AFRICAN-Americans should be leading the charge against those who have targeted Asian-Americans in the wake of the campaign finance scandal in Washington. Isolating Democratic Party donors with Asian surnames and, at times, returning their donations is the kind of bigotry that easily can increase the overall level of racism in this nation - and this is bad news, above all for African-Americans.
However, so far, African-Americans have not been overly vocal in their criticism of these practices. Perhaps there is a naive idea that putting the spotlight on some other racial group for a change will deflect bigotry away from blacks. But this is a gross miscalculation.
Still, it is easy to understand why some African-Americans might think that focusing on Asian-Americans is a welcome respite.
After all, the beginnings of a sizable black presence on the West Coast were a direct result of the internment of Japanese-Americans.
In Los Angeles, for example, virtually overnight ""Little Tokyo" became ""Bronze-ville," as residents of Japanese ancestry were carted off to internment camps and migrants of African descent from Texas and Louisiana took their place. Japanese-Americans living from Seattle to San Diego were victims of human rights violations, but there was silence from leftists, civil rights groups - and African-Americans. This silence, however, was surprising because before World War II, African-Americans had looked to Asians as models and allies. Japan's defeat of Russia in the war of 1905 was viewed by many blacks as a direct refutation of the theory and practice of ""white supremacy." In the 1930s the Nation of Islam - which to this day speaks of the ""Asiatic Black Man" - received assistance from its conservative counterparts in Tokyo, united as they were on a common platform of ""anti-whiteness." On the left, W.E.B. Du Bois - the venerable founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - saw Japan as the ""champion of the darker races."
World War II changed the relationship between Asia and African-Americans as Tokyo sympathizers like Elijah Muhammad were jailed and other blacks, like Du Bois, became convinced that the war would improve the civil [See Asians, Page 7f] rights climate in this country. There was hope not only that blacks fighting for the United States would be rewarded but, as well, that this war against Hitlerite racism abroad would discredit ""white supremacy" at home.
This was not an inaccurate perception as the walls of segregation began to crumble after the war. However, this epochal development did not bring racial equality, and the frustration generated as a result led to the conflagration known as the ""Watts Uprising" of 1965 in Los Angeles. This was also the year, perhaps coincidentally, of immigration reform and an upsurge in the number of immigrants - particularly from Asia - that began flooding California.
Los Angeles exploded into flames again in 1992 in the aftermath of the first Rodney King trial. During the rioting, Korean-owned stores were looted by African-Americans, leading to speculation that the businesses had been targeted. There was widespread anger in the African-American community over the relatively light sentence a Korean-American store owner received for killing a black teen-ager. As John Singleton's brilliant film ""Rosewood" demonstrates, blacks historically have railed against the idea of collective punishment - penalizing a community for the alleged transgressions of one member - but this is precisely what was counseled by some in 1992.
Sadly, certain black creative artists did not help matters: Ice Cube's Korean-bashing lyrics complemented the gratuitous anti-Korean violence in the Hughes Brothers film ""Menace II Society."
In 1993, there was an opportunity for a form of reconciliation between Asian-Americans and African-Americans when the thoughtful City Council member Michael Woo ran for mayor of Los Angeles. He had spoken out early and often against the depredations of the Los Angeles Police Department - particularly the police brutality that too often affected blacks - and his campaign symbolized a local version of the ""Rainbow Coalition." But certain black leaders, notably Rep. Maxine Waters, who had counseled her constituents in 1992 that they must swallow their doubts and vote for a moderate Southern Democrat for president to defeat the Republicans, was unable the very next year to support the liberal Woo, and thus a Republican won City Hall.
It did appear that some black leaders, with the retirement of Tom Bradley, were reluctant to see another minority win.
Of course, African-Americans voted for Woo at a higher rate than, for example, their European-American counterparts, but this is nothing to brag about because the latter group, despite predictable denials, seems to be concerned - more than most - by the improving fortunes of Asians and Asian-Americans.
Unfortunately, few African-Americans have pondered the domestic implications of what increasingly is being referred to as the forthcoming ""Pacific Century." Fortunately, Africans have not been laggard in this regard. South African President Nelson Mandela, who just returned from Brunei, is now in India. Malaysia is one of the largest investors in his country, just as Japan is the most significant aid donor on his continent.
When Malaysian investors bought a newly privatized thermal power plant in Zimbabwe, former Reagan administration official Chester Crocker howled in outrage. in turn, the Zimbabweans - including President Robert Mugabe - wondered if privatization was supposed to mean that Europeans and North Americans alone were to reap the benefits. letters to the editor pondered the new meaning of race as the new millennium dawned.
Though we must not make the mistake of conflating Asians and Asian-Americans, we must recognize that international issues do have domestic implications: for example, Israel's dealing with apartheid South Africa complicated Jewish and African-American relations.
Likewise, the growing tensions between China and the United States can complicate race relations here, particularly in cities like Los Angeles that have sizable populations of people of Asian descent. Now that the Cold War and anti-Soviet partnership between Beijing and Washington is eroding, the domestic reverberations of this unraveling can be profound - as the campaign finance scandal suggests.
Still, just as Beijing has blunted U.S. opposition by waving contracts and business deals at Microsoft, Disney, Boeing, and former Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, it is now moving in a similar direction in its dealing with U.S. minorities. The journal Beijing Review has begun responding to allegations of China's human rights violations by pointing to the sorry state of minorities here, particularly the state of African-Americans. As historians have noted, during the Cold War similar criticisms from Moscow prodded the United States toward civil rights reform. In New York City, the Chinese consulate has feted Latino, Asian-American and African-American business figures and has promised them access to the largest market in the world.
The new relationship may aid in helping African-Americans to forget more dastardly deeds by Beijing - like its collaboration with South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s in the failed attempt to destabilize the government of Angola, a front-line state in the battle against white minority regimes.
This coalition of business figures in New York calls itself the ""new majority" in recognition of the demographic changes that already have swept Los Angeles and will sweep the rest of the nation by the middle of the century. It is to be hoped that this coalition will help African-Americans particularly to realize that they have little to gain from a new upsurge of bigotry aimed at Asian-Americans. Moreover, if relations between Beijing and Washington continue to deteriorate, it is fatuous to suggest that African-Americans will benefit. Black Angelenos - who reside in a state with the largest Asian-American population and the most significant trade with Asia - are in a unique position to bring these important lessons to the rest of us.
Gerald Horne, professor and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author, most recently of "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s" (Virginia, 1995)
Pub Date: 4/20/97