THE FOLLOWING ARE QUESTIONS PUT TO ME BY THE CHINESE MAGAZINE
MY ANSWERS IN ITALICS.
1. The death of Brown and Garner has sparked national outrage, and the anti-police demonstrations have erupted into long-time looting and clashes in Ferguson, Missouri. What do you think the tragedy was rooted from and why the loss of control in public emotions happened?
The two deaths and the reaction to them are not new. The history of police overreaction and/or incompetence goes back hundreds of years in US history. The source is as unchanged as the history: racism. It took 250 years for the United States to move from the concept of “separate but equal” in its treatment of blacks to the legal concept of full equality of all citizens. The Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision that provided for equal education came down in 1954 and here we are 70 years later with parts of the US still effectively segregated as in Ferguson.
One major difference in the current events is new media. News is now available 24/7 on cable television and the Internet where smartphone use keeps everyone informed anytime and anyplace, all the time. China has even more experience with social media than the USA does. News in China moves at the speed of light, often ahead of the government’s attempts to regulate the flow of information. In the USA with its open information flow the situation becomes exaggerated through fear that is often the result of rumour that passes for news or other unsubstantiated reporting.
Ferguson and the behaviour of police forces in a big city like New York and tiny place like Ferguson are falsely lumped together as a single event.
When a community is aggrieved, it reacts, and often violently. In the civil rights struggle in the USA demonstrations in the 1950s and 60s were often peaceful while the reverend Martin Luther King was alive. He preached non-violence and set the moral tone for much of the black community. Prior to Dr. King violence and looting prevailed. After Dr. King the picture is mixed. In NY peaceful demonstrations have prevailed, while rioting and looting characterize Ferguson. Much of the difference is in the size and experience of the communities involved. New York City, America’s largest city and Ferguson, Missouri one of its smallest communities.
2. Compared with Missouri’s days of violence, New York has seen large but peaceful protests after the deaths of two African Americans. What are the main reasons that contribute to the two different outcomes?
The easy answer is in the character of the two police forces. The NY City Police Department is a force of nearly 40,000 men and women including members from all of the city’s minorities. As many as 800 different languages are spoken in New York City, more than any other city in the world. 40% of the city’s inhabitants of New York are foreign born. In short, diversity is the fundamental character of the city. There is a long history of violent clashes between and among many of the minorities including everything from local gangs to organized crime families (like triads in HK and mainland China and Taiwan). But the experience of a now relatively integrated police force gives the city the opportunity to deal with threats of violence in the context of minority cultures and languages. Many minorities have learned that there is more to be accomplished through peaceful demonstration than through violence. Violent demonstrations have diminished in many large American cities.
Looters are another story. Looters are not demonstrating, they are ordinary criminals who take advantage of any situation and are nothing more than thieves who want to steal anything they can get their hands on. The police in New York City as in other large cities have learned how to deal with looters fairly effectively.
3. Do you think the two cases mentioned above will set off African-American Civil Rights Movement? Why and how? What the activists’ appeals are mainly about?
Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King 46 years ago the US Civil Rights Movement has not had a new national – much less international – leadership. Even local and regional leaders have been relatively weak. Part of the reason is the immigration of Mexican and Latin American minorities into the USA, the growth in the Asian population that includes significantly Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The primary and secondary public schools in the USA just this year became majority/minority. More minorities than white Americans now attend public schools in the USA.
The minority population of the USA will exceed the former white majority within the next year or two. This is a long way of saying that a combination of events and facts have diversified and thereby diminished what was the former African American Civil Rights movement. The struggle for civil rights and human rights continues but it has diversified into many minority communities and can therefore appear to be weaker than it once was.
4. The police have been a lot argued about in the Brown and Garner deaths. Some say they are too militarized, what do you think? What can be done to establish better relations between the police and the communities they serve, especially communities of color?
Brown and Garner are two examples of the same problem. There is evidence that the adoption of high technology and deadly force weapons by police departments has outpaced the training of even the best police departments. A small police force like Ferguson demonstrated everything that is wrong. The following chart from USA Today demonstrates how the population mix in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis Missouri, has changed.
