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Transcript: Race in America: Allyship with NAACP LDF President & Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill & AAJC President John C. Yang

MS. LEE: Good afternoon and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Michelle Ye Hee Lee, national reporter at The Washington Post.

Joining me today are John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, AAJC. He recently testified [audio interference] House Judiciary Committee about the rise in anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, as well as its long roots; and Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Their organizations have often worked together. And we're here to talk about the role of allyship between the two communities. So, thank you for joining us, and welcome to you both.

MR. YANG: Thank you very much for having us.

MS. LEE: John, let's start with you. Give me a brief overview of how your organizations have been working together.

MR. YANG: Sure, and I appreciate that. I so much appreciate having this opportunity to talk to Sherrilyn in this way, because we often talk in business meetings, we often work together in different ways. So, to have an opportunity to reflect together I think is great. So, in terms of how we work together, there's a couple of different ways.

Number one is just on policy issues that we work together, you know, both as organizations that care so deeply about race, about racism, and how we deal with that. So, when I talk about policy issues, I'm talking about issues around voting. I'm talking about issues around police reform, making sure that we see each other and make sure that we're aligned on those issues with respect to legislation that's happening in Congress.

The other place that we've worked together is in litigation. We were just commenting even before we got started about how we're working together on the voter suppression bills that's happening in Georgia, that--for our organization, we're working with our Atlanta affiliate on, and how we've worked together on the affirmative action cases, whether it's in Harvard or other places. So, there's a long history together that I'm proud of, and I'm proud to be carrying on that tradition.

MS. LEE: Thanks for that overview. And, Sherrilyn, tell us why this work is important, why the allyship and the work you're doing together is important, and how it has manifested itself over the past year after the killing of George Floyd, and more recently the rise in anti-Asian racism.

MS. IFILL: Thank you, Michelle. I too am really thrilled that we're having this conversation. It's so important.

And if I can, let me just, you know, get into the history a little bit, which I think is really important for people to understand because part of what is critical and that unites us is recognizing the corrosive effect of white supremacy in our country and being arrayed in opposition to white supremacy, because white supremacy seeks to maintain control. It often seeks to try to pit different racial minorities against one another, or to drive a wedge between them, or to have us scrabbling for the crumbs that are left by a power structure that imagines us as second-class citizens. And so, it's important to understand that context. And I think John and I are united in that understanding and my--the organization I lead has been for a very long time.

But the reason I said I want to talk about history is because, you know, we think about Black people being second-class citizens after slavery--right?--having been the, you know, supposed beneficiaries of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the Civil War amendments, ending slavery, guaranteeing equal protection and citizenship, and ensuring that the right to vote could not be abridged because of race or color.

But we know that Black people were basically assigned to second-class status, that in 1896 the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case said separate but equal is fine. You can segregate Black people basically out of your lives, out of the best of what America has to offer, out of opportunity. You can segregate them out of quality education. You can segregate them out of good jobs. And that's what, certainly, the South proceeded to do.

But you know, Asian Americans were also affected by that. You know, the case of Gong Lum vs. Rice brought by a father seeking to ensure that his daughter, Martha Lum, could attend the White school in Bolivar County, Mississippi, because there were White schools and colored schools. So, the question was, you know, is Martha Lum colored? She's Asian American. And the Supreme Court, you know, frankly, betrays that family just as it betrayed Black people in Plessy vs. Ferguson and says that Martha Lum doesn't have the right to go to the White school and she has to go to the segregated Black school.

Now, some people would say, well, this is, you know, a White father trying to establish White status for his--for his Asian American daughter. But in fact, he's doing what Black families were trying to do as well, which was to get the highest quality education he possibly could for his children. And Brown vs. Board of Education, the case that the organization I lead litigated and won, overturns not only Plessy vs. Ferguson but also overturns Gong Lum, right? So, it's a way of understanding--certainly don't mean to suggest at all that we were in the same situation, because of course Black people were formally enslaved people. But if you know anything about the history of Asian Americans in this country, you know about the discrimination, the exclusion, the creation of an actual immigration law to keep Asian people away from being able to become citizens in this country. That history is real.

And so, being united around understanding the power of white supremacy to deny full citizenship to our respective communities is a really key unifying factor, and therefore, not allowing the forces of white supremacy to drive that wedge between us or to suggest that we should be scrabbling for the crumbs that are left after the White power structure takes what it wants from the American pie.

