Speech matters. It is no surprise that after one of the most vicious presidential campaigns in history, where bigoted speech against Middle Easterners and Muslims was increasingly normalized, hate crimes against Americans perceived to be Muslims surged 67 percent. Iranian Americans are not specifically mentioned or identified in these statistics, but based on the spike in cases reported to the organization I head, the National Iranian American Council, Iranian Americans - whether they identify as Muslims or not - are by no means immune to the rising tide of racist and xenophobic incidents sweeping the country.
The response of the Iranian-American community to this and earlier outbursts of bigotry have tended to be the same: Showcase our community’s almost unmatched economic and educational success while separating ourselves from other Muslim or Middle Eastern communities - be they Arab, Pakistani, Afghani or others.
The latter element is morally questionable. Instead of standing up against bigotry, the emphasis has been to protect our own community while not coming to the aid of others subjected to the same injustice. The Sikh community initially pursued this strategy after 9/11, when they fell victim of anti-Muslim hatred, though they themselves weren’t Muslim. Their immediate reaction was to separate themselves from the Muslim community. Eventually, they realized that this strategy not only didn’t work (bigots don’t tend to be good at nuance…), but that it was morally questionable as well. As one Sikh organization instructed its members: “As per Sikh values, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. DO NOT say, ‘Sikhs aren’t Muslims.’ That makes it seem like Muslims, not Sikhs, should be targeted.”
While some in the Iranian-American community may still prefer the strategy of distancing themselves from other Middle Eastern communities, and while this may have been an effective strategy under other circumstances, it is doubtful whether it can be successful in the current climate.
So what would be effective? How have other communities been able to overcome bigotry and change their image from one of being scorned and taunted, to one of respect and admiration?
Some valuable hints can be found in a recent book by historian Ellen Wu - The Color of Success - on how the Asian-American community went from facing widespread harassment, discrimination, and even facing government registries, to being lauded as model communities.
The book questions the conventional wisdom that the Asian-American community’s success and educational achievements led to it overcoming institutionalized discrimination. Instead, it was a combination of geopolitics, a desire on behalf of the establishment to highlight Asian success to push the idea that the African-American community’s challenges were rooted in cultural deficiencies rather than discrimination, as well as a clever and well timed campaign by Asian Americans to accentuate their “American” values. (Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger has also argued that Asian Americans started to earn more because their fellow Americans became less racist toward them - and not the other way around).
Here’s some background. In the 19th century, Asian Americans were often portrayed as threatening, exotic and degenerate. Asians were thought of as “brown hordes” or as the “yellow peril.” The first time a race and class-based group was barred from entry by Congress was when Asians were targeted in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This restricted Chinese from entering the United States and prevented them from becoming naturalized citizens. The recent discriminatory visa waiver reforms targeting Iranians and other dual nationals pale in comparison to the stringent restrictions of the popularly supported Exclusion Act.
But by the 1950s, there was a major shift in the depiction of Asian Americans. They were glorified in the media as model communities - “industrious, law-abiding citizens who kept their heads down and never complained.” At a time when anxiety within American society about juvenile delinquency was on the rise, leaders in the Chinese-American community began promoting stories about Chinese traditional family values and Confucian ethics, with an emphasis on how Asian children listened to and respected their elders, studied and worked hard, and never got into any trouble.
But just promoting an attractive image of the Asian community as upstanding citizens was not enough. Indeed, earlier attempts by the leaders of the Asian communities had failed to make an impact. But combined with two other factors, an opening emerged that enabled a dramatic change in their image and depiction.
First, the civil rights movement led by the African-American community was creating significant anxiety within the white community, according to Wu, causing them to find the idea of successful Asian Americans as an effective tool to deny the demands of African Americans, while also pinning the blame for black poverty on African Americans themselves. “If Asians could find success within the system, politicians asked, why couldn’t African Americans?,” Wu points out. The more the idea of a successful Asian-American community “proved” that America wasn’t racist, the more that image of the Asian community was promoted by the establishment in the United States.
Secondly, geopolitical factors directly impacted the image of Chinese and Japanese Americans, both negatively and positively. During World War II, China was an ally of the United States and Chinese exclusion undermined U.S. diplomacy with its Asian ally. As a result, Congress overturned Chinese exclusion laws as a goodwill gesture to China, effectively reducing discrimination against Chinese Americans.
After the war, as Japan was turned from enemy to ally, overturning the Japanese exclusion laws also became a necessity. The U.S. Congress understood that it could not retain Japan as a strong ally if it continued to blatantly discriminate against Japanese Americans in the United States.
Together, these factors led to both significant changes in U.S. legislation as well as the popular depiction of Asian Americans. This, in turn, helped these communities grow and prosper in the United States.
If Wu’s analysis is correct, Iranian Americans can draw a few important lessons from the experience and transformation of Asian Americans.
First of all, geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and Iran constitute a significant obstacle towards correcting the image of Iranian Americans and eliminating discriminatory laws and practices targeting this community. Efforts to end discrimination while ignoring the geopolitical roots of some of these policies is likely futile. Indeed, any effort to fight discrimination must be coupled with a strategy to reduce U.S.-Iran tensions to have maximum impact, as demonstrated by the experience of the Asian-American community.
There is plenty of evidence of how U.S.-Iran tensions have been at the root of much of the discrimination facing Iranian Americans. For instance, the discriminatory visa law passed in late 2015 impacted Iranians solely because of Iran’s inclusion on the U.S. State Department’s List of State Sponsors of Terror. The original draft of the bill focused on European citizens traveling to Syria. At the last minute, Republicans added language to the bill that expanded the scope of the bill to also include dual citizens of countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, as well as those travelling to those countries. Much indicates that this last minute addition was a deliberate move to undermine President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Secondly, showcasing and highlighting the economic and educational success of the Iranian-American community is likely a necessary but insufficient measure. Any strategy that solely focuses on this aspect is likely to fail. Only when combined with other factors - be it geopolitical developments or domestic political openings - can the success of the Iranian-American community be translated into a reduction in discrimination against it.
As we approach President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, the prognosis looks grim for both U.S.-Iran relations and for the state of civil rights of the Iranian-American community (and other Middle Eastern communities).
To overcome the rising tide of bigotry, Iranian Americans should follow the example of the Sikh community and stop distancing ourselves from other targeted communities, but rather stand up for all victims of racism and bigotry. It’s not only the moral thing to do, but it is also more effective, as we will all be stronger when we stand together. A small community like ours cannot win this alone. We need friends and allies - and to have friends, we need to be friends.
Moreover, we need to recognize the significant impact geopolitical trends had for the fate of the Asian-American communities and treat the reduction of U.S.-Iran relations not only as a necessity to avoid war and help the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran, but also a required measure to fight bigotry against our community here in America.
It’s not going to be easy, but a successful path has already been charted by others who faced far greater discrimination than we do. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel - we just have to follow their example.