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Race relations activist eyes scapegoating

By Amy Agronis on December 7, 2001 in University

About 170 campus community members attended a lecture given last Thursday at the University Club by Helen Zia - an award-winning journalist, former executive editor of Ms. magazine and activist for social justice on issues ranging from civil rights and peace to women's rights and countering hate violence.

Zia, said Asian American studies professor Kent Ono, "is largely regarded as the most well- known spokesperson for the Asian American community in world."

Her work on the Asian American landmark civil rights case of anti-Asian violence is documented in the Academy Award-nominated film "Who Killed Vincent Chin?"

On Thursday, she addressed a standing-room-only audience of UC Davis students, staff and faculty members and administrators, offering her views on the country's legacy of racial intolerance, and how the Sept. 11 attacks are affecting that intolerance, in her talk - "Notes of A Journalist: Racial Profiling, Scapegoating, and the U.S. Media in 2001."

Zia is author of the critically acclaimed book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Her latest book is My Country Versus Me, the story of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for China. It is being published in January.

Zia is a graduate of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She is also a member of the university's first graduating class of women. She attended medical school for two years, then quit and found work as an autoworker in Detroit, and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life's work as a writer.

Excerpts from her talk follow.

"Back in 1984, I was very much involved in a movement of Anti-Asian racial violence involving the killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit by two white auto workers who were angry at Japan. And what I heard then was that there were also incidents here in Davis - including the killing of a Vietnamese high school student - as well as incidents on campus that even involved the stabbing of a Chinese American student.

So it's with mixed feelings that I'm here before you today almost 20 years later after hearing about all the activity at UC Davis to talk about this new day of racial profiling and racial scapegoating that we seem to be finding ourselves in following the terrible events of Sept. 11…

A different kind of war

What I'm going to focus on is some of the challenges I think you and I face, especially here today, while we're embroiled in this first war of the new millennium. Because it is a different kind of war, we are seeing changes every day in the relationships between the government and the people, and between the government and news media, and most definitely collectively among us people. Each day's news brings forth some erosion of the principles that have made our country great.

Just recently I read that the government is considering using torture to obtain information from some of the prisoners who are under detention for unnamed charges. Now this is our government talking, not some military dictatorship.

Coded messages: the tomato scare

...I'm sure you've all heard about how the White House called the top news media executives around the country and warned them against publishing propaganda from the enemy that might include coded messages from, in particular, Osama bin Laden - the implication being, of course, that the media would be playing into the enemy's hands. Within hours after that phone call, network executives and top newspaper editors promised that they would be doing more judicious editing - and you can interpret that to mean more self-censorship. ...These accusations of coded messages from Osama bin Laden reminded me of the accusations against Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. Remember him? Somehow in this debate about racial profiling his name hasn't popped up at all.

There were some 70 other scientist who had the same access to nuclear secrets in question and they had the same opportunity as Wen Ho Lee did to pass those secrets on to the People's Republic (of China) had they been so inclined. The only difference between them and Wen Ho Lee was that he was of Chinese descent, and the rest were of European descent.

The FBI couldn't find a single piece of evidence that would suggest that he had ever spied... . So, instead, they charged him with something that nobody has ever been criminally charged with - the mishandling of classified information. And that was because they found, in the course of all this scrutiny of his life, that he had improperly downloaded some classified computer programs onto an unsecured computer at Los Alamos - it never actually left Los Alamos.

This is what Wen Ho Lee was sent to prison for before a trial -- pretrial detention like the 600-1,100 people who are currently in detention. ...Wen Ho Lee was threatened with 30 life sentences, thrown into solitary confinement for nine months without a trial. FBI agents argued that Wen Ho Lee was so dangerous that he needed to be imprisoned, pre-trial, under maximum security because even his mere saying "Hello" or "How's the weather today?" could pass on, to the right person, a secret coded message.

This secret-message theory was very much at work during World War II. Back then, though, it wasn't computers or television that would be passing out secret, coded messages. The secret message was the tomato plant. Most of the Japanese Americans who were rounded up from the West Coast were farmers; they were simple farmers. Somehow they were mysteriously able to grow these tomatoes so that the stem on each tomato and the cap on each tomato could point in a particular direction. So, if enemy pilots happen to fly over California, they would see this entire crop of tomatoes pointed to Travis Air Force Base or some other air force base. ...And they ran headlines that would foment this hysteria. "Tomato fields point to air bases" - that's a real headline.

