In his reprehensibly racist manifesto, Dylann Roof laid out the finer points of what he called his “racial awareness.” He denigrated blacks as “stupid and violent,” “the group that is the biggest problem for Americans.” Other ethnic groups inspired ire, but also pity. Hispanics, he wrote, were “still our enemies.” But they and Jewish people might prove redeemable if they would identify more with white supremacy.
And then there were the Asians.
Asians, Roof wrote, deserved his respect. “Even if we (white people) were to go extinct they could carry something on,” he wrote. “They are by nature very racist and could be great allies of the White race.”
We might call this racist love—because his grotesque admiration for Asians was not separate from a belief in the superiority of whites and a desire to denigrate and take Black lives. Roof’s racist love apparently included an obsession with a Japanese movie and a strange hope that Asians would join his cause.
Roof’s attitude isn’t new. White supremacists have vacillated between fear and fetishization of Asians for over a century. Beginning in the mid-19th century, immigrant Chinese laborers and Japanese farmers suffered violence at the hands of whites who feared they were losing their jobs and livelihoods.
By 1920, as Congress moved to ban all Asian immigrants, Lothrop Stoddard’s book, “The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy,” began to rise on the best-seller lists. Fear was giving way to fascination in some circles. In his book, Stoddard warned that white civilization might “be swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will obliterate the white man by elimination or absorption.” He concluded that, of all the nonwhite peoples, the Japanese and the Chinese posed the biggest threat to global white rule. He strongly supported closing off Asian immigration to the U.S. But he also argued that, because of what he called their “industriousness” and “strategic guile,” Asian deserved whites’ “mutual comprehension and respect.”
More recently, U.S. neo-Nazi Tom Metzger boasted of his ties to far right Japanese nationalists, the kind of a relationship that evokes for many white-power supporters the World War II Axis pact between Germany and Japan. And the notorious British eugenicist and white nationalist Richard Lynn has long argued that “Mongoloids” possess the highest IQs and the lowest propensities for anti-social behavior. “Who,” he said, “can doubt that the Caucusoids and Mongoloids are the only two races that have made any significant contribution to civilization?”
Such ideas have found their mainstream form in the notion of Asian Americans as a “model minority.” Since the late 1960s, pundits have regularly trotted out the supposed economic and social success of Asian Americans to neutralize black and Latino— and even other Asian American — claims of racial discrimination. Although a close look at the data shows that Asian Americans in fact lag well behind whites in wealth and household in per capita income, the stereotype has stuck: Asian Americans don’t argue, they succeed. As Bill O’Reilly has put it, “Asian people are not liberal, you know, by nature. They’re usually more industrious and hardworking.”
Asian Americans who oppose equal opportunity policies for other communities of color have adopted this argument. In cities like San Francisco, they have filed lawsuits to end consent decrees and desegregation orders in public schools. And at universities like Harvard, they have filed lawsuits to challenge affirmative action. Perhaps Roof, like the neocons who have been trying to undo civil rights laws for over a quarter century, thought of them as partners in ending discrimination against whites, too.
Before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were triggered by the acquittal of four police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, the media played a central role in inflaming tensions between Asian Americans and African Americans. They continually replayed video of the horrific murder of Latasha Harlins, a young black teenager shot in the back by Soon Ja Du, a Korean American shopkeeper who accused the girl of stealing a bottle of orange juice.
During the riots, scenes of armed Asian Americans protecting Koreatown shops were also widely televised. This powerful image— a conflation of the myth of the good minority with the archetype of the frontier gunfighter hero — lingers. The media still portrays the besieged immigrant shopkeeper as the central tragedy of race riots, from Ferguson through Baltimore, not the victims of police violence whose beatings and deaths started them. But the former would not have happened without the latter.
Roof, who idolized George Zimmerman, may or may not have seen those images of the Los Angeles riots, but it’s clear he saw Asian Americans in the same way much of the media saw Koreatown’s armed youths — as defenders of order and civilization, a surrogate army for white supremacy.
But really, Roof’s views of Asian Americans are just as distorted as his view of other racial groups. Asian Americans have hardly been silent over the past six months. They have played a supporting role in the “Black lives matter” protests, organizing under the name Asians4BlackLives. The overwhelming majority of Asian Americans remain far more liberal than their lawsuit-filing counterparts. A fall 2014 national poll conducted by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice showed that 68 percent supported affirmative action. Four in five Asian Americans also support stronger gun control.
Asian Americans voted for President Obama — presumably the source of much of Roof’s angst that blacks were “taking over” —by more than 2-1 margins in 2008 and 2012. His mixed black, Asian, and white family stands as a powerful counter-image to the 19-year-old’s race-war fantasies.
Roof may have dreamed of a vanguard of Asian allies joining his depraved quest, but that was just another of his many delusions.