What I emphasize in the book is that it is crucial discuss race issues honestly. If a crime is racially motivated, we should not be afraid to say so. Certainly, strong and cohesive families, good schools and tight-knit communities go a long way to combating racism and crime, but I also hope that people will recognize that in the imperfect world where all or some of these ingredients are missing, it is important for all of us, particularly authority figures like teachers, parents and elected officials, to denounce racism, no matter who is perpetrating it.
FP: You have written about race issues before, and some of your readers have accused you of being racist against black people. How do you respond to these critics?
YM: Well, their accusations are premised on the same preposterous assumptions that plague this country’s racial discourse. A lot of people, especially those on the left, seem to think that just because you criticize certain black people or the behavior of certain black people, you are automatically a racist. So we see these accusations leveled at the critics of President Barack Obama. In this narrative, Tea Party activists must be racists because they cannot possibly oppose a black president for reasons other than his race. Similarly, some people refuse to believe that I can criticize black people for behaving reprehensibly in the ghetto without somehow harboring racist attitudes toward all black people.
What we should ask ourselves is, what’s more racist: holding black people to the same standards and expectations of personal responsibility as we would for any other racial group or pandering to them with low expectations? In my book, some of the people who repeatedly exhort blacks to do better, whether academically or in other ways, are the black teachers in the ghetto. Maybe they know something that our politically correct culture does not.
FP: In your book, some of the most touching and positive portrayals are of black people.
YM: Absolutely, I could not have gotten out of the ghetto intact without the goodwill and assistance offered by others, including many who were black. For example, I am grateful to my fifth grade instructor, who looked after me and made sure that I was promoted to the only “gifted” class in my school. I also write about one of my black classmates. She and I met on the first day that I stepped foot into a public elementary school in America. When, three years later in junior high, I got into a fistfight with a Mexican girl who discriminated against me, everyone of my Asian friends disappeared, and this black girl was the only one who tried to intervene on my behalf.
I think that my book makes clear that human decency and cowardice exists in every race. Recognizing that reality, rather than trying to silence valid criticisms of bad behavior, would be a far healthier way to conduct political debates and go about addressing social problems.
FP: Speaking of cowardice and your Asian classmates, your book is quite critical of Asians. Tell us more about that.
YM: Where racism is concerned, everybody bears responsibility. In my book, the racists are condemned for behaving in a racist fashion, but the targets of racism are also criticized for not speaking out and not fighting back. As a teenager growing up in the ghetto, I resented being called a “Chinaman” every single day, but I resented even more deeply the “Chinamen’s” silence before racism. More often than not, I joined in this silence, but as I write in the book, I loathed our choice, our shame.
I’m not advocating that every nerdy Asian schoolboy should get into a fistfight with a racist who happens to be twice his size, and I do understand that the fear of physical confrontation is very real. Just look at Mr. Tian Sheng Yu, who died because he stood up to the thugs who punched his son in Oakland. With that said, there are ways that people can speak out and take action without endangering their personal safety. Silence before racism will never lead to personal dignity.
FP: Your book describes the difficult circumstances that you faced as an immigrant. Certainly, numerous Asian immigrants face similar difficulties when they arrive in the United States. Would you advocate racial preferences for Asians?
YM: Absolutely not. I oppose preferences for every racial group. I believe that Asians and all other racial minorities are capable of competing without special treatment from the government or pandering from politicians. Just because you don’t come from a wealthy family does not mean that you cannot excel. Certainly, plenty of Asians do not agree with me. In 1996, I served as a staff member on the California Civil Rights Initiative Campaign (CCRI), a ballot initiative that ended state-sponsored race-based and gender-based quotas and preferences. During the campaign, I worked with a number of leaders and activists in the Asian community to seek passage of the initiative. Yet about four years later, some of these very same leaders and activists eagerly sought hiring preferences for Asians from the George W. Bush administration. It dawned on me then that they were never interested in equal rights and equal treatment before the law; they just didn’t like the absence of quotas and preferences for Asian people. It was quite unfortunate.
Again, my book does not make any policy recommendations, but I would not want anybody to read my book and walk away thinking that just because hardship exists in the immigration experience, the solution is to dole out more race-based preferences or handouts.
FP: Let’s return to what you said earlier about personal choices. You believe that exercising choice is a form of personal responsibility, including for those who live in the ghetto. This proposition makes your book quite politically incorrect. Please comment.
YM: Ultimately, everyone, no matter his race or ethnicity, needs to take responsibility for his own actions. If we lived in a society where there’s no social mobility, where hard work amounts to nothing and initiative is not rewarded by success, then perhaps it would be valid to think about intrusive social engineering to bring about a more equal society. But everybody has a choice in this country. One can blame society for being unfair and history for having wronged him or his ancestors, and we can all make excuses for ourselves, but in the end, everyone has a choice to choose decency over hate, to get a job instead of deal drugs, to go to school rather than beat up strangers on the streets. Sometimes the choice is not easy, but advocating the need to take responsibility for your choices should not be a controversial proposition. Unfortunately, our political discourse is so corroded by the language of racial grievance that common sense often winds up sounding controversial or racist.
FP: We have been talking thus far about your stories from the ghetto, but half of your book is actually set in China and offers an intimate portrayal of daily life under post-Mao authoritarianism. How does your discussion of China relate to your discussion of the ghetto?
YM: The best writing of this book actually appears in the China half, and I would recommend it for anyone who wishes to learn more about modern China. While my stories from the ghetto are jarring and ugly, my stories from China are joyful and charming. Yet even in the middle of all the joy and charm, the Chinese government intrudes into the lives of its ordinary citizens, and authoritarianism always rears its ugly head at a time of its choosing. By describing my life in China, I offer a contrast between an authoritarian political system and our own. Here in America, the government does not intrude into its citizens’ lives as the Chinese government does, but life in America can be far from perfect. So in my story, I morph from a carefree and happy child living in Communist China to a foul-mouthed teenager fighting against the shadows of an American ghetto. In the end, I prevail because, as I’ve said earlier, America offers boundless opportunities for a better life, but I hope that my description of life in China will force my readers to think more about freedom and the choices it makes available.
Given everybody’s obsession with China these days, my book probably would sell much better had I written about China alone and skipped any references to the unpleasant reality in the ghetto. One of the rewards of freedom, however, is that one gets to speak her mind. I have tried to do that in my book. I will leave it up to my readers—and the market–to decide whether that was wise.
FP: Ms. Ma, thank you for joining us today.
YM: Thank you.
FP: For all of our readers, Ying Ma’s book, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Order it here.
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