My Debt to Dr. King

An Asian-American writer reflects on the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

By Scot Nakagawa Jan 20, 2014

As an Asian-American, I’m often cast as an ally rather than a stakeholder when I show up at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. Occasionally, someone will even come right out and thank me for showing up, like I’m doing folk a favor or something. It’s awkward to be treated like I, as a person of color, have no dog in the fight for racial equity. But I get where the notion that Asians aren’t real stakeholders in racial justice comes from.

For one thing, media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement centered on the fight against Jim Crow in the South, where very few Asians lived at the time. Moreover, Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in concentration camps in 1942 and continued to live under the supervision of the War Relocation Authority until 1946–critical years in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Chinese were the other major group of Asians in the U.S. at mid-last century. Until 1943, they were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese migrants from entering the U.S., and denied citizenship to the Chinese immigrants already here. What’s more, racist immigration bans restricted the number of Asians who could enter the U.S. until 1965. Most Asian-Americans currently in America came since that date, long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

And if that isn’t enough to ensure that Asian-American interest in the legacy of Dr. King is regarded as exotic, there’s the Asian-American model minority myth. That myth, created mainly by the media, first gained popularity during a time when the news was full of images of the black urban uprisings of the 1960s, uprisings that were framed in the media as acts of rage-driven black criminality, driving white Northern voters to shift away from support of civil rights.

But the model minority myth is just that, a myth. The so-called data supporting the myth don’t hold up to scrutiny. For instance, reports of relatively high median family incomes among Asian-Americans ignore the fact that Asian families tend to include more wage earners. When family incomes are disaggregated, we actually earn less per capita than whites, a situation that is exaggerated by the fact that Asians are mainly concentrated in the most expensive urban centers on the U.S. coasts where average wages are higher. No, we’re no "model minority" and bootstraps played less of a role than U.S. geopolitical imperatives and labor shortages in high-wage sectors in our supposed success. The reality is that the experiences of Asians-Americans in the years just before and during the black-led Civil Rights Movement illustrate the complex nature of white supremacy in the U.S. and the centrality of race in our conceptions, both legal and cultural, of citizenship.

Our diverse stories as Asian- and African-Americans are simply different branches on a tree with shared roots.

So, in the interest of myth-busting, here’s an Asian-American’s shout out to Dr. King–three among many debts Asian-Americans owe more to the Civil Rights Movement than to our bootstraps:

1. Voting rights protection: Asians in the U.S., especially natural-born U.S. citizens, won the right to vote before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the 1965 law provides critically important protections to Asian American voters. For instance, without Section 2, which prohibits discrimination against people belonging to language minority groups, the voting rights of many Asian-Americans would mean little or nothing.

2. The Immigration and Nationality Act: The Act ended racist immigration bans that once excluded Latin-Americans, Asians, and Africans from immigrating to the U.S. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the racist bans were viewed as an embarrassing contradiction to the Johnson administration’s civil rights agenda and thus the Act was signed into law by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in 1965. The immigration histories of the majority of Asian-Americans living in the U.S. begin after that date. We would not number 18 million, and be rising faster than any other racial group as a percentage of the population if not for that Act.

3. The Civil Rights Movement lifted bans on interracial marriage: Thirty six percent of Asian women and 28 percent of Asians overall entered into interracial marriages in the U.S. in 2010. These marriages might never have been possible if not for black leadership. Specifically, Loving v. Virginia, a case brought in 1967 by a white man and a black woman, ended the ban on all interracial marriages in the U.S. The Lovings were supported in their case by many civil rights groups, including the Japanese American Citizens League.

There is much more we owe, including affirmative action. As an affirmative action beneficiary, I would be remiss not to mention the benefit of that program to Asian-Americans. This King Day, we would do well to try to take ownership of that debt publicly and say thank you as a first step toward repaying it.

Scot Nakagawa is a senior partner in ChangeLab, an Asian-American-led grassroots racial justice laboratory. ChangeLab is the publisher of, a blog addressing race and racism with a special focus on Asian-Americans.