Stewart Kwoh | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

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

Stewart Kwoh: My name is Stewart Kwoh. I was the founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in 1983 so I've been there for 36 years. The background of Prop 187 was that the California community was in turmoil, partly because of economic troubles and then there was a lot of scapegoating of immigrants. We were very concerned that there might be different propositions on the ballot that would scapegoat undocumented immigrants and also attack legal immigrants all together. We were very concerned about the environment at that time, in the early 1990s. Obviously, the Prop 187 came on the ballot promoted by the governor, then Pete Wilson.

We were very concerned about the scapegoating and the level of the animosity towards immigrants. We were forced to spring into action and, of course, we allied with the Latino community, but those in the Asian community, we were concerned, both about the Asian community being fooled by some of the rhetoric, but also, we were concerned about the overall hostility towards immigrants in California. Well, we united with MALDEF in joining the lawsuit against Prop 187. We felt it was unconstitutional and certainly impractical in terms of withholding health benefits, but we felt that was unconstitutional because it was taking state law and have it supersede federal law.

We joined the lawsuit, we had our own set of attorneys join in the court case. Fortunately, after a period of time, we were successful, but we did realize that a majority of people in California, a significant majority passed Prop 187. It did tell us that Latinos and Asians needed to stand up, including to be politicians and to be political leaders. I think we learned a lot of lessons during that period of time especially that scapegoating can win over a majority of people, but we need to stand strong to protect the Constitution of the United States. We did have a team of lawyers working with the MALDEF attorneys and others to challenge Prop 187 in the courts.

We're proud of that work. We're proud of the work that we did with groups like MALDEF, and we definitely look forward to continuing that work even now, especially in protecting the census, making sure that work can proceed without scapegoating. There was a majority of people who voted against Prop 187 from a divided community. Eventually, a majority of Asian Americans voted against Prop 187. From that standpoint, we were pleased and relieved that a majority of Asian Americans did come forward and look at both their histories, as well as their current situations, and realized that scapegoating was not going to win over the day for them.

We were pleased at the results that a majority of Asian Americans voted against Prop 187. Well, of course, this came on the heels of the LA civil unrest in 1992. There were tensions between parts of the Asian community and parts of the black community. There were also some underlying tensions between parts of the Asian community and parts of the Latino community, although that didn't result in a lot of civil unrest. We were concerned about the level of ignorance in our communities about each other, and that we were concerned that there had to be other solutions than these kinds of propositions were obviously other than civil unrest to address them.

We started in 1991 a program called Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations because we were so concerned that Asians and others were isolated from each other. We tried to develop a leadership development program that was multi-ethnic in character and where people could learn from each other about their own histories, but also learn collaboratively how to solve different problems. For example, in the leader program, Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations, we had an exercise or a project where people would work in different communities together to solve a common problem.

We felt that there had to be much more interaction between the communities. When the very beginning, I think people were caught off guard. They felt, oh, well, maybe this is necessary to pass and get over with some of the challenges of undocumented immigration. However, many of us felt that this was anti-immigrant and was not going to just target undocumented people. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of Asian Americans who were undocumented as well, at least 10% of the population, if not more. We felt we had to stand up in solidarity with Latinos and other immigrants. We felt that this was unconstitutional because it was taking a state law and superseding federal law.

We felt, for all those reasons, we need to stand strong against Prop 187. From a divided community, we saw a majority of community members come out against Prop 187. I think that the various arguments that this was anti-immigrant, that the Asian community was also going to be affected, that immigration was not a "Latino issue." It was a broader issue for all Californians. In fact, all Americans, but it was also an attack on Asians because a number of Asians were undocumented. Certainly, two-thirds of the population, greater than the Latino community, were immigrants.

The argument that I think won out is that this is an attack against immigrants. It's not just an attack against one ethnic group. In California especially, Asian Americans have a long history of being discriminated against and being attacked for being immigrants. I think people in our communities realized this was an attack against immigrants, and we needed to stand together, we needed to stand strong in solidarity. Even though one segment of the community was being attacked perhaps more than other parts of the community, there were historic circumstances. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, who stood with the Chinese, and then that was later applied to all of the Asian groups.

There was actually an Asiatic barred zone where people cannot immigrate from. There was hangings in Los Angeles in 1870. There was a very clear knowledge that what happened to one part of a community affected the whole community. We needed to stand together against this onslaught of hostility and adversarial feelings towards immigrants. We also knew that Asians and other immigrants were oftentimes scapegoated for the problems in society.

We realized that that just was not true and that furthermore, kicking out undocumented students from public schools, denying health care, denying different social services that needed to be afforded to everyone was really the wrong solution to the problem. That there were solutions like looking into bolstering the economies in Latin America, there were solutions like looking at whether employers were treating people well, and that should not be an incentive for some employers to take advantage of undocumented immigrants or any immigrants.

