Civil Rights
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The Topic
Civil rights refers to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, and to the laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, and many other criteria.
The Context
New York is the most diverse city on the planet, home to people of every race, nationality, language group, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, and to some of the world's premiere human rights groups. There have been intense intergroup conflicts throughout the city's history, from the Draft Riots of 1863 to the Crown Heights riots of 1992. But more amazing is how well such varied peoples have gotten along for hundreds of years.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a Committee on Unity after some race riots in 1943, in order "to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality." Eventually, the city and state governments passed laws against discrimination and established agencies to enforce them.

The Reporter
James Wong writes frequently for the Village Voice.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Civil Rights.

by James Wong

Asian New Yorkers

(Sept '01) New York City is home to more Asian Americans than any other city in the country. As the fastest growing segment of the city population -- over 50 percent since 1990, according to the census -- Asian Americans are now seeking to receive their fair share of attention on the myriad issues that affect their community.

The problems affecting Asian New Yorkers are not that different from the city's other minority communities: Hate crimes, racial profiling and police-community relations, the state of public education, a low wage workforce, and a large immigrant population, many of whom face poverty. Yet somehow Asian Americans are often forgotten and excluded from public discourse on these matters.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a non-profit civil rights organization based in New York, states on its website that "despite our community's size and growing economic clout, however, we frequently are ignored by elected officials, left out of important policy decisions, and overlooked in dialogues about key issues, such as affirmative action, police brutality, and race relations."

How is it that with a population of almost 800,000, Asian New Yorkers are given the cold shoulder? One such reason is a serious lack of representation. Despite such a large presence, there has never been an Asian American elected to any citywide or statewide office. "The fact that no Asian American has ever been elected is an issue," says Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF. That will probably change this year with some thirteen Asian American candidates running for seven city council seats. While electing an Asian American to the city council will not bring about changes overnight, Jessica Lee, executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, believes that an "Asian American council member would give more visibility to Asian American issues as well as give more access to the city government for all members of the Asian American community, even those outside of the district." Even if only one or two win "it's good that a lot of Asians are running," says Fung. "Hopefully it will spark greater participation and voter turnout among the Asian population."

Low civic participation among Asian-Americans has historically always been a problem. Recent studies seem to indicate a change, with Asians becoming more involved in the political process, thanks in large part to organizations like AALDEF. According to a study by John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban research, Asian Americans were just as likely to vote in last November's election as were other New Yorkers. The problem is that just about one in five eligible Asian New Yorkers are registered to vote. This should come as no surprise, though, considering the United States' history of discriminatory immigration and naturalization policies.

The Chinese have the distinction of being the only nationality to have been specifically prohibited from immigrating to the United States by federal law.

New York's residents were some of the strongest supporters of the 1882 Chinese Exclusionary act that prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. During the 1882 congressional debate, United States House Representative Roswell Pettibone Flower from New York City, a future governor of NY, expressing the will of his constituents, echoed popular sentiment against the Chinese. "Shall we protect our labor, or shall we allow it to be degraded to the coolie standards? Not like the European immigrant, who brings us wealth and love of liberty, he [the Chinese] comes to take wealth away, and to stamp upon labor the servile characteristics of his race." It wasn't until 1943 that Chinese Americans were allowed to become citizens, and it took another nine years until Japanese Americans and other Asians gained that same right. After being denied admission to the country for well over half a century, Asian immigrants began coming in record numbers after 1965, when the immigration laws were changed. Still, some argue, the xenophobia and discrimination that were built into American law continue to have their effect.

Even though Asian Americans are now covered by city, state, and federal civil rights laws, anti-Asian violence and discrimination remain serious problems. As the perpetual foreign "other," Asian Americans are constantly ridiculed and singled out for persecution.

The murder of Queens restaurant worker Jong Rim Lee is a deadly example of such a case. The Korean father of four was bashed over the head with a ten-pound cobblestone last September for no apparent reason other than his race. But the New York Police Department decided not to categorize it as a hate crime, though his attackers did not take his wallet full of cash.

