When Silence Is Betrayal: On Asian American Debt To The Radical King

The Black radical tradition has been at the vanguard of anti-war movements against U.S. imperialism in Asia — catalyzing Asian American activism in the process. King’s anti-militarism is a call to see the Asian diaspora’s deep stakes in the struggle against the “three evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the President-Elect of the United States is slinging drivel at civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis on Twitter; Washington, D.C. is bracing for a 200,000 person anti-Trump Women’s March on Washington; and protesters in cities across the country are leading #ReclaimMLK demonstrations to denounce homelessness, police violence, attacks on voting rights, and the sanitization of Dr. King’s radical vision of Black liberation.

Amidst all of it, I’m revisiting my copy of The Radical King, wondering what Dr. King’s legacy means in this movement moment. As an Asian American, I keep coming back to King’s 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” in which a defiant King unburdened himself of his silence on the Vietnam War. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he declared. “That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” Denouncing the war’s “cruel manipulation of the poor” in diverting economic investment away from the country’s poor “like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” King lamented the role the United States occupied as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He addressed critics who cautioned him that speaking out against the war would be “hurting the cause of your people,” remarking: “their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

In 2014, Scot Nakagawa marked MLK Day with a reflection on what Asian Americans owe to the Civil Rights Movement. He noted the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prohibited language discrimination, which many Asian Americans rely on to vote in their language of choice; the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended the racist quota system restricting Asian immigration; and the end of interracial marriage bans. Reflecting on “Beyond Vietnam,” I am struck by the debt we owe to Black liberation thinkers like King who have also been at the vanguard of anti-war movements, challenging U.S. imperialism in Asia and catalyzing Asian American movements in the process.

While Black liberation movements inspired Asian Americans to interrogate the circumstances of their own oppressions under white supremacy, Black critiques of the war urged an international perspective that would come to define the Asian American movement. As Yuri Kochiyama recounts in Passing It On: A Memoir:

“I remember [Asian Americans for Action co-founder Kazu Iijima] would often say: ‘We must create an Asian American perspective of the Vietnam War. An Asian nation is being bombed, and Asian Americans will be going to Vietnam and fighting against the Vietnamese too…We must know what this war is really about.”

An Asian Coalition flyer for a 1971 anti-war march.

What the war was really about, according to Black radicals like Angela Davis, was the “war economy” of the United States — the “military apparatus [putting] down the resistance in the black and brown community, on the campuses, in the working class communities” at the same time it terrorized civilians in villages across Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The struggle in Vietnam, then, was about everyone: “the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism,” as Malcolm X put it in a speech delivered to honored Hibakusha guests (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) at Yuri Kochiyama’s Harlem apartment in 1964.

If, drawing from Andrea Smith, we see the “three pillars of white supremacy” as slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and Orientalism/war, then Black anti-war efforts must be understood as anti-Orientalist efforts, too. American history tells us all too clearly that the fate of Asian America is tied to U.S. foreign policy in Asia. W.E.B. DuBois’ condemnation of the inhumane bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is thus also a condemnation of the inhumane incarceration of Japanese Americans. Muhammad Ali’s declaration “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong” is a declaration of solidarity with Asians and Asian Americans. As key disruptors of the U.S. war machine in Asia, Black internationalists have been central in undermining the racist frame of American imperialism that cast both Asians and Asian Americans as enemy others.

In this light, Dr. King’s call to break silence is turned back onto us: it is a call for Asian Americans to break our own silence in the face of Black oppression. Davis’s linking of the violence sown by the war economy in Vietnam and in Black and brown communities stateside becomes a call for us to connect the militarism that has driven Asian migration to the U.S. to the systems of police violence and mass incarceration that continue to steal Black lives with impunity.

For the past several years, Black Lives Matter chapters have turned MLK Day from an exercise in apolitical excerpting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into a day of reclamation of the radical Dr. King and his legacy in an America that continues to deny that Black lives matter. As direct beneficiaries of both 1960s civil rights legislation and a Black anti-war critique that helped forge that era’s Third World solidarities, Asian Americans can and must be part of the work to #ReclaimMLK. That means reclaiming King’s legacy from white conservatives who wield out-of-context quotes to shame Black protestors and urge a “color blind” ignorance towards systemic racism, and from members of our own Asian American communities that trade in canned King soundbites in order to oppose affirmative action or police accountability. When Chinese American protesters wield signs saying “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” to defend a Chinese American police officer charged for the shooting of an unarmed Black man, we cannot be silent. When family members and community leaders cry “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” to denounce affirmative action, we cannot be silent.

Reclaiming MLK means channeling King’s internationalist lens to our own moment: to stand against the U.S. war economy whether it is escalating tensions in the South China Sea or suppressing Black protest in Ferguson or Charlotte. It means being vocal in the face of our oppressions just as it means refusing to be silent in our privileges, and grounding our movements in the experiences of Black, indigenous, undocumented, disabled, Muslim, gender non-conforming, and poor communities most impacted by state violence. It means remembering that the seeds of the Asian American movement were sown in the Black liberation movement, in the fight to free political prisoners, and the dream of a Third World: one defined by the multitudinous experiences of peoples of color and yet joined by a singular vision.

Unlike those that urged Dr. King to keep quiet about the Vietnam War for fear it would detract from his cause, we cannot afford to not “know the world in which we live.” It is a world in which, out of political urgency and moral clarity, our causes — to halt deportations, stop the Muslim registry, end police violence, preserve access to birth control, and so much more — must be joined. In these times, to be silent is nothing short of betrayal.

Writing on Asian America, racial capitalism, and empire's amnesia. PhD student in American Studies. Twitter: @tsengputterman. More at marktsengputterman.com.

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