We realized we need to call on the best and the recollection of our own history in order to galvanize the community against Prop 187. We were relieved that a majority of Asian Americans did vote against Prop 187. Because of our standing in especially the legal community, we felt we needed to ally with groups like MALDEF and others to oppose Prop 187, even though it had passed, to oppose it in the courts because we felt it was unconstitutional and illegal.

Well, many of us went to different coalition meetings. I went to many coalition meetings both with the community activists as well as lawyers. We were very much opposed to the proposition. We also felt there needed to be a lot of education in the communities, so we did a lot of press conferences targeting the Asian press and media. We did that sometimes weekly to really get the word out that this was really a bad proposition for the whole community, and that both because it was going to target Asians but also target other immigrants, especially Latinos, we needed to stand together to oppose it.

We had many meetings to create an opposition to this horrible proposition, and fortunately, that was successful in the main. We have a history where sometimes Asians stand up for each other, sometimes they don't. Like I said, in 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, there wasn't the ability to stand together. During the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, other Asian groups didn't necessarily stand against this unconstitutional rounding up of 120,000 Japanese Americans. We wanted to make this a different case where we would stand together, not only for Asian Americans but also to protect Latinos as well.

We were fortunate that that started around the Prop 187 time. Even to this day, we've seen Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans speak out against the Muslim ban to stand in solidarity with Arabs and South Asians who were being targeted after 9/11. There is a history where we're proud that the opposition against Prop 187 led to people feeling freer to express their opposition to anti immigrant propositions and anti-immigrant bills even to this day. Back in 1994, there were a lot of tensions between the communities. There were tensions, as I had identified. In 1992, there was civil unrest.

Part of the civil unrest dealt with tensions between parts of the Korean community and parts of the black community in Los Angeles. There was a lot of tension there and that came about because Korean immigrants were doing business in largely African American communities. There were charges of treating people unfairly and not hiring people. There were a lot of those tensions. I think, underneath that, there were tensions between some in the Chinese community and some in the Latino community because, in the San Gabriel Valley, for example, there was a big influx of Asians, particularly Chinese buying homes et cetera that Latinos resided in.

There were different tensions at that time. I think that they were some politicians who are trying to exploit those tensions and try to target undocumented immigrants as the source of these problems. As a general note that there was a recession in the early 1990s, there was economic pressure besides social pressure. I think that there were different tensions that existed.

I think that what we were able to do, not just in court but even before the court challenge of Prop 187, is to get people to understand our own histories, that the history of Chinese being discriminated against during 1882, that there were the internment of Japanese Americans, that there were attacks on immigrants as a whole, and that when you attack immigrants as a whole, it's bad for society. It doesn't solve the problems. It's wrongheaded. We were able to show people that we needed to stand together and work out the different problems because there were real problems but do not scapegoat immigrants.

Do not scapegoat any one group of people because that is going to lead you in the wrong direction and it doesn't solve any problems. We were able to get that point across, and I think people did start coming together. Like I said, because of Prop 187's movement in trying to unite people against an unconstitutional proposition, I think in this period, we've seen Japanese Americans and other Asians for example, coming out in support of, we call them AAMEMSA communities of Arabs, Middle Eastern, South Asians, coming forward to say, trying to ban Muslims or trying to attack people because you think that they're so-called terrorists is wrongheaded, is taking us in the wrong direction.

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. Well, I think that, first of all, people have to understand different problems and they have to understand them more deeply. There's no substitute for education and to really understand the depths of different problems and the different dimensions of those problems. I think otherwise, it's very easy to scapegoat somebody or some group as the cause of the problems and that's just wrong.

Number one is education because otherwise, we get fooled by different politicians who come along with different scapegoating ideas. Secondly, we have to stand strong for the Constitution of the United States and be able to fight back when whenever we need to. There needs to be solidarity, especially amongst minorities, to fight against scapegoating, to fight against unconstitutional bans, to fight against unconstitutional actions wherever they stem from. I think California is in a better place because people have learned that just trying to take advantage of undocumented people is not the right solution.

We find that today, refugees have no place to go, that we're not looking at building the economies and dealing with the harsh realities in, for example, Central America. There has to be an educated way to address the different issues, and we need to maintain our humanitarian values. Otherwise, we fall into many different traps. Again, I reference how Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans stood together with people who are from an Arab or South Asian background who were attacked after 9/11. We need to learn that we need to stand in solidarity. There are recent examples of that.

I think we're drawing on our own history, where Asians were attacked as immigrants. We need to stand together. One of the key philosophies is that an attack on one is an attack on all. I think we have to really understand that this is a time period, even now, where there is a lot of scapegoating going on, where different groups like dealing with the Muslim ban, are being targeted just because of their backgrounds. Just because of who they are, not because of what they've done. I think that philosophy is wrong and it's scapegoating that particular group.

