I previously wrote about the evolution of the American identity and how in the context of American society becoming more diverse and globalized, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to use our transnational cultural ties and networks to make meaningful contributions to moving American society and its economy forward into the 21st century. In other words, our “foreignness” may finally be seen as an asset, rather than a liability.

Having said that, I also recognize that there are still “traditional” beliefs about what it means to be an American that we need to overcome and persistent stereotypes about our Asian identity and loyalty to the U.S. that we still need to dispel once and for all. This week, we saw three examples on this kind of “traditional” assumptions about our community and questions about the validity of the “American” part of our identity as Asian Americans.

The first example involves Lori Phanachone, a Laotian American high school student in Des Moines Iowa, who refused to take an English fluency test, arguing that as an Honors student for several years and one who speaks perfect English, the test is insulting, demeaning, and discriminatory. She was initially suspended by her school district and her National Honor Society membership was revoked. Earlier this week, after a lawsuit threat by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Iowa school district finally relented, reclassified Lori as an English proficient student, will waive the test requirement, and reinstate her National Honor Society membership:

Lori Phanachone, a senior who ranks seventh in her class of about 119 and has a 3.9 grade point average, refused to take the English Language Development Assessment several times last month, saying the test was demeaning and racist. Previously, the school district’s curriculum coordinator, Lori Porsche, said taking the test was mandatory for Phanachone because she indicated on her school registration that English was not the first language spoken in her home.

Her parents are Laotian and still speak little English. Phanachone, who was born in California and lived in upstate New York before moving to Storm Lake with her family in 2006, said she has never been enrolled in any English Language Learning or English as a Second Language program.

In the second example in which Asian Americans were questioned on their American identity, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Texas state Republican representative Betty Brown recently urged Asian Americans to change their names to “simpler,” more Americanized names that would be “easier for Americans to deal with”:

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. . . .

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said. Brown later told [Organization of Chinese Americans representative Ramsey] Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

Finally, the third example involved an incident that unfortunately, too many Asian Americans (especially students) are familiar with. As described in a newly-created Facebook group, this particular example occurred at Tufts University in Boston:

There was a bias incident involving members of the Korean Students Association (KSA) that took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, April 9, in Lewis Hall Lounge, while the club members were practicing for their culture show.

At approximately 1:45AM, a white freshman male living in Lewis Hall approached five male members who were practicing their dance. He had been drinking at a bar prior to arriving at Lewis Hall. He insisted several times that the KSA members teach him the moves to their dance and was repeatedly asked to stop. Despite this request, he continued to molest the dancers, imitating the dance moves and declaring, “This is the gayest shit I’ve ever done.”

The KSA members then asked him to leave, to which he responded, “Fuck you. Fuck you, I could take all of you. I’ll kill you all.” He then threatened to get his fraternity brothers to help him retaliate. At this point, he began to physically harass the dancers, spitting at one member and shoving another one of the guys. An altercation ensued during which the freshman ripped two shirts and inflicted minor cuts to a member’s forehead. In order to restrain him, the KSA members pinned him to the floor and put him into a headlock, at which point the freshman mentioned that he could not breathe and the person holding him down immediately let go.

At this moment, the freshman’s friend and his girlfriend, who watched from the side, stepped in to take him away. When he got up, he started cursing “Fuck you, fuck you” and spitting at the dancers again. As he was being dragged away, he shouted, “Fuck you all, you fucking chinks, go back to China! Go back to your fucking country, you don’t belong in this country.”

His friends took him to the bathroom, where he could be heard repeatedly shouting, “If I see them again, I will fuck them all.” The fight was reported to an RA, who wrote and sent in a bias incident report. According to the RA, submitted within the report was testimony from his girlfriend supporting the fact that her boyfriend initiated the altercation.

In all three incidents, the assumption is pretty clear — that because we may happen to speak a language other than English at home (even though we are still completely fluent in English), or because we don’t have Anglicized “American” names like Smith or Jones, or because we don’t want to indulge the whims of a drunken frat guy, that we as Asian Americans are not real or legitimate Americans. Instead, we’re considered foreigners, outsiders, and troublemakers who make unreasonable demands.

Beyond the sheer ignorance and ethnocentric beliefs fundamentally embedded in these assumptions, what the Iowa school district, Rep. Brown, and the drunken frat guy all fail to see is that contrary to the stereotype that we are intent from being separate from mainstream society, our history and experiences consistently show that we’ve been trying to integrate into mainstream American society all along. In these three cases, it involved using our bilingual skills to help ease our parents into American culture, trying to make sure voting records are correct so that we can participate in the American democratic process, and putting on a performance that bridges Asia and America.

But as with previous incidents and examples over the past 150 years or so since the first Asians immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers, even as we attempt to become Americans and integrate into mainstream American society, we are questioned, challenged, and prevented from doing so time and time again by those who consciously or unconsciously believe that only one group qualifies to be a “real” American — Whites.

Unfortunately, as these three recent incidents demonstrate, this kind of ignorant, narrow-minded, and short-sighted thinking is still with us today and still confronts us as Americans of Asian descent.

