaching compromises that still retained his core ideals. The New York Times again summarizes:

Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fund-raising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, the education law pushed by Mr. Bush in 2001. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican.

Senator Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention © Associated Press

In the end and for me personally, Senator Kennedy will always embody the Buddhist-like, yin-and-yang ideal of achieving balance in how we conduct our lives. He came from wealth and privilege but he never wavered in standing up for the downtrodden and underprivileged. His personal life was not without controversy but he worked tirelessly in excelling in his professional life. And he always stood proud and true to his liberal convictions but also knew when and how to collaborate with others to get results and move forward as a nation.

Senator Edward Kennedy’s legacy is one that we can all learn from as Americans, today and always. In his own famous words from the 1980 Democratic convention,

The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

 

So much for the Obama effect.

Many Americans seemed to think that Barack Obama’s victory to become our nation’s first non-White President represented the end of racism in America and that our society had finally moved past skin color as a marker of social hierarchy. Sadly, they were and continue to be wrong.

As many media organizations and blogs have reported and summarized in the MSNBC video below, a private club in suburban Philadelphia reneged on an arrangement to allow a group of Black and Latino children to use their swimming pool, with many White club member parents allegedly uttering racial slurs to the children:

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what “black kids” were doing at the club, Wright said. . . .

Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments. . . .

“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s payment without explanation, said Wright. . .

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said. . . . “Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.” . . .

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.

My fellow blogger sociologist Jessie at RacismReview.com elaborates on some of the details of the incident and sums up the sociological context of this incident quite well:

It’s a good thing that there are laws in place that prohibit racial discrimination of this sort, and that people were outraged this happened, and that a U.S. Senator is stepping up to investigate and, at least potentially, take some action against these perpetrators of swimming pool racism.

Yet, it’s an appalling fact to realize that nearly fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, we are still grappling with the continuing significance of racism in public places. We are, apparently, still at a point where we’re having to investigate people for violating the prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Think about these kids in Northeast Philly next time you hear someone use the phrase “post-racial.”

Seriously, this is 2009, not 1909, right?

Without doubt, the actual incident is pretty shocking and appalling — White parents pulling their children out of the pool once Black and Latino children began using it, allegedly using racial slurs against the non-White children, and then the club abruptly canceling their earlier arrangement without any apology or explanation.

These events by themselves are pretty clear violations of federal and state laws which prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in public and private facilities and I hope the club is prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent possible. Incidents like this are completely unacceptable in American society.

But as a sociologist, I also find it interesting to observe the club’s subsequent explanation and “apology,” offered several days after the incident and only after it was bombarded with media coverage and the threat of criminal prosecution. Specifically, as the MSNBC article quoted above notes, the club’s officials denied that race was a factor in the club’s actions and rather, it was safety concerns and a lack of space.

Most recently, the club has offered to have the summer camp kids back, but only “as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.” Nice try, but that just basically means that as long as club members have enough advance notice, they can stay away from the club on the day the summer camp kids use it. How magnanimous of them.

These club officials need to wake up and smell what they’re shoveling.

This line of thinking is an example of colorblind ignorance at its best (or would that be, at its worst?) — taking pains to deny that race was ever a factor in one’s actions and trying to pretend or convince oneself that you, your members, and your organization has any hint of racial prejudice at all. After all, that would be so 20th century and we’re living in a “post racial” society now, aren’t we?

The sad truth is, we are living in American society, one that is still highly racialized and one in which the misguided allure of colorblindness has instead blinded us to the fundamental racist sentiments that many individual Americans consciously or unconsciously still have, the social segregation that still divides us along color lines, and the institutional racial inequalities that allow such sentiments to exist.

The calendar may say it’s 2009 but apparently, the racial consciousness of many Americans is about a 100 years behind.