What has not changed is the local Police force in Ferguson that remained predominantly white, underfunded and poorly trained though relatively well equipped. Much of the local police force’s equipment came from the US Department of Defense in a program meant to help underfunded small police forces to be better equipped. The problem is the military equipment included automatic weapons, and heavy armored vehicles, the kinds soldiers use to fight wars. This was the equipment the Ferguson force used to confront demonstrators when they marched to protest the shooting of a young black man by a police officer. In English the expression for this excessive display of force is called “overkill”.
By contrast the NY City Police Department has equipment and trained officers men and women for every conceivable eventuality. The NY City Police defend the representatives from 140 countries in the world who meet at the UN. There are almost daily parades that celebrate the national days and religious holidays of the many different national and ethnic populations in the city. Police are trained to prevent violence in what are daily demonstrations for a variety of causes and complaints in the city. There are the ordinary daily crimes of burglary and car theft. There are violent crimes of rape of murder. The NY City Police Department is far from perfect but what it has more than any other police department in the world is an experience and training not available elsewhere. Response to danger or crime can be nuanced to meet the different levels of threat.
5. Though with the guarantee of law, in reality do the communities of color still experience injustice? How often, in what way and what does that bias come from?
Any minority in the USA will have his or her stories of daily experience with bias. African Americans and dark skinned Latinos stand out from a white population and are the most frequent victims of everything from racial profiling by police who may automatically watch them more than others. Statistically, more African American are arrested and imprisoned in the USA than any other group. The lack of a coherent immigration policy has added to racial bias particularly among the recent Mexican and Latin American undocumented immigrant population. In some cities a traffic violation by an undocumented foreigner can result in deportation. The growing Muslim populations in the USA are easily identified by their dress, as are some Indians from India.
The USA is often called a “melting pot” as if the many diverse populations are integrated into a mix like a stew. That may be a nice image but it is false. The realty is that minorities tend to naturally congregate. Districts and sections of cities develop along socio-economic lines that often parallel the origins of their populations. In the US that includes ethnic, national, and religious minorities. NY for example has the largest Jewish population outside Israel. There are sections of NY where Jews form a majority locally. Chicago has the largest Polish population outside Poland. San Francisco has the largest Chinese population in the country. These are not integrated communities; they are enclaves of people with common languages, and origins.
This proliferation of populations can easily fall victim to racism. If you are considered “different” because of how you look, how you dress, the language you speak, the culture you follow, you are often treated less well than when you are part of what may be considered the mainstream population.
The NBA, as popular in China as it is in the USA, is a sport whose players are predominantly African-American. Spectators and fans of the NBA in the USA often include more whites than blacks. In this case the difference is economic. The tickets are expensive and not readily affordable by less well off African-Americans. This is an example where a white man or woman may feel discriminated against as a player, while blacks may feel discriminated against because they cannot afford the price of a ticket to a game.
6. The piece of article by John Eligon of the New York Times, in which he used the term “no angel” to picture Michael Brown, has stirred up controversy and bounce. How do the American media deal with issues relevant to colored groups? How do they portray them and to avoid racial discrimination? Will the cultural stereotypes perpetuated by the media happen a lot? In what occasion?
I expect the editor responsible for Mr. Eligon’s article is asking him or herself the same questions. Mr. Eligon is African-American. He has said he made a mistake using the phrase “no angel” and suggested he should have said that Mr. Brown was not perfect. Much of the article dealt with positive aspects of Michael Brown’s life, but they are lost in the controversy. The controversy is a reflection of the sensitivities of minority issues and how rapidly people and groups can feel discrimination and bias. This can be difficult for many Chinese to understand. China has nearly 60 minority populations, yet the total population is more than 95% Han. How many Chinese ever see someone who is an obvious minority? Foreigners yes from the West. I can remember when I first came to Shantou in 2003 and went downtown, little children would follow me. When I inquired why they followed me, I was told: “They have never before seen a foreigner.” That has changed by now but 2003 is barely more than a decade ago. China’s obvious minorities are in the Western and Northern Provinces, where they are often a majority population locally. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Chengdu and a few other mega cities in China are increasingly experiencing an influx of foreigners. It is more common to see people who look different, and speak other languages. But few of these people are permanent residents. They are tourists or short-term business travelers. There is less racial tension when foreigners or minorities are temporary visitors compared to permanent residents.