I came across this pretty disturbing news item from California: as reported by AsianWeek magazine, an Indian American was attacked without provocation by two South Lake Tahoe residents and suffered numerous injuries and was hospitalized. Despite witnesses confirming that the assailants yelled racial slurs at him, the prosecutor in the case has declined to file both felony and hate crime charges against the attackers:

In July 2007, Vishal Wadhwa, a 38-year-old Indian American vice president and banker with Citi Private Bank, was attacked by South Lake Tahoe residents Joseph and Georgia Silva on El Dorado Beach in Tahoe.

Racial epithets like “Indian sluts and whores,” “Indian garbage,” “terrorists” and “relatives of Osama bin Laden” were thrown at Wadhwa, who was accompanied by his fiancée and her cousin. Wadhwa asked the Silvas to stop calling them names, but the pair continued. As Wadhwa left to call the police, the Silvas followed him and attacked him in the parking lot.

Wadhwa suffered a broken orbital socket, which will cause dizzy spells for the rest of his life, not to mention the emotional, psychological and physical trauma. Many in the Asian American and legal communities who saw this case as the definition of a hate crime were outraged to learn on July 31 that felony and hate crime charges were dropped against the Silvas.

“If this [case] is not a hate crime, then what is a hate crime?” asked Harmeet K. Dhillon, the South Asian Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee chair. “If you shout racial epithets and if you break someone’s face based on their ethnicity, it is a hate crime.”

The hate-crime charges have been dropped because racially offensive words by themselves do not constitute a hate crime unless accompanied by a threat of harm because of one’s ethnicity. Racial epithets were used in anger, but Wadhwa was not kicked because of his ethnicity, according to witnesses. The felony charges have been dropped because the attack by the Silvas did not produce “great bodily injury,” since Silva kicked Wadhwa using only her bare foot.

According to the FBI’s website, the legal definition of a hate crime is: “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”

Based on that definition, I am absolutely astounded as to why anyone would not consider the attack on Mr. Wadhwa to be anything else than a hate crime. First, clearly the attack on Mr, Wadhwa was a criminal offense. Second, it is also pretty clear that the offender was motivated by bias against Indians and those who looked Muslim.

So if this is not a hate crime, exactly what is? Here’s the answer: what this is, is another unfortunate example of how the lives of Asian Americans are systematically marginalized and devalued by American criminal justice officials and institutions.

This tradition of unequal and unjust treatment of Asian Americans has a long history, going back to when Chinese immigrants first came to the U.S. and were subjected to discriminatory taxes, physical attacks, and even murder, but were not allowed to testify against their White attackers, who almost always went free.

This tradition also continued when 120,000 Japanese Americans were stripped of their constitutional rights and imprisoned for nothing more than their Japanese ancestry, an episode that was so egregiously unjust that the U.S. government later officially apologized to those imprisoned, calling the episode “a grave injustice” that resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

This tradition was perhaps best illustrated by the gruesome murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was bludgeoned to death by two unemployed White auto workers who mistook him for Japanese and blamed him for them losing their jobs, and who subsequently got away with murder by paying a $3,700 fine and have never spent a day in jail for their crime.

In the Wadhwa case, I hope Mr. Wadhwa and his family appeal to the FBI to bring federal hate crime charges against their attackers (and also file a civil suit against them for millions of dollars in damages), since the city of Lake Tahoe and the State of California apparently are incapable of delivering justice for him.

As I’ve written about before, incidents of physical violence like this unfortunately seem to be examples of how Americans are expressing their insecurity and backlash over globalization and America’s waning superiority in the 21st century.

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Australian government has issued an official apology to their native aborigine population over the historical and systematic practice of forcibly separating aborigine children from their parents and subsequently trying to raise and socialize them as Whites.

That post also included a news story describing Senator Sam Brownback’s (R-Neb) introduction of legislation that would officially apologize to the Native American Indian population over our country’s systematic discrimination of them over the decades and centuries.

Along the same lines, as MSNBC reports, the House of Representatives has just passed legislation that officially apologizes to African Americans for the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation:

The resolution, passed by voice vote, was the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district. Cohen faces a formidable black challenger in a primary face-off next week.

Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.

Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages. The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

It says that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.

My first reaction is — to echo Jay Leno’s comments in his monologue yesterday — wow, it’s not a moment too soon! What’s it been — a 150 years now? It’s a good thing they did this right away, so that there wouldn’t be any lingering problems or bad feelings, right?

More seriously, as I wrote in that earlier post, I commend the House for taking this courageous, albeit largely symbolic step. As I and many other human beings can attest to, one of the hardest things to do in any kind of relationship is to apologize.

In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the severity of the wrong committed and the likelihood that the perpetrator will apologize for it. With that in mind, Rep. Cohen and all those who voted in favor of the resolution have earned my gratitude.

I will also point out that this apology actually seem to go against the larger trend in American society in which many Americans (particular White Americans) increasingly see the U.S. as a “colorblind” society in which racial minorities are perceived to be equal to Whites in terms of their socioeconomic opportunities. This mindset is reflected in recent opinion surveys which seem to show a lingering divide between Whites and Blacks over various social issues and perceptions about American society.

As I’ve written before about this colorblind trend, in theory, the motivation to be colorblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality.

It is worth noting that as quoted from the MSNBC article above, the apology resolution explicitly acknowledges this ongoing inequality. In other words, it seems that at least in this case, Congress actually seems to know more than what many Americans would probably give them credit for.

With that in mind, my hope that our government can once again lead the way in facilitating a more racially equal society has been rekindled — for now.