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Asian-Americans under scanner in US

After the Virginia Tech massacre, America's model minority are being viewed with suspicion, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Apr 22, 2007 03:04 IST

The US's model minority, Asian-Americans, are finding themselves under the lens after the Virginia Tech massacre. A deranged Korean gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, killed himself and 32 other people in the worst individual mass murder in US history.

One question many asked was whether Cho's rampage would generate a backlash against Asian-Americans.

Most commentators said no.

The Marmot's Hole, a well-known blog on Korean issues, wrote, "Cho Seung-hui is about as representative of the Korean community as the Columbine shooters were of the white community; that is to say, he's not." The Columbine high school massacre in 1999 claimed 15 US lives.
There has been little evidence of violence against the one million-strong Korean American community.

"Nothing yet," said Michael Hong, vice-president of external relations, Korean American Association of Greater New York, when asked if there had been any reaction against his community.

Even at Virginia Tech or the local town of Blacksburg there have been "absolutely no signs of a backlash," said Chetan Mogal, treasurer of the university's Indian Students Association. "We don't see that as something to worry about."

There have been some anti-immigrant postings on the internet and one hears about the odd doorman or construction worker talking about "unsmiling Asians". One Facebook posting said, "We should target South Koreans from now on." But such messages have been few and far between.

However, what has been reinforced is the more subtle prejudice of Asian stereotyping — the image of Asians as quiet and studious but ultimately inscrutable and alien.

This was strengthened by the contrast between Cho's reported refusal to even exchange greetings with his dorm mates and the hate-filled rantings in the video he mailed to a television station.

The Asian American Journalists Association, in a statement, complained about the prominence given to Cho's ethnicity by the US media. "To highlight this suggest his immigration status played a role in the shootings, there's been no such evidence."

South Asians partially escape this because the term "Asian" in the US continues to be strongly associated with East Asians.

Says Edward Taehan Chang, ethnic studies professor at the University of California-Riverside, "The Indian-American community's evolution has been different. From being identified as Caucasians in the US in the 1920s their racial identification and ethnic consciousness has shifted. There is still some ambivalence about their identification as 'Asian-Americans'."

It is often forgotten that people of Indian origin have been responsible for two campus shootouts in North America. Biswanath Halder, a 65-year-old Bengali student who arbitrarily gunned down one person at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio three years ago, was sentenced to life in February this year. More reminiscent of Cho was Canadian-Punjabi Kimveer Gill, who used a machinegun to kill one girl and injure 20 people at Dawson College, Montreal, before taking his own life last September. Gill was obsessed with guns and violent video games. His personal website said he liked "massacres, trenchcoats, destruction and crushing my enemies skulls."

The Chinese have a record as well: Beijing-born Gang Lu killed five people at the University of Iowa in 1991 while Taiwanese-born Wayne Lo killed two people in Billings, Montana.

Ultimately there is a broad acceptance that the actions of murderers like Cho have little connection with ethnicity but are rather about their personal psychological problems. Says Hong, "This was definitely a case of individual sickness."

First Published: Apr 22, 2007 02:12 IST