Ferguson: From a Millimeter to a Mile

Michael Eric Dyson’s “Where Do We Go after Ferguson?” made diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen think about how hard it is to change attitudes about race. 

[If you’re living in America, then you most likely have heard about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot a black man, Michael Brown. If you haven’t heard about it, read Dyson’s article, which conveys the importance of Ferguson to America and its racial attitudes.]

I rarely talk about politics over the holidays, but I had a heated conversation over Thanksgiving dinner about Ferguson with an in-law (a southern white man of libertarian convictions, pro-responsibility but also anti-cop, would never consider himself racist, especially as he is partnered with a Vietnamese woman and the father figure for her sons) where many of the issues addressed by Dyson’s eloquent column came up. I said some of the same things as Dyson, but I wonder if it made any difference.

Michael Brown
Michael Brown

My in-law probably felt the same way about me as I did about him, that our world views shaped how we saw this issue in ways that were unchangeable by what each of us considered rational argument. We came at this from very different beliefs and experiences. He recounted being assaulted by blacks in the south, which obviously left a deep imprint on his perception of them. I didn’t recount how the only time I’ve been called racial slurs to my face in the US has been by black kids, which didn’t make me anti-black because I didn’t blame them for what they said. We were both palpably angry, although not with each other, I think. Maybe with how intractable the situation of deeply ingrained history is or seems to be, how it repeats itself again and again, and how people with different world views interpret causes and solutions in radically incommensurate ways.

Police officer Darren Wilson
Police officer Darren Wilson

Dyson gets the pessimism of that, the sense that these race problems aren’t changing anytime soon, regardless of a black president. Solutions are to be found at the level of political struggle and policymaking, but meanwhile, perhaps each of these personal conversations can also move things by a millimeter, so that eventually a new generation can move a mile.

He may be president, but he's still black to many Americans
He may be president, but he’s still black to many Americans

What does this have to do with Vietnamese people? Many of my teenage nephews and nieces on my wife’s side were watching this conversation unfold. We had asked them whether they were keeping up with the news from Ferguson, and whether they were affected by racism. No, they said. They were born in America, grew up in San Jose or the suburbs around it, where the culture was diverse and where there were many Asians. They had never experienced racism. So should Ferguson matter to them? What does the death of a black man mean to someone who is not black and who has never felt racism directed at them? Do they look at black people like white people look at black people?

To be Vietnamese in America–to be Asian in America–is to benefit from the racism directed against blacks. Because Americans as a whole are more fearful of blacks, other minorities get the benefit of the doubt, from white people as well as from everyone else. Asians as a whole are seen by whites as the model minority, well-behaved and hard-working, unlike blacks, or so it seems. Even those Asians who are not the model minority, the ones who live on welfare and don’t go to college and join gangs, are not as bad as blacks, or so it seems. The immigrant who comes to America may be strange and different, but as long as he or she is not black, he or she enters America with an advantage over black people–the advantage of not being black. This advantage is passed on to their Americanized children.

It used to be that racial domination in American society meant that people were defined as white or nonwhite. Now one could argue that racial domination is defined as being black or nonblack. Under the old regime, Asians were nonwhite, and therefore lesser than whites. But in the new regime, Asians are nonblack, and hence oftentimes aligned with whites against blacks. It’s an easy advantage to take, to feel that one is not the object of racism, while participating in a system and a society that allows one to enjoy the profits of racism directed against blacks.

For nonblack people not in America, looking at these events from afar, I wonder what the message of Ferguson is. It must be that America has a race problem. But beyond that, what? Is it that black people are the problem? Or that white people are the problem? Or that if they, as nonblack people, come to America, regardless of how they may struggle, they can at least be guaranteed the instant privilege of not being black? Like many privileges, this one is invisible. It’s easy to take it for granted, not even to be aware of it. But if we do want to move that hard mile, millimeter by millimeter, then we need to see those privileges that guarantee our complicity and our silence.

