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  October 15, 2001

Speaker Warns of Dangers of Racial
Profiling in Wake of September 11

If America is going to avoid adding hate crime casualties to the list of losses from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we must stop making assumptions about people on the basis of how they look, according to one of the founders of the Asian anti-violence movement.

"We have to re-think who is a real American and who is not," said Helen Zia, an award-winning journalist and contributing editor of Ms. magazine, in a talk Oct. 10 that formally marked the start of Asian American Heritage Awareness Month. Her talk was sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, Asian American Studies Institute, and Women's Center and was billed as a Human Rights Semester event.

Zia warned of the dangers of racial profiling in the aftermath of Sept. 11. She recounted some recent attacks on Asian Americans across the country. "The casualty list keeps on growing," she said. There have been more than 750 reports of "hate crimes against fellow Americans," she added: "If we succumb to our own fears and prejudices, we are in danger of becoming awfully like the terrorists."

Zia, who faces double discrimination as an Asian American and as a gay woman, noted a recent survey that showed one-third of those polled thought it acceptable for the government to do racial profiling and one-third favored establishing internment camps for those the authorities identify as sympathetic to terrorist causes.

"Racial profiling," she said, "is when representatives of your government - whether police officers or politicians - are authorized to treat you differently, merely because of how you appear." The term is commonly used to describe the phenomenon of black people being disproportionately targeted for traffic stops by police.

She described another kind of racial profiling that occurred about a year ago, when a Chinese scientist from Taiwan was suspected of passing secrets to the People's Republic of China. He was singled out from a group of 70 nuclear scientists - the rest of them European American - was arrested, interrogated, and subjected to solitary confinement without trial.

Zia also recalled how racial profiling during World War II led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans suspected of being spies, although no case of spying was discovered against any individual.

Zia said those who support racial profiling assume it would happen to "other people". But, she pointed out, people can be targeted for many reasons. During the McCarthy era, some fell under suspicion merely for the books they read, for example, or for having friends of friends who were on an "un-American" list.

"These things are all part of our history," she said. In the present circumstances, she warned, there is a risk the same thing could happen to those who take a book out of the library about the Taliban or about Afghanistan, or click on particular Internet sites.

Zia urged members of the audience, mostly students, to speak up and make their voices heard.

She detailed her personal odyssey from quiet kid to articulate spokesperson, that has mirrored the development of the Asian American civil rights movement.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Zia grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, when there were just 400,000 Asian Americans in the entire country. "I never really saw myself in the world around me or many people who looked like me," she said. "I never spoke up."

During a discussion of the civil rights movement, a high school classmate told her, "Helen, you've got to decide whether you're black or white,'" Zia recalled. "Back then, the words Asian American hadn't come together yet."

She said she was unaware of the contributions made by Asian Americans to American history: the development of the Bing cherry, the frost-resistant orange on which the Florida citrus industry is based, and the nectarine, for example, and the draining of the California swamps during the 1800s. "Asian Americans were MIH," she said, "Missing in History."

Zia's transformation began during the 1980s, when she was laid off from her job on an assembly line at Chrysler during the demise of the U.S. auto industry. She stood in line for food and welfare with thousands of other unemployed people, and became enraged at news coverage that did not report on the human suffering she saw and experienced every day.

She began her career in journalism without qualifications or experience, but worked her way up to writing about the political, women's and workplace issues that interested her.

In 1983, after Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was killed by two unemployed auto workers angry against Japan, she decided to raise her voice and became a spokesperson for the new, Asian American national civil rights movement.

"I never thought when I was growing up that my one little Asian American voice could make a difference, but I learned that every voice counts," she said. "And when our single voices come together we can really move mountains. As I made changes in myself, I was able to make changes in the world around me."

She said historically, communities have intervened on behalf of others experiencing injustice: African Americans and other people of color protested on behalf of the Japanese Americans in the internment camps, for example, and Japanese Americans liberated Jewish survivors of the Holocaust at Dachau, participated in the civil rights movement focusing on African Americans, and came out in thousands to protest the 1992 police beating of black motorist Rodney King.

"The story of each of our communities is truly inseparable from one another," she said. "If only we take time to hear each of our voices, we would see how our destinies are so intertwined."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu