On the Power of Words: Public Statements against Racism and Other Injustices

In this post I share a statement against anti-Asian Racism from an organization I work with at UCLA, the Center for the Study of International Migration (CSIM), and reflect on the work such statements do in the world. (Follow the link above to the text, which is also copied below).  I also reflect more generally on the power of words to transform the world. I share some of my ambivalence on this matter, but also my convictions – which lead me to continue writing blogposts despite the inner demons who taunt me all the time. (“Why throw a few more words out into the cacophony of messages out there in the world?” “Will anything I say make any kind of difference?” “Is anyone even reading this?”)

First, a bit about CSIM. The Center for the Study of International Migration is an interdisciplinary network that brings together scholarship on a wide array of immigration-related issues. The aim is to build a community of scholars, and to share our work more broadly.  Our recorded guest speaker series is publicly available in podcasts.  We also have an ongoing community engagement initiative that connects our scholarship with policy issues, and through which we take action in small and larger ways.  Before the pandemic, for example, we conducted visits to Adelanto Immigrant Detention Center to show solidarity with detainees. Our members engage in a variety of policy-focused work; see for example Hiroshi Motomura’s testimony about discrimination and violence against Asian Americans, made before the Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Making public statements such as this one, and another recent one on Anti-Black racism, is part of our public-facing work.

But we have wondered: Are such statements merely symbolic?

What about the issues we haven’t addressed? Given all the injustice, inequality, pain and hatred in the world, we could surely write public statements every week.

Does anyone read them? Do they fall on deaf ears, or just re-sound in the Echo Chambers of the like-minded?

I think about these kinds of issues all the time.

As an academic, words are the tools of my trade. I spend a lot of time trying to get them “just right,” but I know they may never resound with those operating from other points of view.

As an activist, I have witnessed the power of words to unite, ignite, and mobilize – and to separate and divide. I also recognize their limitations, if not coupled with action.

As someone who is stumbling along some kind of spiritual pathway, I know that words are the handmaids of our egos, and they don’t easily open the doors to closed hearts. Many times, it’s better to listen than to speak.

But sometimes, it may be helpful to add our voices into the discourses that are circulating in the world. We can use statements for their symbolic power but also as pedagogical tools. While we can’t speak to every injustice on the planet, we can help amplify ones that are rising to the forefront right now, and ones where we might offer unique perspectives.

In general, this is the approach I am trying to take to my public writing. This involves embracing contradictions: Words matter, but they are also, inevitably imperfect and inadequate. I try to listen more than I speak, and only speak when I think I have something helpful to say. (These Buddhist precepts serve as a guide: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?) I also try to accept that the words I offer may not be heard, or not taken up in the ways I had hoped. But sometimes, like seeds, they will be fertilized by the words and ideas of others, and grow.

Racist discourse planted the seeds for the racist and xenophobic attacks that we witness all around us  We can plant different kinds of seeds with our words, and trust that if enough are planted, some of them will thrive.

So here are the words that CSIM planted in the world last week:

Statement on Anti-Asian Violence

The UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration condemns the latest wave of racist violence in this country, this time directed at Asian communities, and specifically the murder of six Asian workers in Georgia. We express our solidarity with Asian American students and faculty at UCLA and with all Asian Americans living in this country. We condemn the insults that have been hurled by politicians, adding insult to grievous injury, and we call for an end to the violence in both words and deeds.

As scholars of immigration, we note that this wave of violence is the latest manifestation of a sad and almost 200-year history of violence against Asian Americans and of racist opposition to immigration from Asia. Our own city of Los Angeles was the site of one of the most terrible such outbursts: in an 1871 riot, residents of the then small city of barely 6,000 persons, lynched 18 Chinese immigrants.

Ten years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, in imposing very severe limitations on Chinese immigration, inaugurated the long regime of immigration restriction, which has lasted to this day. In the early 20th century, Chinese exclusion was followed by an agreement between the United States and Japan to limit emigration from Japan. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act made immigration from East and South Asia all but impossible, imposing restrictions that were not fully lifted until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965.

Opposition to Asian immigration was coupled with opposition to the acquisition of U.S. citizenship by Asian immigrants. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress amended naturalization laws, which until then had restricted naturalization to white immigrants. But when naturalization rights were extended to Black immigrants, the Reconstruction Congress deliberately chose to withhold naturalization from Asian-born immigrants. Some Asian immigrants were nonetheless able to obtain U.S. citizenship, but two important Supreme Court decisions (Ozawa v United States, 1922 and Thind v United States, 1923) unfortunately affirmed that immigrants from East and South Asia were ineligible to naturalize on account of their race.

Exclusion from citizenship in turn set the grounds for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as the entire first-generation population lacked citizenship and was thus uniquely vulnerable. Internment represents one of the most deplorable moments in American history. As internment occurred in the context of international tension between the United States and another country, we also see a disturbing parallel to today’s situation, and we sound a warning: Never again.

There has been much discussion as to whether the Georgia killings were motivated by racism or sexism. We reject this binary, noting the long history of racialized and gendered stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. These were reinforced by policies such as the Page Act of 1875, which was predicated on the idea that Chinese women were prostitutes, and are magnified by xenophobia in the context of globalized capitalism that propels many Asian women into service work.

Layered on this history, the racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric that was promoted over the last six years by the former resident of the White House was profoundly disturbing, as were his anti-immigrant policies. We again express outrage over interlinked racist, misogynistic and xenophobic violence and discourse. We hope that legislation being prepared by the House of Representatives to provide a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” as well as undocumented farmworkers will help us all at last embrace an understanding of a thoroughly inclusive “we” that is fully accepting of immigrants and immigration and is ready to provide refuge to people seeking protection from around the world.

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