MS. LEE: That's such a comprehensive and powerful overview of the history. Thank you for that. Because I was going to ask about the history, because we all need to know more about that lengthy interwoven past that we have together.

John, can you tell us a little more about this history of the two communities working alongside each other and some examples of when the communities stood by each other when we needed each other the most?

MR. YANG: Sure. And the intro even introduced some of that. For the Asian American community, certainly when the Vincent Chin murder happened, the African American community was one of the first to stand up to say that this was wrong. And for those that don't know the history of Vincent Chin, this was a Chinese American that was in Detroit. This was the height of the so-called auto trade wars between the United States and Japan. Two out of work autoworkers, White autoworkers, saw Vincent and thought that he was Japanese American, literally took a bat and beat him over the head, and he died. And these two autoworkers, out-of-work autoworkers did not serve one day in prison as a result of what they did. And when the Asian American community cried out for justice, the African American stood--community stood right beside the Asian American community.

Likewise, if we look to modern day, we see the Asian American community rising up and standing alongside in allyship after George Floyd, after Ahmaud Arbery, after Breonna Taylor, and marching alongside our African American brothers and sisters. And likewise, we've seen that reciprocated now with respect to anti-Asian hate.

Now, I do want to say--I want to be real about this--is that, look, the Asian American community has not always been great allies. I mean, I do think that part of this conversation is we have to recognize where we came up short. And the Asian American community has not always been the best of allies, and that's one of the things that we want to talk honestly about and rectify.

The other thing about this, about this history that I think it's important to understand is, if you think about the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s, Asian Americans were such huge beneficiaries of that, because all of the rights that the African American community attained--and yes, there were Asian Americans that stood alongside during that period as well--you know, people like Yuri Kochiyama, people like Grace Lee Boggs--but those gains that were made by the African American community benefited the Asian American community. And that benefit was both on the civil rights side with respect to voting, with respect to education, and housing. But it was also with respect to immigration.

One landmark piece of immigration law--the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965--was part of the civil rights movement, and that's what led to the large influx of Asian American immigrants to the United States that we see today. So that's part of the history, about how we're all intertwined, how we faced those same struggles together.

MS. LEE: Thanks for that. And I want to get more into what you just mentioned about the history of, you know, missed opportunities among Asian Americans to be there for our Black communities.

So--but before we get there, I want to come back to what Sherrilyn mentioned up top, which is really important, the ways that our communities had been pitted against each other, the role of White supremacy in that, you know, on issues like affirmative action, or what the model minority myth, which has contributed at times to this cudgel placed between our two communities. Sherrilyn, can you tell us more about what that is, what lessons we've learned from those types of wedges that have been shoved between us, and how the two communities can rise above that and work instead toward fighting systemic racism?

MS. IFILL: Yeah, thank you, Michelle. I really want to answer that question. But if you don't mind, I would love to go back to John to repeat for this audience what he described to the United States Congress, the House, just a few weeks ago about the two myths that are used to describe the Asian American community, both of which are harmful. And I thought it was masterful and brilliant and so important for people to hear. And if you'll come back to me after that, then I can actually with that context having been laid better answer the question that you asked, Michelle. I'm sorry to get out of order, but it was so powerful.

And I actually think it's a--it's a predicate that needs to be laid for this conversation to understand the stories, the narratives that are told about Asian Americans, because then I want to talk about the narratives that are advanced about Black people and what some of the tensions are around those two narratives.

MS. LEE: Yeah, absolutely. You guys are the experts, so I will defer to that decision and toss it back to John, then.

MR. YANG: Sure. Thanks, Sherrilyn. This is why we work well together. So, let me talk about the two narratives--right?--these two myths.

One is the myth of the perpetual foreigner, this myth that no matter how long Asian Americans have been in this country, whether we're born here or not, that we are seen as a foreigner, we're seen as an other, we're seen as a threat. And what happens because of that myth is that we are treated with disdain and discriminated against. So, if you look into history, you know, you look back to the so-called "yellow peril" in the late 1800s that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, that happened shortly after Chinese railroad workers helped to build our American transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous work, doing the dynamite through the mountains, the Rocky Mountains.

Then, you fast forward to World War II, where the most decorated combat regiment in all of World War II on the American side was the 442nd Combat Regiment, made up of Japanese American soldiers doing hard work at the same time that their families were in incarceration camps, internment camps in the shores of the United States because of so-called suspected dual loyalties to the Empire of Japan.

