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187

Stewart Kwoh: Working to Create Solidarity Among U.S. Ethnic Groups

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Stewart Kwoh founded Asian Americans Advancing Justice in 1983 (formerly known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California), now the largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the United States.

In 1994, when Proposition 187 came about, the organization teamed up and joined the lawsuit against the initiative, with their own set of attorneys working on the case.

“We were very concerned about the scapegoating and the level of animosity towards immigrants that it came with it,” Kwoh says. “And we were forced to spring into action. And of course, we allied with the Latino community. But some were also concerned about the Asian community being fooled by some of the rhetoric.”

The Chinese community, as well as the Japanese and other Asian communities in the United States, had their own history with anti-immigrant sentiments in this country. Kwoh was born to American parents teaching in China in 1948; then, the family moved to Shanghai then to Los Angeles, where he grew up. Kwoh earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his Juris Doctorate from the UCLA School of Law.

The Chinese were a favorite target of anti-immigrant sentiments for years. The first major anti-immigrant law was the "Chinese Exclusion Act," passed in 1882 to prevent immigrants from China from ever becoming naturalized citizens and to bar further Chinese migration.

Proposition 187 was a new wake up call, said Kwoh. “It told us that Latinos and Asians needed to stand up, including to become politicians and political leaders. We learned a lot of lessons at that time, including that scapegoating can win over a majority of people.”

The educational work the different Asian groups took on was effective in reminding a majority of the voters from their communities that the type of scapegoating that they themselves had lived was raising its head again. 

In the end, exit polling showed that a majority of Asian voters had voted against it.

“We were pleased and relieved,” says Kwoh.

It was an important realization at a difficult time. Just a couple of years before, the 1992 L. A. civil unrest had uncovered tensions between parts of the Asian community and parts of the Black community, as well as the Latino community.

In 1991, his organization started a multiethnic program of leadership development, where people from different ethnic groups could learn from each other and work collaboratively to solve problems.  This came in handy in the years to follow.

But it was also a reminder that many Asians were immigrants in the United States, and many were undocumented as well, he says.

“We made the argument that Asians were also going to be affected, that immigration was not a ‘Latino’ issue and that it was also an attack on Asians and immigrants in general.

“Asian Americans have a long history of being discriminated against; we needed to stand strong in solidarity,” he added.

Kwoh's historic organization has also planted the seed of more service organizations for the diverse Asian population, including acting as a fiscal sponsor for other groups.

He is active with foundations and other philanthropic organizations. He has also been the Chair of the Board of the California Endowment, making him one of the first Asian Americans to chair the board of a large foundation in the U.S.

Kwoh serves in many other boards and has received numerous awards, including the 1998 MacArthur Fellows Program.

Solidarity among groups is the overarching philosophy of this leader.

“What we need to do is unite together and work together to identify different problems and work together to solve those problems. That's going to advance us as a society much more than any kind of scapegoating ideas.”  

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The fight against Prop 187 awakened Latino political power, dramatically changing California politics.
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