On Feb. 24, about 50 Edison residents, all of them Chinese American, attended a town hall meeting to protest a letter received by David Ye, asking him to resign from his position as library trustee.
This is two months later in a saga that also includes the unceremonious firing of Jane Jiang, the former Edison library director.
When a council member, Richard Brescher, mentioned in passing that all these upset residents were of Chinese descent, it ignited fury across the room. One of the residents declared “I’m American first. I’m of Irish descent, but I don’t bring all my Irish friends to a meeting.” Another council member, Ajay Patil, asked the public to stop talking about race, as there were children in the room. All of these council videos are available publicly online.
The reaction to the topic of race disappointed me, both as a scholar of race and ethnic studies, and as a person of color who lives in Edison and wants to make it a better place. The remarks about race showed an ignorance towards the current state of American society that uses race as a tool to answer questions about material inequality, cultural misunderstandings, and can be used to spearhead policy that makes peoples’ lives better.
Race mattered to me my entire life growing up in Edison. I attended public schools from elementary school to high school. Almost all of my friends were Asian American and second generation immigrant, and this became more and more so as I went through the school system and was placed into higher level honors classes. It was, and still is, a fact that Edison schools demonstrated the phenomenon of racial tracking, a product of the American system of systemic racism. In sum, racial tracking is the racial harm that is committed when separating students by levels into classes separates groups inadvertently into racial categories, with black and Hispanic students, and those of lower income, being placed into lower level two classes while middle class Asian American students were placed into honors and AP classes. The demographics of the black and Asian students in AP classes today are not reflective of the total demographic of black and Asian students who live in Edison. Sorry Councilmember Patil, children of Edison are affected by race the most.
I write this to show that — racial tension in Edison, between new immigrants and old immigrants, is not new or made up. This is the reality of Edison we live in, and this has been the reality for as long as I have lived in Edison. We need to be able to talk about it openly if we want to be able to make Edison better.
While our town is designated into one Edison, there are different communities within them that organize and interact in different ways. For example, the Chinese American community centers around Chinese language school that meets at a local public high school on the weekends, and they have multiple their own Chinese language newspaper — which has been publishing furiously about this library board trustee and director issue. Chinese Americans, especially first generation Chinese Americans, look toward something they can trust, who speaks their language, who looks like them.
And can we be faulted? A lot of people voted for Hillary [Clinton] because she’s a woman. A lot of people felt pride when [Barack] Obama was elected as the first black president. Do these identities not matter? What is the wrong in asking politicians and local elections to represent the residents of Edison?
The politicians in our town want to represent all residents — and they should, because that is their job. However, our town council, [supposedly representing] the entire community, does not have a Chinese American member on the board. There are two members of the town library council who are Chinese American, and four who are Asian American. All four of the Asian American library council members walked out, while four white library trustees and one black library trustee fired the Chinese American library director. And now, these same white library trustees are asking one of the Asian American trustees to be resign.
This isn’t just about the library. This is about race and representation in Edison. By being afraid to talk about race, politicians and our community are failing to be honest with us and with themselves about the realities of our town.
To be clear — no one is declaring an individual racist when they want to talk about race. Race is not just about politics, but the material reality in which we leave. Instead, we want to just use race as a mode of analysis more, not less. If we are a diverse town, and if people want to take pride in our diversity, then we have to acknowledge it even when it is hard, or uncomfortable.