Then, you have Vincent Chin, which I have talked about, and then you also have 9/11, where after the terrorist attacks on the United States, that what happened was this backlash against the Asian American community on so-called suspicions about national security threats. So, that's a history of the perpetual foreigner that creates us as a target, and that's what we're seeing with COVID-19 and some of the geopolitical tensions today.

The other myth that is important to recognize is this model minority myth. And this is the myth that causes our communities to be pitted against each other, this notion that Asian Americans do well. They don't have issues. You know, they do well with respect to education and wealth, and somehow that they are the good colored people, and that because of that there is some reason that other communities are not doing well because of their own fault. And that is just so dangerous. Because number one is, it's a myth.

With respect to the Asian American community, yes, there are some that are doing well. But there's a wide swath of Asian Americans that are not doing well. In fact, we have the widest wealth gap of any ethnic community. And so, we need to recognize that there are issues within the Asian American community. So, this model minority myth is purposely used as part of this white supremacist culture that we've talked about to pit our communities against each other and to make us fight for the scraps, as Sherilynn has rightfully, very eloquently stated.

MS. LEE: Sherilynn.

MS. IFILL: Okay. So, I mean, so that's really, really important to understand those two myths, to understand the tensions that have existed between our two communities.

Because, remember, after the Civil War we had the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the 14th Amendment, my favorite amendment in the Constitution--the first line of that amendment says that anyone born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen of the United States and the state where they reside. And this is powerful and important, and that first line is created in order to give Black people and to ensure that Black people are citizens, both newly freed slaves and free Black people, because the Dred Scott decision in 1850 suggested that no Black people could be citizens of the country. So, that first line of the 14th Amendment ensures that Black people are citizens.

And this is something Black people really have held onto, the knowledge that we are citizens. It becomes our badge of honor. It's the premise upon which we are able to struggle for equality, right? Equal protection of laws is also guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But we've premised quite a bit on our citizenship because, although we were here often in jurisdictions in larger numbers than White people, because the majority of Black people were enslaved before the Civil War, we were denied the imprimatur of citizenship. So now we are citizens. And Black people hold onto this. This is really important.

And White supremacists know that this is important to Black people. And they also know what that first line in the 14th Amendment says. So, yes, we have the Chinese Exclusion Act, but we also have the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1906, which says that the only people who can be naturalized are free White people and people of African descent. So, you hear that and you think, oh, look, Black people have been carved out like White people. but we all know citizenship looked like for Black people in 1906. We know what it looked like in 1923 when a Sikh American seeks to become naturalized in a case called "Inray" [phonetic] Thind, and again the United States Supreme Court says you cannot be naturalized because you're not a White person.

So, Black people are clinging to citizenship, fighting for full citizenship, being held by segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, in second-class citizenship status. But that then becomes something that differentiates us from Asian Americans, that maybe provides a sense even of superiority. We are at least citizens, right? And so, you can see how that narrative kind of pits us against each other by giving Black people a sense, a stronger sense of belonging, a stronger sense of citizenship. We're entitled to that sense of citizenship for sure. But it's not even full citizenship. It's second-class citizenship because we are not given the full weight of citizenship of White people.

Same with the model minority myth, right? What are the narratives about Black people, narratives about us being lazy, about our lack of intelligence, about our lack of work ethic--all projections by White people, frankly, on Black people, who are the people who are working the hardest, who are cleaning their homes, who are raising their children, who are brilliant beyond measure despite being kept in a segregated status, who would demonstrate time and time again their brilliance when provided an opportunity for education, right? All of this is the projection. And--but that narrative gets down into us, and we continue to struggle against that narrative.

Now, white supremacists hold up another group, and they say, but look at them. They are earnest. They are hardworking. They are naturally smart. You see, you are not like them. This is what I mean by the way in which white supremacy pits us against each other, by constructing narratives that are not true, that we internalize, that are assigned to each of us. Some of the narratives make us feel better. We are citizens--right?--as Black people. Or if you're Asian Americans, we are achievers, you know, right?

So, you can be seduced by what seem to be the attractive elements of these narratives, but then there is the flip side of the narrative and you are working against the ugly side of that narrative and you're fighting against it but you're fighting the wrong person. And I think that's the key to understanding this allyship and solidarity, is that we stand shoulder to shoulder in opposition to white supremacy. We stand shoulder to shoulder in furtherance of equality, the full equality, citizenship and dignity of every person, and that's what unites us. But the project of white supremacy is to undercut that.

