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Ignorance vs. malice: comparing racism in Asia and the US

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A woman holds a balloon in front of a police officer during a Black Lives Matter protest outside City Hall in Manhattan, New York, on Aug. 1.   © Reuters

Watching from afar the recent racial violence roiling American society, I am reminded of two questions I've encountered while living and working for many years in Asia as a black American journalist.

The first question, almost always asked by white Americans, is, "How do you feel living here, because aren't Asians really racist?"

My reply, which often surprises those who ask, is: "I love it, because Asians are a lot less racist than Americans."

Of course, there are signs of apparent racism in Asia: In Japan one comes across "Little Black Sambo" images; South Korean schools have been slammed for hiring only white English-speaking teachers; mixed-race "Amerasian" children left behind by black U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War era face discrimination; and a recent Chinese TV ad for detergent showed a Chinese woman putting a black man into a washing machine to turn him Chinese.

But Asian attitudes to race often have more to do with economic status than color, with lighter skin being associated with a higher social class rather than a different ethnicity. Much of what I've seen in Asia can be attributed to the naive racism of ignorance -- not of the malice or aggression evident in the U.S.

The second question is related to the first one: "So why has America lately become so politically dysfunctional?"

After nearly eight years under President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, America has become even more polarized. And the reason is because endemic racism remains the country's most insidious and uncured illness, a legacy of slavery, known as America's "original sin."

Obama's election, while breaking a historic barrier, in many ways exacerbated long-standing racial animosities. From the start of his administration, some conservative opponents questioned not just Obama's policies, but also the legitimacy of his election. That began with the so-called birther movement, which alleged that Obama was ineligible to be president because he was secretly born in Kenya, his father's homeland, despite having a birth certificate from Hawaii.

Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, regularly trafficked in racially charged conspiracy theories about Obama's place of birth. He also called Obama "the food stamp president," which most black Americans found insulting.

Glenn Beck, a prominent right-wing TV commentator, claimed that Obama had "a deep-seated hatred for white people," while former Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani declared: "I do not believe that the president loves America."

DUMPING INNUENDO Obama's critics often resorted to "dog whistle" tactics, using coded and subtle language that reflected deeply racist attitudes. But this year, the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, appears to have dispensed with both the whistle and most of the subtlety.

Trump has made such offensive racial comments about Mexicans, Muslims and Asians that even some Republicans have criticized him.

For example, Trump's complaint that he could not get a fair hearing from a Mexican-American federal judge was so shocking that House Speaker Paul Ryan called it "the textbook definition of a racist comment."

All this matters greatly, both to the U.S. and the rest of the world. The police shootings of unarmed black men that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the armed attacks on policemen in several U.S. cities have deepened racial fault lines underpinning the current presidential contest.

Given recent events, it's no wonder that 63% of Americans think race relations in the U.S. are generally bad, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

So where do we go from here?

America's great strength has always been its introspection and its ability to self-analyze and self-correct. That is how the U.S. produced a civil rights movement that became an inspiration to the world.

Unlike most Asian countries, where the racism of ignorance is deeply ingrained and little discussed, the U.S. will continue with its national catharsis until it ultimately gets it right. Unlike in the U.S., I can't see any ethnic minority candidate in any Asian country becoming its national leader soon.

Events in the U.S. could well lead to a Trump presidency, much as the chaos of 1968 helped Richard Nixon become president. The election in 2008 of America's first black president might result in a pendulum swing toward a president deemed to be xenophobic, racist, manifestly unqualified and worse.

I would not bet on the outcome now. But whatever happens in the election, I would bet on Americans eventually getting things right.

Keith B. Richburg is an Asia-based writer and former foreign editor of the Washington Post.

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