I greet you all at the beginning of the AAC’s second semester and at an unprecedented time for our nation. As I watched a violent mob plastered with racist slogans surge into our nation’s Capitol earlier this month, I shared the shock and dismay of many across the political spectrum. Earlier this week, our nation inaugurated a vice president of Black and Asian descent for the first time, a landmark historical moment in the relatively short history of Asian American political representation. And all of this comes amid the ongoing pandemic, which has caused a sharp rise in anti-Asian racism and spikes in Asian American unemployment.
How can an Asian American Center help us to understand this historic moment? The Center’s mission is to educate the campus about Asian America and Asian American studies. All Americans have benefited from the political, educational, and cultural work of the 1960s multiracial movement (on what we call the political left) that produced, among many other things, the very idea of Asian America and the field of Asian American studies. This field has created a methodology and a body of research that help us understand the lived experience of Asian Americans in a nation in which they have all too often been barred from full equality and acceptance. The complex racial positioning of Asian Americans, particularly during the Jim Crow era, and our diverse experiences and beliefs inevitably produce political differences within the Asian American community. In my own research, I have investigated the historical split of opinion on issues such as assimilation, undocumented migration, and Japanese American reparations—splits that are often very painful because they fall across generational lines or fracture a small community.
But what should be without dispute is the importance of democratic ideals to the formation of Asian America. Many of us or our ancestors came to this country, this state, or Chapel Hill to escape coups, repressive regimes, and anti-democratic violence. And Asian Americans have long struggled to be fully included in this democracy. As Asian American studies scholars have uncovered, indentured Chinese laborers in the Reconstruction-era South rose up to demand humane treatment and their contractual rights. World War I veterans petitioned for the naturalization rights they had been promised as a reward for their service. Individuals brought legal suits contesting discriminatory business restrictions, segregation, and bans on interracial marriage. Asian Americans have worked to help America live up to its ideals not just for personal betterment, but because we have thought that this nation is worth the struggle. Our history is part of the bedrock of this democracy. To all of us, it should be worth protecting and perfecting.
Please join us this semester as we continue to draw upon the expertise of Asian American studies scholars and artists to help us frame this moment in history. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing several exciting new events and programs for this spring. Among other events, we will converse at a roundtable in April on the past and present of Asian and Black political alliances.
As ever, I remain grateful for the Asian American Center and for your support. Our work is made possible by your engagement and commitment, and with your help, we will build a Center that will host important conversations on our campus for generations to come.