MS. LEE: Right.

MR. YANG: If I could add--if I could add something briefly onto that, because Sherilynn hits on something that's very profound here, is that this narrative allows us to get to one place, but it's not the place where the white supremacists are.

This narrative is that, yes, the African American community, the Black community, are citizens, but they're not actually full citizens because of voting laws, because of all of these other institutional pieces of racism that keeps them from having the ability to exercise the full rights of citizens.

Likewise, with respect to this model minority myth, the good narrative is Asian Americans are achievers, or they're smart. But then part of that narrative is also is, oh, they're very good at technical things, but they're not really leaders. And so, Asian Americans likewise will hit that wall just like African Americans do because of this narrative that has been created upon us, not that are actually true.

MS. LEE: So, I'm really glad that you have both described this so well, because I think it's rare for us to have an honest conversation about all of these elements.

And the way you've talked about how we've internalized these--the product of white supremacy in each other and how that's manifested and the way we've treated each other even though it's not--you know, it wasn't our doing; it was forced on us by others, creating these myths, I think it's so important. And I'm so thankful that we're having this honest discussion.

We have just about 10 minutes left already, so I want to come to this moment, because I would love to get your thoughts on this. John, you touched earlier about how Asian Americans have now, you know, been talking about our history of not being the best allies sometimes to Black Americans. And I would love to get a little bit more from you on that. If--you know, what, if any, signs have you been seeing among Asian American communities trying to confront elements of anti-Blackness in our own history?

And after that, Sherrilyn, can you also talk about whether this moment feels like an inflection point at all, what you're observing about this moment within the context of what you've talked about. So, John, do you want to start?

MR. YANG: Sure. And I will say that the fact that Asian Americans were facing something different with respect to the level of anti-Asian hate that we saw last year, coupled with what I'm going to call a tragic coincidence, although it was to be expected with respect to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, brought out something different in the Asian American community, because on one level they saw racism directed at them in the same way.

That model minority myth for many in the Asian American community was shattered, and then they woke up in some ways and saw, oh, wait, you know, the African American community has been facing this for a very long time. So, in that sense, I do see the Asian Americans really confronted this in a different way last summer, in a good way. And it forced us to have difficult conversations. And part of this is that learned prejudice that all of us have, whether it is from our parents--again, let's be real about this--and what they learn from what I'm going to call their home countries. You know, and I'm going to call this out, is, if you look at some of the state media that's run by the Chinese government, there's no wonder why recent immigrants have certain prejudices against the African American community or the Latino community. So, we have to unlearn that. So, there's that element that I think we are confronting in a different way.

I've seen so many more discussions confronting anti-Blackness in the Asian American community than we have before. So, in that sense, I do see hope in this moment that--and I'm not going to call it a moment--this inflection point, as you could call it--that we are seeing over this past year.

MS. LEE: Sherrilyn, how about you?

MS. IFILL: Yeah, Michelle--yeah, let me take a longer view, because the organization I lead, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has been very involved in this work for some time. In fact, our organization really helped found similar organizations, similarly named even, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.

And when I was a young lawyer at LDF--this is my second tour of duty now; I'm leading the organization that I worked at very early in my career--we were all in the same building. You know, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, it was called the Public Interest Center. And we regularly worked together. We worked together on voting issues. We shared our interns, you know, over the summer.

So, we kept a lot of cross-pollination happening between the organizations. A member of the Legal Defense Fund usually sat on the Board of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. And the Director of our Western office, when we had an office in Los Angeles, which was in the mid-1980s through most of the 1990s, was a man named Bill Lann Lee, a Chinese American, son of Chinese immigrants. He also was the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. I think today when we see the kind of treatment of Vanita Gupta, you know, an Indian American nominee to serve as associate attorney general in the Justice Department, it recalls to us, you know, how many members of our community have been treated.

And on at least one occasion that was Bill Lann Lee, an Asian America who was--and who eventually, serving in an acting position, led the civil rights division of the Justice Department. He was trained and developed at LDF. He also worked at the Asian American Legal Defense Fund--a full-on civil rights lawyer who reached both communities. So, there's actually a very long history of civil rights connection between Asian American civil rights activists and leaders and African American civil rights activists and leaders, and so we shouldn't make it like this moment created something new.

