THE WARREN REPORT: Are We They?

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By WARREN FURUTANI

One day in junior high school a major ruckus was unfolding on campus. Kids were running around “helter skelter” and as a white friend ran by I asked, “What’s happening?” He said something to the effect that there was a race riot or fight but it didn’t involve me.

Relative to race, as a Japanese American or Asian Pacific Islander American, does the debate not involve us?

Of course all the discussion about the Trayvon Martin case is focusing on the black/white racial paradigm. Yes, there is an occasional reference to George Zimmerman being self-identified as Latino and some commentators have included Asians in the general discussion, but as a whole it seems it doesn’t involve us. So does that mean we are pseudo-white or are we people of color or even considered a minority group anymore?

This invisible or bystander status is reflected on a regular basis. Relative to election polling or polling on attitudes, very seldom are the preferences or voting trends of the APIA community reported. One example is when the political pundits discussed the analysis of who voted for whom in last year’s presidential election. There was only an occasional mention of the APIA vote, which is usually the case relative to any election anywhere.

I contend we can’t be marginalized in this discussion, nor can we take the easy way out and not get involved. With the current controversial issue at hand, the Trayvon Martin case, we may or may not identify as victims, but regardless we need to be a part of the solution.

Not comparable in any way to the Martin case, but recently racist incidents have been directed at the Japanese and Asian Pacific Islander American communities. During my tenure on the city’s Board of Public Works, I was greeted by a controversy involving a stereotypical portrayal of a so-called “geisha” in a Department of Public Works video. In an attempt at parody and comedy the producer, an APIA herself, aired a video that used the most ridiculous racist stereotypes one could imagine as a vehicle to highlight the city’s award-winning Japanese Garden.

In defense of this offensive video, some admonished those who objected to have a “sense of humor.” I’m sure the same rationale was referenced in the embarrassing televised reports using the incorrect names of the Korean pilots who crashed the Asiana Airlines plane. “Lighten up. Can’t you take a joke? I was just kidding.” —  all are inadequate attempts at rationalizing or hiding the inherent racism in the so-called humor (i.e., ethnic jokes).

With the video issue I was able to parlay the problem into hopefully a positive solution. The board is using this controversy as a “springboard” to do education in the city about the growing, diverse and dynamic Asian Pacific Islander American community. The community’s leading coalition, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, will be doing the diversity training for the Public Works Department and it will also be open to all city employees.

Next, we are connecting this effort to those of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and his wife Avis, who organize the Days of Dialogue program. Born out of the ’92 riots, this program brings all sectors of the community together to discuss controversial issues like modern-day racism and other sensitive topics.

Relative to what’s happening today, this effort is very timely. It’s not a matter of “Can we all get along?” a la Rodney King; it’s more “Can we talk?” so we can learn about who we need to get along with.

So, what about the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case? Lawyers can debate the shortcomings of the prosecution or if the threshold of a “reasonable doubt” was or was not reached, but we need to add the APIA voice to the chorus that the legal outcome in no way equates to justice.

The “self-defense laws,” the “stand-your-ground laws,” the “gun-carrying laws” — all were contributing factors to this tragedy and miscarriage of justice. I would also add the jury to this mix, not that they were overtly racist, but when the first juror came out publicly after the verdict was rendered, one answer to an interviewer’s question said it all.

Her repeated reference to Trayvon and his friend Rachel Jentel, who testified at the trial, was as “they.” They did this, they acted this way, that’s how they are. And when talking about Zimmerman she repeatedly called him “George.”

They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder; well, so is guilt or innocence. Through her and the other jurors’ eyes, from their point of view and relationship to the world, Trayvon was a “they” and Zimmerman was “George.” So are you going to believe the “they” or good old George?

In a case that is fundamentally based on who you believe, with no eyewitnesses, the outcome of the trial may have been predetermined from the very start.

Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, the California State Assembly, and the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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