Our history as Asian Americans, our history as Americans is such that we need to understand that scapegoating is wrong, that is not going to solve the problems. That you could blame one group for the economic malaise or economic problems, or you could blame a group for terrorism, but if you blame a whole group is just wrong. It leads you down the wrong path. It leads you away from real solutions to understand what is the real problem? What are the real solutions? What is the real way we can unite as a country and as a people?

I think the Asian American experience, the exclusion of Chinese in 1882, that was later applied to all the Asian groups, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, definitely need to influence how we see the current day. We need to stand together in solidarity against attacks on one because they are attacks on all. We have to look at what are some of the common issues that we are grappling with today and stand in solidarity. For example, we understand that mass incarceration is really a blight on many, many communities. In particular, they affect African Americans and Latinos as big targets.

We need to stand in solidarity to look for other solutions than mass incarceration. Solutions like providing health services, providing jobs, providing for other means of survival. That is going to be a much deeper solution than scapegoating people and putting them into prisons. There's a lot of different issues where our communities need to draw on their past lessons and their past history to guide the future. It's unfortunate that the anti-immigrant sentiment affects not just the United States but worldwide, particularly in Europe. In Europe, the largest or the second-largest parties, oftentimes, are anti-immigrant parties.

In the United States, I think people would understand that President Trump won the election, in large part, because of his anti-immigrant rhetoric. I think that the issue of immigration, real or perceived, has affected the worldwide community. I think that that's wrong, that we need to look for different solutions. As a matter of fact, there's many studies that show if you incorporate immigrants and refugees into your societies and provide economic opportunities, they actually will benefit the community, economically, not just socially. The fear of immigrants taking away jobs or the fear of immigrants taking on too many social benefits is something that paralyzes people, frightens people.

The reality is actually oftentimes just the opposite. That if you incorporate people, if you treat people humanitarian wise, that they actually contribute more to the society and to those communities. We've seen that many times in the United States where immigrants have gone into communities and have revitalized communities. They've made them stronger. People who stayed, white populations that stayed benefited as well.

I think that there is a lot of ways that we can introduce better ways to treat immigrants and refugees. That we can show that that actually will lead to a stronger community, not a weaker community. A more united community, not a divided community. A lot of times, the rhetoric frightens people. Sometimes it frightens people who are not even in immigrant communities. It's just used to frighten people and to scapegoat people. That's just wrong. We need to do a much better job at education because we don't want more Prop 187s around the country. We don't want anti-immigrant bills and propositions.

We don't want anti-immigrant politicians using this rhetoric to frighten people and to get people to do things that are wrongheaded. An easy example is Koreatown. Koreatown in the very beginning, 20, 25, 30 years ago was a very small community that really didn't have much economic vitality. The Korean American community, as well as the Latino community, in the area of so-called Koreatown really have revitalized that whole area so that the buildings, the businesses, the schools have flourished. I think that's an example where people did come together and built up a brand new community in the last few decades.

I think there are examples where immigrants have contributed to the cities or to the counties, and that is a positive development. Asian Americans are two-thirds foreign-born much more than Latinos who are 40% something foreign-born. The foreign-born, especially the foreign-born, have to be educated that the census is going to help everybody. That having a good census, like the last census, we had a low undercount of Asian Americans. We were successful in getting the word across that documented, undocumented, whatever ethnic group that they're from, they needed to be counted. In the last census, we had a relatively low undercount.

We want that to continue. We need to continue the education that everybody who lives in the United States and is a resident of the United States needs to be counted because it's going to affect billions of dollars in money coming to local communities. It is going to affect health and education and transportation. All of these measures need to be put forward to the population that the census is very important and that people who are here even in an undocumented way need to be counted. We have our work to be done. We receive the largest state grant for the Asian American community. We needed to come forward as best we can.

There was a fear of some of the census questions asking for citizenship. One of our partners challenged that with MALDEF in court and they prevailed, but we needed to look into whether or not the Asian community is going to be fearful of some of the attacks on them, potential attacks on them by answering the census. We need to convince people that they are safe, that the census information is kept confidential, that we will stand with them because the census is so crucial, especially for growing communities to be counted, especially the Latino and Asian communities.

We were the fastest-growing communities in the United States, ethnically speaking. We needed to really come together and see how we can stand together to make sure that the vast majority of our communities understand this and that everybody feels they can be counted. That's a crucial, common effort that we have. I think that's where we can join with the African American community that is also growing. The African American, Latino, and Asian communities are growing in the United States. We need to get them to come out to really express through the census that they're here, that they're not going away, that this is our home, and we can build a better country together.

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

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

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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