An Open Letter To Marion Barry & His “Dirty Asian” Problem

By Esther

Dear Council Member Marion Barry,

You are right to want healthy food for your community and more businesses owned by African Americans. You are right to have a problem with Plexiglass walls. However, your string of hateful remarks about Asian storeowners was based on nothing more than your own racism, and you have yet to identify the real problems affecting your community.

It is an uncomfortable thing to see Asian-owned stores in low-income African American communities. We easily picture this situation as one of exploitation, and assume that the most visible “other” must be the one siphoning all the wealth away from the community.

These Asian storeowners are an especially easy target for you as a politician because you recognize they are immigrants without much of a political voice, and you understand what you can gain by igniting racial tensions between African American and Asian American communities. This is a tension that has been happily exploited by the white mainstream for decades, and has created a division that has damaged us both.

But if you went ahead and evicted all these Asian businesses from your community, would life for your constituents actually get better? Would an organic fruit market rush in to fill the void left by the Chinese take-out joint? Would this magically give the people from the community the resources to start their own businesses in their place?

You retweeted one person’s comment to the effect that Asian business owners put up Plexiglass because they’re scared that all these “animals” will rob and kill them. That’s really inflammatory, and I’m sure great politics. Plexiglass is a very obvious statement that the person behind it is trying not to get robbed, and I’m really sorry that the people in your community have to deal with that. But does that mean that the storeowners are fundamentally racist and scared of every person who comes through their doors? Or are they just aware that if there’s just one person out there looking to rob them, in an area where robberies happen, they can lose everything, even their lives.

As an Asian American, I can’t help but feel deeply pained by all the stories of loss in my community, as I’m sure you feel for the losses in yours. And I become more frustrated and angry every time I see yet another story about an Asian storeowner or delivery man who was senselessly murdered on the job. There is a troubling pattern of violence against Asian Americans, and when the perpetrators are African American, many express their inability to see these Asian bodies as fully human. And it’s our youth who are suffering the most, stories like South Philadelphia high school come to mind.

In our country’s black-white dichotomy, many Asian Americans don’t feel entitled enough to even enter the conversation, and racism against our community is never taken very seriously, even when lives are lost. Asian Americans like myself often seek to be allies before all else, so we hesitate to talk about the racism and violence against us by other people of color. But will we ever change anything by remaining silent? Or will the void of understanding between these two communities continue to be filled by simmering resentments that eventually explode?

It’s interesting how you continue to refer to these wok and deli owners as “businessmen.” You are projecting onto them privilege and opportunity that they do not have. If they had more options in life, would they have chosen to work in these stores? They are often immigrants, not by choice, but economic necessity. The causes of all the injustices in our world are wrapped up into many of the same root causes, from slavery and colonialism to the global capitalism of today. The fact that immigrants come to the United States, leaving behind their lives and all they know, to work in places where they are disrespected, unwanted, and targeted, should signal a much larger problem in this world that has hurt both your community and mine.

The real enforcers and beneficiaries of institutionalized racism and systemic poverty in this country will probably never step foot in your ward. They have created a world in which they never actually have to interact with poor people, or black people for that matter. They never have to deal with the hard work and small change of running a takeout business. They sit in skyscrapers and in our government, enriching themselves off of poor communities of color by making our laws and our prisons, creating our debt, producing our music and movies, owning our big food corporations, and determining our fashions. Why don’t you take issue with them, and not the people who are struggling to eke out a living in this world?

I’m tired of Asian American communities constantly being scapegoated for problems that are so much larger than ourselves, problems from which our communities suffer as well. I’m tired of people wanting to heap our nation’s injustices onto my struggling immigrant parents and the hardworking, resilient community in which I was raised.

I’m tired of politicians like you who do not help marginalized communities to build and heal, but exploit your own people and gain reelection by stirring up hate and misunderstanding against other marginalized groups. This will only hurt the people you claim to be advocating for. The person who is truly exploiting these people is you.

As an elected official who claims to be representing the best interests of his people, I ask that YOU “do better,” and to come up with some solutions that will create real opportunities for your community, rather than resorting to hateful memes that will inevitably lead to more violence and misunderstanding and no solutions. And lastly, I ask that you extend your noble desire for the African American community to be understood and justly treated to other communities as well.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Esther Choi is a Korean American living in NYC. Esther works as a community organizer for Asian Americans for Equality and serves on the board of OCA-NY.

[Photo courtesy of Politico]

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