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  • Iese Tuuao

Racism in America Is Not a New Phenomenon

These recent acts of violence towards the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not new for some who have been living and experienced them firsthand in the mainland. As a college student back in Los Angeles in 1972, I was incarcerated because they thought I was an illegal alien, coming from Mexico, even though I pled with them that I’m Samoan, a U.S. National; I even showed them my Driver’s License—that did not help me. Two stories in my memory box comes in mind:

In 1989 in Cerritos, California, Sheriff deputies in riot gear broke up a peaceful bridal shower by a Samoan family. The partygoers, most of them Samoans were brutally beaten up and falsely arrested. Eleven deputies and about 35 Samoans were injured in the resulting melee. I remember the L.A. County District Attorney, Ira Reiner characterized those charged with felonies as “very large people” with a “mob mentality.” The Sheriff claimed that the neighbors called and complained but the neighbors denied it, and a resident videotaped the whole melee showing deputies repeatedly hitting some of the partygoers as they lay handcuffed on the ground.

I also remember in February, 1991, right before the Rodney King incident, two Samoan brothers were killed by a Compton Police Officer when they responded to a domestic dispute. The officers claimed that they fear for their lives. The court jury was deadlocked on voluntary manslaughter charges. The District Attorney refused to press the case. The stereotype of Samoans then was that they are big and fierce people with little brains. That resentment still lingers in the Samoan Community in Southern California. I remember working with community leaders and churches to take part in the largest peaceful protest ever by Samoans and many other people of color in Southern California in 1991.

I have not witnessed any physical violence towards Samoans here in Hawaii, but against our Micronesian people, they are subjected to name calling such as “cockroaches” and all that. I have heard name calling by our neighbors when the Marshallese congregation used our church facilities a few years back that their children are “undisciplined, uncivilized, and unsupervised” and their presence in the community would taint our relationship with the neighbors around our church. No acts of violence towards them, but the power of words and name calling hurt and lingers for a long time. Just like labeling Samoans as “very large people with a mob mentality, or “big and fierce people with little brains.” This lingers for a life time; and they tend to destroy relationships with other groups, the government, and even the church. It gave birth to a false notion that they are not welcome here.

(An excerpt of this article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Friend.)


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