But I think what John says is absolutely true. One of the reasons I think we so seamlessly moved into this moment is, you know, I can tell you that, you know, I myself had been making appeals, beginning with Jeff Sessions, to begin to address the rise in hate crimes in this country which started to rise exponentially in 2017. Never received a response back from Jeff Sessions. Raised it with Bill Barr. Never received a response back. That it pivoted and turned, that the target of this rise of hate crimes became largely the Asian American community, was not a surprise to us. Many of us had warned of President Trump's rhetoric about COVID-19 and the likely consequences of it.

So, we had seen this failure and inaction in the Department of Justice on hate crimes for the last four years. And so, we were ready to engage on this issue. And as a matter of fact--John knows this--before the terrible killings in Atlanta, I'd had a meeting with, you know, some of the new leadership at the Department of Justice, and I had raised as a--as a priority issue for LDF, for the NCAAP Legal Defense Fund, addressing hate crimes against Asian Americans, because we already knew that this was a very, very serious problem. And those are the moments I think are really important, when I as the leader of a Black civil rights legacy organization raise with the attorney general's office of the United States that one of our priorities that we expect them to address is the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans. So, when we do that, when we speak with that one voice, it becomes really powerful.

And the last thing I'll say, which is just incredibly painful--and you know, John can attest to this--you know, John reached out to us to a number of us to have a call after the killings in Atlanta, and a number of civil rights principals joined the call. And what was most painful, Michelle, about this call was that we were trying to surround John with encouragement, that he could take back to his staff and to his community. But we were all speaking from a place of having been there, right? You know, we had experienced Charleston. You know, the head of the Anti-Defamation League had experienced the Tree of Life massacre. The Latino community had been through El Paso. The head of HRC, the Human Rights Campaign, had been through the Pulse nightclub shooting.

What was so awful, so painful, so devastating about this call of leaders was that we all had been there. We all actually had something to share with John about what it feels like, what it feels like to lead an organization where your staff feels so personally affected by these events, where your staff fears for their families and for their communities, but where we're expected to stand up and be civil rights leaders. We all had something to say. It was--it was a terribly unifying moment but a very clarifying moment about what unites us, about what we face, and that's what I think is going to be critical for us moving together, including in the volatile area of affirmative action where it's been our privilege as LDF to work with the AAJC in, you know, pushing back against challenges to affirmative action that really come out of, again, these narratives that are so painful and so harmful and that are really designed to keep us scrabbling for the scraps against one another.

MS. LEE: Right. And, John, now we are in a final minutes. I'd like to end with you now, that, you know, Sherrilyn has mentioned that they're standing with you. They understand what you're going through, and you're surrounded by people who are here to help you. What are you taking away from this moment, and as you look forward with your work, how do you plan to work with all the communities that are standing alongside you?

MR. YANG: When--that moment when we had that call, that Zoom call, it was extremely touching. And I just--I did feel surrounded by love. And what I took from that was that with that shared pain, we have an opportunity for shared power. And that's what I want to take away from it, is how do we build together.

There are so many different places that we need to build together and find those opportunities to speak out not just for our own community but for our allied communities and make sure that that voice is done in unison. In that sense, I do have hope. It's going to take a long time. Obviously, this is not easy. But I do have hope that we see this in the same way.

I value--Sherrilyn's leadership has just been so wonderful in all of this, because she's always been an inspiration to all of us. And she's absolutely right. Just the number of Asian American leaders that has come from LDF, whether it's Vanita Gupta, whether it's Bill Lann Lee, or others that we're working with now on the affirmative action cases, et cetera, does give me hope that these allyships that are built, they're built to last, and they are moving the needle forward.

MS. LEE: Well, I think hope, inspiration, and allyships built to last are a really good spot to end this conversation, because unfortunately we're out of time. I truly thank both of you so much for joining me in this conversation and for your honesty and for your hard work. So, thank you.

MS. IFILL: Thank you, Michelle.

MS. LEE: And thank you all for joining us today. Today at 3:00 p.m. please tune in for my colleague John Woodrow Cox's conversation with former U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and other gun safety advocates. The conversation is in conjunction with John's new book about the toll of gun violence on children. I'm Michelle Ye Hee Lee and thank you again for joining us at Washington Post Live.

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