By Lynda Lin, Pacific Citizen
In bad economic times, history has shown that the 'us' in the 'us versus them' does not include Asian Americans.
On Sundays when the weather permits, Cincinnati resident Jim Berns likes to take American flags and homemade signs to busy street corners. There, he waves at passing cars while holding up signs that say, "Honk if you love the USA" and "Buy made in the USA."
"Motorists go crazy with the signs," says Berns. "Truckers blare their horns, Chevys toot and BMWs go silently by."
The troubled economy has driven him to launch this one-man campaign. Like many Americans, the threat of unemployment looms large for the longtime employee of the budget-strapped University of Cincinnati.
Berns, 60, hopes a renewed commitment to buy American-made products will boost the economy and keep Americans working. It's calling on people's patriotism, he says. But some Asian Pacific Americans worry the resurgence of populist rhetoric like "Buy American" will lead to increased anti-Asian sentiment and worse - Americans violently turning against other Americans.
"I think it's a slippery slope," says Roland Hwang, president of American Citizens Justice, a Michigan-based APA civil rights organization. The "Buy American" slogan, which is embedded in the $787 billion stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama, creates an underlying "us versus them" mentality.
"Such a mentality might get transferred to some zealot's self-justified violence against APAs, Latinos or other people of color in these bad economic times," adds Hwang.
You don't have to go too far back into U.S. history for an example either. Once upon another economic recession, two out-of-work autoworkers in 1982 Detroit misidentified 27-year-old Vincent Chin to be of Japanese descent and said, "because of you mother f-----s we are out of work," before beating him to death with a baseball bat.
Now and Then: Us Versus Them
Until now, economists called the time between 1979-1982 the worst recession after World War II.
"It was a time of crises," said Frank Wu, a professor of law and history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "From World War II, there was a great sense that the U.S. could do anything. That was no longer true."
Americans — who were still grappling with the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal — faced among other things an oil crisis, high unemployment and inflation rates. Competition from Japanese cars led to mass layoffs in the automobile industry and increased anti-Japan sentiment.
Members of the United Auto Workers famously smashed Toyota cars with sledgehammers at union picnics and distributed "Buy American" flyers with frequent references to Pearl Harbor.
With Chin's murder in 1982, it became clear that in the "us versus them" mentality, APAs were counted as "them."
"I fear it's coming back again," said Wu, who is writing a book on the Chin case.
Back then the scapegoat was Japan, now China is being blamed for running up the U.S. trade deficit and putting Americans out of jobs.
"But we all know that whether it's Chinese or Japanese. They think we all look the same," said Wu.
The rhetoric is also making a comeback.
In December, O.C. Welch, the owner of a Hardeeville, South Carolina car dealership blasted consumers who bought Japanese cars in a controversial radio ad. Welch, who called the cars "rice ready, not road ready," has since apologized for his comments. That same month, Detroit's WDIV-TV reported that a man was caught on a security camera in a Woodhaven, Mich. strip mall slashing the tires of four parked cars and writing "Buy USA" on them.
"Buy American [is] just an excuse to be racist," said Lixiao Xu, a freshman from the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo.
A few months ago, Xu came across a Facebook.com "Jap Crap" group where members weighed in on the value of American cars versus imports. Many used patriotic and often racist language to prove their point, so Xu decided to join the debate.
"You don't hate imports, you only hate Asian imports because they are not made by a white man," Xu wrote on the group's wall.
"These incidences don't exist in a cultural vacuum," said Dana Frank, the author of "Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism" and a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Often supporters of campaigns like these resort to nationalism and then racial stereotypes that date back to the1800s when the first wave of Asian immigrants were perceived to "sneak" things in.
"That's the way U.S. history has unfolded. There's a long history of Asian racism. Economic nationalism can turn into anti-Asian racism in a minute. It explodes so fast," said Frank. "Anytime you're looking for a scapegoat, things are going to get nasty."
Economic Nationalism Reemerging
Union members are also leading the charge to renew the commitment to "Buy American." A Feb. 9 Harris Interactive poll conducted for the Alliance for American Manufacturing found it to be a popular cause — 84 percent favor "Buy American" requirements.
"Every time you turn around you see 'made in China' and stuff gets imported here. We're losing jobs," United Steelworkers member Gregory Jones, of Lafayette, Indiana, told the Associated Press at a recent union-sponsored rally.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in January as the U.S. unemployment rate rose from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contains a "Buy American" government procurement provision with the intent to help jumpstart the economy. Union leaders say it's a step in the right direction.
"Given these dire straits, including domestic-sourcing requirements ("Buy America") in the stimulus ensures that the materials used in infrastructure projects are produced by workers and companies in the United States to the maximum extent possible," said Wayne Ranick, a USW spokesperson. "This is the best and fastest way to get people back to work and create demand in the marketplace."
The USW is also pushing lawmakers to sign their "Buy American" resolution that promises to ensure federal economic recovery dollars go to cities and tax dollars are kept at home to help create jobs. To date, nearly 300 resolutions have been introduced, with more than 70 already approved, said Ranick.
"Buy American" has a certain amount of logic, said Frank. "It creates a national 'we' united under a cause to save American jobs. But who are 'we'? Most people are not that aware of how transnational these large corporations are."
Even iconic American consumer products like Ford and Chevy have foreign-made components. But in this current recession, economic nationalism is making a comeback. When asked if the movement could lead to a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, Ranick points to evidence that we're in a more egalitarian era.
"Nobody associated with the USW or any other labor organization condones racism, violence and murder. While problems like this exist on a societal level, we like to believe much has changed as evidenced by our country recently electing an African American as president."
But Wu thinks the threat is very real. Over 25 years ago Chin's murder and trial caused national outrage. "Up until that moment it occurred did anyone care?"
"The problem is our historical memory is so short. It's so easy to forget our past," said Tony Lam, a filmmaker whose 2008 documentary "Vincent Who?" examined Chin's legacy in the APA community.
Activists like Berns disavow any racism with "Buy American" campaigns. He says he's simply trying to raise awareness in these bleak economic times. Two years ago, he bought his home at a high and could lose it if things don't turn around.
"I wish there were more Americans who see that this economy is like a train barreling towards the mountains," said Berns. "Supporting the home team is not a bad thing. We support our Olympic athletes. It would be a good idea to support our American workers as our home team."