In a tragic story that could have played out on many college campuses across America, Private Danny Chen, 19, committed suicide on October 3, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, after suffering horrific and continual hazing at the hands of eight U.S. Army soldiers.
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Chen had only been deployed to Afghanistan for six weeks, but his family revealed in a press conference that their son documented several instances of racial attacks in troubling letters that he sent home.
From being called “gook,” “chink,” and “dragon lady” to being forced to wear a green helmet and shout orders in Chinese, Chen painted a picture of intolerance and racism that is a familiar poison in many venerated American institutions, the most powerful and protected among them being the U.S. Army.
Chen, a resident of New York’s Chinatown, was discovered in a guard tower with a “self-inflicted gun-shot wound” to the head, the Army said in a statement. Though that may very well be the “official” cause of death, the systemic and systematic violent racism that Chen endured for such a brief, intense period has the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) prepared to do battle against the culture of hatred toward Asian soldiers serving this country while simultaneously being ridiculed for their ethnicity.
Elizabeth R. OuYang, president of the New York chapter of OCA said that the family “had no idea of the extent or how long this mistreatment had been going on,” reports the New York Times.
Though eight soldiers have been charged in the wake of Chen’s death, the culture of the cover-up has been on full display as high-ranking army officials have continued to dismiss this as nothing more than an isolated incident. That is extremely difficult to believe in light of Lance Corporal Harry Lew’s suicide in April of 2011 after being hazed.
He was also Asian American.
In a statement, Army Spokesman George B. Wright said:
The Army is a values-based organization. We inculcate our soldiers with the need to treat all with dignity and respect. We enforce standards, and when our soldiers fail to meet those standards, we take appropriate action.
While that is definitely the politically correct — and expected — response, the veracity of that statement has been called into question on various occasions. An even more complex question that has simmered silently in a Black community serving as spectators of this latest race-tinged attack has recently begun to boil over:
Why should African Americans care what happens to Asian Americans?
The contentious relations between Asian and African-Americans has been a source of debate and research since the Bandung conference of 1955, which entered the nation’s psyche through Richard Wright’s 1956 chronicles of the event, The Color Curtain, and then made famous in Malcolm X’s November 10, 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots.” It is a relationship that has been marked with violence, resentment and suspicion, best encapsulated in the 1993 Menace II Society scene where Larenz Tate’s infamous character, O-Dog, murders an Asian store-owner who is bold enough to tell him, “I feel sorry for your mother.”
It is difficult for many people in Black America to focus on the racism that other people of color face because not many of them have come to our defense when character assassinations and southern-fried lynchings deliver crushing blows to our tenuous equilibrium. The “Model Minority” myth — that has proven to be both the gift and the curse for many Asian Americans — has also been the reason that many in the African-American community shrug off their struggles when they sporadically infiltrate a media culture intent on portraying them as hard-working, studious and successful, while presenting the Black community as lazy and uneducated.
We all know how stifling, divisive and inaccurate racial stereo-types can be.
It would behoove us to take off the society-prescribed lenses and view this intolerable action against Danny Chen not as simply violence against Asians specifically, but against people of color who are collectively still considered several rungs below the status quo in a country grounded in white patriarchy.
Obviously, hazing crosses cultures, as has been tragically proven in the violence coming to light at Florida A&M University, but cases where a person is abused (or murdered) simply because of the color of their skin amounts to nothing more than a modern-day exhibition of Klan violence — no white robes, just U.S. military uniforms. Many people of color are force fed from birth that serving and protecting this country is an honorable endeavor, and while that may be true for many people, who is supposed to serve and protect us?
Racism in this country is a toxic virus that infects the most vulnerable among us at any given time, and we should all, regardless of culture and color, stand against it whereever it may be and whomever it may target. Only a complete eradication of this kind of archaic, good ole’ boy behavior will protect society at-large.
In the words of Dr. Martin L. King Jr.:
An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.