Category: Essays


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Katheen A. Finch says:

    I read with great interest your article on Ferguson, MO. I lived in St. Louis, single, then married, in the 60’s and early 70’s. I was raised in a small rural community outside St. Louis and attended consolidated high school. We had blacks, then referred to as Negroes. Our school was forward thinking as we students elected a black Student Council vice president, good basketball player, and extroverted in 1962-63. In St. Louis, 17 on my own, working, living with roommates, I discovered the “bad” areas in the city and to avoid. Civil Rights came along and tried to help, and in many ways, it did not. I had numerous black friends, my age and older where I worked and later attended college. I know Ferguson and it has evolved into a community of disparity. Wherever welfare becomes “work”, society disintegrates. The core family center for single black mothers with kids dissolves. I also lived and worked in Alabama and Houston and saw the saw results. Within the black society are levels and those revolting in Ferguson were/are the lowest class. I feel so deeply for those blacks who work jobs, get educations beyond high school, and further themselves. They are the ones who receive so much negativity even from the lowest. I also taught in Houston in the 80’s when Asians were settled in the USA and many left Michigan where they were given a house and job to settle in Houston, a more familiar climate. I had students who lived in my subdivision with 12 or so living together, relatives and friends as well as apartments. Middle Easterners also did the same at that time period. Houston high school, then at 2,200 at each of two high schools was definitely an integrated student body. I was privileged to teach all these students and also to learn of the sacrifices so many with parents made on the boat trips from Vietnam, etc., to camps and finally to land in the USA. The situation in Ferguson became racial due to our media’s intensive coverage as well as Obama’s comments on the situation. Michael Brown came from a broken family, divorced parents, living with grandmother as happen so often in our are with Native American Indians. Brown disrespected and disobeyed the policeman, a prevalent attitude with young people of all races. He was caught stealing as well from the store as reported by owner. The policeman thought Brown was going for a gun… And then Ferguson turned into a literal nightmare for all St. Louis. Friends told me during this time period. To complicate the matter was the white police force. But, to be honest and factual, numerous blacks do NOT want to become policemen or woman or cannot pass the required tests. And black police suffer consequences from black juveniles and criminals as well. Obama promised employment for blacks in 2008 and still unemployment rate for blacks is high, dismally high. Welfare has risen as well as extended unemployment benefits. To make people dependent and expectant on the government for a living each month gives too much free time as well. Work gives integrity, independence, and self- worth. The answers to these problems on race have only been heightened by Obama, not lessened. I am sorely saddened that my city, St. Louis, has also become one of the number one cities for crime, along with Chicago and other major cities. Instead of fighting and killing, workable solutions are needed. I am far older now and have seen so much in my lifetime in living in other communities and states. I am saddened that this situation of racism has risen under Obama, not alleviated. Race relations are far worse since 2008. But we each have our own opinions, backgrounds, education, and experiences when viewing such horrific consequences in communities today.

  2. Patty says:

    Thank you for highlighting the unspoken alignment that some Asians have toward the white race. I am South Indian and was slated to have an arranged marriage. Instead, I married a black man. My family’s response (among many other nefarious reactions) was, “At least he could’ve been white.” The systemic, insidious racism that takes place in America is sometimes difficult to define and feels intangible, but is well-stated in this piece. Thank you.

  3. I recently read Viet Than Nguyen’s article “Our Vietnam War Never Ended” in the Herald Tribune and as a combat veteran of the war who spent much of his 42 months there “advising” Vietnamise infantry units, I was very touched by his perspective. This article on Ferguson, however, does not do justice to the story in that the accompanying photos of the two protagonists are intentionally or otherwise slanted to depict Mr. Brown as an upstanding student and Ofifcer Wilson as a near thug. Honest discussion, of Vof Ferguson, or of Vietnam, does not need such arbitrary obviously calculated manipulation of any supporting imagery. I have seen enough of that already in myriad discussions about the war in Vietnam. I would expect better of someone as intellectually rigorous as Viet Than Nguyen.

  4. […] As a Korean-American adoptee, I know both sides of the invisible privileges of whiteness and the hypervisibility of being a minority in my own family. I grew up in a white family in a predominately white town in New England, in which people often pointed out my racial difference, mistaking me for Chinese or Japanese. People have called me racial slurs and made stereotypical assumptions about me, but I have never had to undergo the daily scrutiny and harassment and violence that African-Americans have to endure because of their skin color and the attendant vilification that it carries. Viet Thanh Nguyen puts it in terms of racial triangulation, in which Asian-Americans benefit from being elevated as the model minority while African-Americans are demonized as the most feared minority (you should read his blog essay “Ferguson: From a Millimeter to a Mile”). […]