The US media suffers from a lack of diversity in its own ranks. Mexican and Latin Americans are relatively invisible in US mainstream media. African-American reporters and editors are not a reflection of their percentages in the population as a whole. Asians even less so. Here the development of minority media is the partial answer.
There is a selection of Spanish- speaking cable channels and radio stations in the country. African-Americans have cable networks devoted to their audiences. Cities with significant Chinese populations have Chinese cable channels. The concept of integrated media may be an ideal to some, but the reality is elsewhere. All of these developments contribute to the fact that the typical white reporter has fewer and fewer opportunities to experience or learn about minority populations and cultures in the USA.
Stereotypes are still common. A parallel example in China comes from CCTV where minorities are often portrayed wearing their native costumes. This makes it difficult for a Han Chinese to imagine a minority as a neighbor who might be an ordinary office worker, or a doctor or lawyer or schoolteacher.
If you see a very tall black man or woman, what is your first thought? Basketball player, or bus driver, or doctor or lawyer?
In New York City many of the small green grocer shops are owned and operated by Koreans. White New Yorkers often think of Koreans in that role. Many Chinese immigrants who came to New York decades ago started restaurants and dry cleaning establishments. There are still many older New Yorkers who when they see a Chinese think food or dry cleaning.
Stereotypes die hard.
Fortunately among the young as the world travels more and more stereotypes are also dying.
7. China has shared the same characteristics with America that they are both countries with many ethnic groups. What China can learn from America's experience and lessons to deal with the ethnic minority problem？
There are partial answers to this question in some of my previous answers.
There remains a larger challenge for China because its majority/minority situation is unique. India with a comparable population is a nation of minorities speaking at least 400 distinctly different languages, plus a variety of religions and ethnicities. China by contrast has a national language with hundreds of provincial and local dialects. Mandarin, China’s common language gives the population an advantage. Chinese can speak to each other, even if there are many other differences between them that include misunderstanding their common language.
Chinese tend to identify themselves through their family. After that they may consider their hometown or their home Province.
At the same time since the modern Chinese revolution in 1949, the concept of the Chinese nation has never been stronger.
But what of the 57+ minorities in China? How Chinese do they feel, and if you are a Han Chinese how do you feel about them? Are they what the Chinese constitution calls for: citizens with equal rights and privileges?
These are the challenges and opportunities facing China.
The national government feels challenged when there are demonstrations or riots in the minority areas of the country. The issue is how to deal with the minorities. If they want to live by their separate languages and cultures, should they be forced into integration into the Chinese mainstream? Historically that is not likely to succeed. Can a minority be forced into subjugation? Again, historically not likely?
How much representation do Chinese minorities have in mainstream China? Minorities represent less than 5% of the population, so should they have any more representation than they do? There are many more questions than answers to these issues.
The best and worst examples of minority issues are in the smaller countries. Holland has a population of about 16 million with a minority foreign-born population of about 1.6 million or 10%. Integration of the Dutch minorities, many from former colonial Indonesia have been relatively successful through education of the domestic and foreign populations.
Norway has a population of 5 million, including 600,000 relatively recent foreign immigrants. A recent survey of native Norwegians has uncovered racial and ethnic bias that includes significant strains of anti-Semitism against Jews, and a strong dislike of Muslim, Somali and Roma (gypsy) populations.
Racism is a fact in almost all countries and populations. Racism is not new. Majorities have problems with minorities because they tend to be different. The differences can be small and insignificant. What Chinese Province does not claim to have the most beautiful women and the smartest children? There is no objective truth to those claims and yet we tend to believe them, at least a little bit.
“Ethnic cleansing” whether it is the many recent genocides in Africa and the Balkans, or historic examples that almost exterminated entire native populations in North and South America including the Nazi Holocaust throughout Eastern and Western Europe, these are examples of extreme racism. How far have we advanced may be the best question to ask?