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"Achieving Racial Convergence: A Leadership Challenge,"

by Don T. Nakanishi May/June 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The “Deep Divisions, Shared Destiny” poll provides credence for a continuum of competing views on the interracial and interethnic relations and perceptions among African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans. The results, for example, underscore the familiar themes of mistrust, tensions, competition and lack of social relations that have often characterized the interactions among these groups. The findings, however, also demonstrate a number of common experiences and shared views of being people of color in 21st century American society, as well as mutual appreciation for the contributions and strengths of each group.

There were two findings which I found to be particularly noteworthy and far from obvious. First, I was very pleased to see that the vast majority of Latino-American (73%) and Asian-American (65%) respondents agreed with the statement, “African Americans have helped all racial and ethnic groups by leading the fight for civil rights and against discrimination.” I found this positive recognition to be significant because most of these respondents—55% of the Latino Americans and 80% of the Asian Americans in the survey—were immigrants, who are oftentimes described as lacking knowledge, appreciation, as well as a sense of linked fate with the leadership and contributions that African Americans have provided in expanding civil rights for all Americans, especially those from racial and ethnic communities. Moreover, Latino and Asian immigrants, be they workers or small business owners, have been viewed largely as competitors, antagonists or worse in many highly publicized urban conflicts with African Americans in recent years.

For both political organizing and political research purposes, it would be revealing to build on this survey and to understand the extent to which these positive sentiments are widespread, how they were acquired, and whether they can be leveraged for future collective action. For example, Asian immigrants are oftentimes described as having acquired negative stereotypes of African Americans in their Asian home countries prior to migrating to the United States, and continuing to adhere to them during their adjustment and acculturation to this country. If that is the case, then how do they come to believe that they have benefited from the struggles of African Americans? And do they or can they, in turn, develop a sense of reciprocity towards African Americans? Future research efforts might also be undertaken to see if the efforts and achievements of Latino-American and Asian-American civil rights and progressive groups and leaders in the past, as well as the present, are also positively recognized and shared by members of all three populations.

The second somewhat unexpected, but welcomed finding was that the three groups of respondents, despite their many differences, expressed their highest level of agreement in the entire survey for the following statement: “African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have many similar problems. They should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their communities.” 92% of Latino Americans, 89% of African Americans and 86% of Asian Americans agreed with the statement. Since this poll was undertaken by ethnic media organizations, the respondents were asked whether the ethnic media had a responsibility for bringing the three communities “closer together.” 78% of Latino-American, 69% of African-American and 73% of Asian-American respondents believed that the ethnic media had such a responsibility.

However, if they had been asked, I am fairly certain that the respondents would have expressed the same expectation of other leaders, sectors and groups of these three communities to seek common ground and undertake more collective action. I believe they are understandably tired and angry about many divisive aspects of the current state of relationships among the three groups, and challenge all of us to work towards achieving greater racial convergence.

Don T. Nakanishi , a PRRAC Board member, is Director and Professor, UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

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