Model Minority No More, Part I: Confronting Drug Dealers: Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King and Mr. Fred Korematsu

By Donna Y. Cheung  |  

January 23, 2023


“F–k you. I’m not afraid of you,” declared the tall white man, a known neighborhood drug dealer, to the short Asian American woman, me. He flared up because he objected to my behavior – standing on my driveway and bearing witness to his actions. From my perspective, I was exercising my constitutional rights and speaking up, as Mr. Korematsu had encouraged, by an act of quiet non-violence, as Dr. King had taught. However, for the drug dealer, he felt insulted since my actions did not comport with his stereotypical expectations of how a person with an Asian face should behave – passive, head down, eyes to the ground, subservient, fearful. Basically, my gaze alone challenged his understanding of the racial hierarchy and his presumption of white privilege. Even though he probably have never heard of William Petersen, the sociologist who used the incarceration of Japanese Americans and its aftermath to build the myth of the “model minority,” partly as a way to discredit the concerns of structural racism among African American communities, his reaction to my behavior reflects the pervasiveness of this myth. One of its more insidious aspects is the elevation of people for suffering well – for being good victims by not complaining or speaking out against injustice. So, I guess the drug dealer didn’t like the fact that I didn’t play along as a victim? And as soon as I shattered the model minority expectation of “passive victim,” he quickly saw me as a threat (“I’m not afraid of you”). Oh dear, did I hurt his feelings?

Since 2019, my family and I have struggled against our drug-dealing next door neighbors and their constellation of allies. In the interim, we’ve experienced three attempted break-ins, one occurred while my sister was in the house, two attempts to cover our security camera, many successful attempts at using and stealing our water from the front yard, various acts of vandalism, surveillance, one drive-by shooting and the incremental creep of taking over our property. A year ago, on the holiday that honored Dr. Martin Luther King, after another property incursion, even while we were working quietly with the Phoenix police, I chose to openly push back by requesting the police to show up in a very public way. Although we had to wait four to five hours, with multiple repeat calls, three police units did show up and likewise, the drug dealers were surprised that we went through with it. Once again, they operated on the stereotype of model minority and assumed we would be too scared to deal with authorities or have the facility of language to explain the problem in detail. In fact, one white female resident, in an act of intimidation, lectured on how ‘you could get in trouble for making accusations and that in this country people are free to do what they want. If you don’t like it, you should go back to where you came from.’ Not surprisingly, the responding officers identified an outstanding warrant for her arrest.

More notably, this white woman is among many other white or light-complexioned individuals recruited for the drug trade. Although the owner of the drug house is of Mexican descent with a Spanish last name, he rarely invites people who are dark-complexioned. His choice of recruits reflects an acute awareness of how race plays out in society – that is, African American males are more likely to be stopped by police officers. Therefore, for the tasks of distribution, delivery or transport, he chooses mainly young white men and young white women. This choice simultaneously acknowledges the privilege of whiteness in society and the exploitation of this privilege in order to insure success in an illicit industry. Just like the model minority myth of Asian Americans, these additional assumptions about whiteness and blackness are baked into our social psyche so that they become another taken-for-granted variable in making decisions – even in the drug trade.

Moreover, just as Dr. King had warned, shortly before his death, poverty and the lack of safe housing enter into this matrix of exploitation. These drug dealers view and treat homeless people as a source of cheap, disposable labor – a modern day form of enslavement with very little overhead costs. Needless to say, homeless encampments abound in my neighborhood – reflecting our collective failure as a society and the ascendant success of a localized illicit drug trade. While many of us often see homeless people as a nuisance or an eyesore and just “wish they’d go away,” please know that drug dealers and their allies actively work to keep the homeless in such perilous conditions – since it benefits their profit margins. Thus, the mixture of racism and poverty makes society less safe for all of us – no matter where we live. As I continue to struggle against the drug-dealing next door neighbors, I’m challenged by Dr. King’s call to develop a beloved community. Such a vision requires an expansive, embracing love for all people – even for those who wish to do us harm. Suffice it to say, I’m there yet. I still find it hard to not lose sight of their humanity – to remind myself that even drug dealers who threaten me and my family are, in the end, people, too. It’s a struggle of another order. 

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