Are Asians Black? the Asian-American Civil Rights Agenda and the Contemporary Significance of the Black/white Paradigm

By Kim, Janine Young | The Yale Law Journal, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Are Asians Black? the Asian-American Civil Rights Agenda and the Contemporary Significance of the Black/white Paradigm


Kim, Janine Young, The Yale Law Journal


I. INTRODUCTION

The phrase "civil rights movement" evokes the powerful words and images of the mass movement by Black Americans in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, however, Asian Americans have increasingly laid claim to a place in the history of the struggle for civil rights. Just as Derrick Bell harkens back to Dred Scott v. Sanford(1) as the first of the "leading cases" in civil rights,(2) Hyung-Chan Kim's anthology of Asian-American civil rights cases and essays recalls cases such as Yick Wo v. Hopkins(3) as proof of Asian Americans' longstanding participation in the development of civil rights law in the United States.(4)

When tensions within American multicultural, multiracial society exploded in Los Angeles in 1992, not only history but immediate reality itself seemed to insist on the inclusion of Asian Americans within the larger discourse on civil rights. Because what began as an arguably Black (Rodney King)-White (LAPD officers) conflict transformed into multiracial strife involving not only Black and White Americans but also Latinos and Asian Americans, the riots brought into sharp relief the complex racial interrelationships within Los Angeles. As a result, two race scholars announced that the riots "marked the beginning of a new period of U.S. racial politics,"(5) one that must "decisively break with the bipolar model of race."(6) Since then, the black/white paradigm has been a subject of increasing academic debate; the controversy has likely entered the popular consciousness as well, due to the highly publicized conflict between Angela Oh and John Hope Franklin within President Clinton's race relations commission.(7)

Although existing legal scholarship on the black/white paradigm generally assumes the paradigm to be a biracial model of racism that focuses exclusively on the relationship between Black and White Americans,(8) an explicit definition is rare and difficult to find.(9) The dearth of legal scholarship that endeavors to outline the contours of the black/white paradigm is problematic not only because the inadequacy of the paradigm is an often unexplored and unchallenged assumption, but also because the assumption may be incorrect or misleading.

This Note focuses on the (uneasy) relationship between the black/white paradigm and the Asian-American civil rights agenda. My primary project is to intervene in the seemingly unproblematic discussion of the black/white paradigm in order to caution that current race discourse oversimplifies the paradigm and fails to articulate the full cost of its abandonment. One reason for my argument is that a paradigm once so powerful should not, as a principle, be discarded without serious analysis. A second, more compelling, reason is that the black/white paradigm retains contemporary significance despite demographic changes in American society. It is, therefore, imperative that race scholars understand the paradigm's enduring resonance and potential before concluding that it nevertheless ought to be abandoned. It is my belief, however, that the paradigm is important to the Asian-American civil rights agenda today and that to eliminate it from race discourse would mean losing an important tool for living in and understanding our evolving, racially stratified society.

Part II of this Note very briefly summarizes some scholarship on the black/white paradigm and questions the boundaries and assumptions embedded within the scholarship. Part III clarifies my own assumptions about race and race relationships--namely that they are constructed and therefore unstable--and identifies six dimensions of the black/white paradigm. These six dimensions, through which I attempt to (re)define the black/white paradigm, are elaborated in Part IV. Finally, Part V is devoted to addressing the objection that the black/white paradigm is inapplicable to the Asian-American civil rights agenda by analyzing immigrants' rights and affirmative action through the lens of the paradigm as I envision it.

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