Even Edward R. Murrow - the great hero of modern journalism - claimed that if enemy planes ever made it to Seattle, where he was from, you would certainly see University of Washington sweatshirts on some of those pilots. And, as ridiculous as it may seem - this idea that anybody could grow tomatoes that would all point in a certain direction - people believed it enough to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans, more than half of whom were children.

The enemy within

...To the thousands of names of those who have been killed by international terrorists, we can add those who are killed by our own domestic terrorists. In the weeks following Sept. 11, there were more than 700 reported incidents of hate crimes against our fellow Americans. And I'm sure I don't have to tell anybody in this room that hate crimes are acts of terrorism, too. And so you see the problem and the responsibility belongs to every one of us. ...We need to be clear that racial profiling is more than street racism or prejudice that individuals harbor in their minds. Racial profiling is government-sponsored and government-sanctioned.

Now I'm sure you've heard of racial profiling and how that's been used in relation to African Americans in particular. DWB - right? Driving While Black, or Driving While Brown. Police departments have been warned not to do this. And so in the Wen Ho Lee case we have DWA - Downloading While Asian. And in today's post-Sept. 11 world we have JLME - Just Looking Middle Eastern.

So more than 5,000 young men who are here on visas, mostly from the Middle East, are being singled out - not for committing any crime or even potentially committing any crime - and are being invited to be interviewed by the police and the FBI. It's all very déjà vu. Because, of course, President Franklin Roosevelt said the internment of Japanese Americans was for their own protection from angry patriotic mobs, even though, in these camps, the barbed wire and the watchtowers with the guns were all pointed inside.

There have been studies that show that 78 percent of the American people get all of their information about the world beyond their immediate front doors from television news or the Sunday paper. That's it. Those factoids and those eight minutes of evening news are responsible for a lot of information and a lot of serious misinformation.

I know this because I was so dissatisfied by watching the news that I actually found my way from being an unemployed auto worker in Detroit and a medical school dropout to become a writer and a journalist.

And one of the first stories I encountered was something that followed the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of people in the collapse of the auto industry. And Japan, or anybody who even looked Japanese, was being blamed for the misery of many millions of people. There was this terrible climate of hate and very violent innuendo against Japan; and it was then being called the economic Pearl Harbor. It was likened to a war; and Japan was the enemy and people and things Japanese were the enemy. And the hate was so strong that a young Chinese American named Vincent Chin was killed by two white auto workers. I have to say that today's climate against Middle Easterners and South Asians, to me, is so reminiscent of the climate of that time.

The thing about it is that each of us, as consumers, has to demand better coverage and has to demand more diverse points of view. ...Until we have a better informed American public - we're gong to continue to see demands for racial profiling and this terrible rash of hate crimes.

'Missing In History' events

...If we are so proud of our patriotic heroes, why aren't people concerned about papers like the Houston Chronicle that censored the obituary of Mark Bingham. Who was Mark Bingham? Mark Bingham was from San Francisco. He was one of the heroes of Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Yet many newspapers deliberately deleted reference to his surviving life partner or to the fact that Mark Bingham was an openly gay man.

That's why in my talks - even on topics like this - and in my writings, I make a point of acknowledging my life partner. Because I know the people who chronicle history, even in obituaries, will censor such information when it is convenient.

I had to write a book myself to find out some of these incidents that tie us together in history - what I call in my book critical events that are MIH - Missing In History.

For many of us know that it was Japanese American GI's who liberated Jewish Holocaust survivors from the Nazi death camp Dachau - at the same time their own families were being imprisoned behind barbed wire? That information was suppressed. When the newsreels actually came, those Japanese American GI's were told to step out of the camera, because it wouldn't look right. This information, then, is MIH.

On becoming a light

I'm reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's statement that darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that. Can you imagine how different your lives - our lives - would all be if we had enough light to know how really connected our lives are? What if each of us took responsibility to be that light for ourselves and for each other?

I know today from talking to different students that there's a petition going around to have a course on South Asian American history and there are efforts under way also to take the Asian American studies program into departmental status. Things like that will also help bring these MIH events into light. ...Remember, you are the ones who are going to be shaping the America and the media of tomorrow. You'll be shaping it with the conscience and the voice that you raise today - individually and collectively.

...So I leave you today with the words of the great humanitarian Mahatma Gandhi, who said: "You must be the change you wish to see in this world. You, me, each of us must be the change we wish to see in this world.' " •

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,