A serious problem is the underreporting of anti-Asian violence. Police statistics show only seven hate crimes committed against Asians in 2000. Advocates and the police themselves agree the actual numbers are much higher. Barbara Sicilia, a commanding officer of the New York Police Department's Hate Crime Task Force told the Daily News, "clearly, they are underreported." Narrow definitions of hate crimes as well as problems with police-community relations all contribute to underreporting. The issue gets compounded when victims of hate crimes or discrimination do not feel that anyone cares or is paying attention.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights has received 155 complaints of discrimination filed by Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino residents (they categorize by national origin) over the past three years in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. Though not a lot as compared with other groups, it is still a cause for concern for members of the Asian American community.

Another incident involving bias against Asians occurred at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Last September, at the beginning of their senior year, 5 Chinese immigrant students were told they had to leave school because they had already completed all of their requirements for graduation. Feeling like they were not yet prepared to leave, and still not having completed college applications, the students protested. They were eventually escorted back into the school by a delegation including two members of the Board of Education and allowed to complete their senior year, but not before accusations of racial discrimination were levied at the school's administration by students, parents, and even teachers. Mark Talo, a former teacher at the school told the Times, "It was like being in the Deep South during Jim Crow."

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund is investigating the incident and considering filing a civil rights lawsuit in Federal District Court. "I hope that it is one of the more extreme incidents because of the wide range of discrimination that it represents," exclaims Fung. "This reflects some of the challenges in the public education system of how to address the needs of a very diverse population." Indeed, according to a 1996 report by the NYC board of education, 36 percent of Asian American students in city public high schools drop out or do not graduate on time, contradicting the model minority myth and indicating that Asians too are at risk of failure.

What are some ways the city can be more responsive to its Asian-American residents? "I'd like to see the city government support more services for Asians," says Lee. Asian Americans make up close to ten percent of the city population, yet according to her organization, Asian communities only receive about 2 percent of the city funding for social services. "Funding has to change to match the changing demographics of the city."

Recommended Links:

  • New York City Commission on Human Rights - 40 Rector Street, New York, NY 10006; (212) 306-7500 The Commission enforces the City's Human Rights Law which prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage orcitizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation, status as a victim of domestic violence, disability (including HIV/AIDS relatedconditions), lawful occupation, arrest or conviction record, marital status, family status, and retaliation. The Law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, as well as bias-related harassment.
  • New York State Division of Human Rights - One Fordham Plaza, 4th Floor, Bronx, New York 10458; (718) 741-8400 The State Division of Human Rights serves as an alternative to the court system for resolving discrimination claims--in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in commercial space and in credit transactions and to take other actions against discrimination. The agency is responsible for developing civil rights legislation and policy for the State of New York, and for promoting awaren essof civil rights issues and remedies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004 "The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson Street, 12th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 966-5932 is "the first organization on the east coast to defend and promote the legal rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy, community education, leadership development and the position of free legal assistance to low-income and immigrant Asian Americans."
  • Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor, New York, NY 10118-3299 USA; (212) 290-4700 "Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice."
  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund - 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904; (212) 809-8585 The nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-1900 "Committed to staying on the cutting edge of the movement for racial justice."
  • National Organization for Women/NYC - 150 W. 28th St., #304, New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-9895 NOW/NYC "works towards equality for women with a focus on several key issues: battling racism and violence against women, guaranteeing reproductive rights, advocating lesbian and bisexual rights, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and generally working towards economic, educational, and political equity. The chapter provides educational outreach and takes part in political lobbying, zap actions and demonstrations in response to various social situations. The Service Fund of NOW-NYC also offers referrals, support groups, and clinics for women in need."
  • New York Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004; (212) 344-3005 The NYCLU is "a statewide organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of New Yorkers' civil liberties as enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York."
  • Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., 4th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-3360 "Through litigation, policy analysis and education, the Puerto Rican Lega lDefense and Education Fund works to secure, promote and protect the civil and human rights of the Puerto Rican and wider Latino community."

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