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Some members push back as Mass. Asian American Commission head stands firm on Black Lives Matter statement

Jessica Wong, Jenny Chiang, and Sheila Vo from the Massachusetts Asian American Commission stood together during a protest outside the State House in March.
Jessica Wong, Jenny Chiang, and Sheila Vo from the Massachusetts Asian American Commission stood together during a protest outside the State House in March.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Several members of the state’s Asian American Commission publicly dissented Saturday with controversial language used in a statement the panel issued in support of Black Lives Matter, while the commission’s president stood firm against the critics.

The controversy stems from claims in the June 4 statement that “deep roots of anti-Blackness” exist among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and that the community benefits “from the ‘model minority’ myth and our historic proximity to white privilege.”

The debate has exposed a divide within the panel and the Asian community.

“It was the younger commissioners who prepared this statement without input from the older generation, and it was presented to us with no transparency,” said Commissioner Betty King, 70.

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King and other commissioners complained the statement was rushed and not reviewed by all members before its public release.

“There are certain bylaws before a statement like this is released to the public,” said Commissioner Mary Lee, who stressed that the dissenting commissioners spoke out only as private citizens.

The commission says 13 members voted in favor of the statement and seven did not vote.

In Saturday’s statement, dissenting commissioners expressed “solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters” but said they “took issue with the inflammatory language in the statement suggesting our community members have some sort of white privilege and are anti-Black.”

The commission was created to advocate for Asian-Americans, “not to divide, minimize, or insult them ... and certainly not to perpetuate false racial stereotypes against our own community,” they said.

“This is a taxpayer-funded state agency, and we have to be nonpartisan,” said Commissioner Pralhad KC, 60.

For many Asian-Americans, especially those with little education who immigrated from poorer countries, life in this country has been beset by challenges, state Senator Dean A. Tran said Friday.

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“I have experienced racism, discrimination, and prejudice my entire life. My accomplishments are not the result of white privilege,” said the Fitchburg Republican, who released a separate statement last week denouncing the commission’s claims.

“This statement has caused great pain and discomfort in the Asian-American community,” said Tran, 43, a Vietnamese refugee and the state’s first Asian-born senator. “The people who are responsible for the statement should consider resigning from the commission”

Vira Douangmany Cage, 46, chairwoman of the commission, stood by the statement.

“We have made a strong statement of solidarity, and we understand that it evokes deep thought and reflection,” she said. “For the [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] community to have it be a conversation point, I think, is part of the journey for true healing in this country. If we’re not honest with ourselves, we’re not going to have much progress . . . around racial healing and justice.”

Douangmany Cage, who came to the United States as a refugee from Laos at age 6 and whose husband is Black, suggested community members seek out resources developed to help Asian-American people understand their role in Black oppression.

“We’re very fortunate, I believe, to have fresh voices on the commission that are very progressive in their practices, and values, and beliefs,” she, adding later, “Hopefully members of the community can express their own statements of solidarity. This is just how the Asian American Commission thought to do ours.”

Richard Chang, Head of School of the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, suggested that the fresh voices Douangmany Cage cited had made a “rookie mistake” by issuing a statement that divided the community rather than uniting it.

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“We have some new leadership at the helm of the Asian American Commission, and I think it kind of shows. You have to be very careful with every word when you’re making public pronouncements,” Chang, 55, said, stressing that he spoke only for himself.

Chang supports self-examination and internal discussions within the Asian-American community about racial attitudes, he said.

“These kinds of conversations should be happening within our tent, and we work it out,” he said. “It doesn’t need to happen out in the open, because then what happens is people take the worst elements and then think that’s what the whole Asian-American community is like.”

For Linda Champion, the daughter of a Korean immigrant mother and a Black American father, the commission’s statement was a painful negation of her existence, and that of her teenage daughter.

“I can tell by the statement they don’t see me as Asian. And there are a lot of me’s out there,” said Champion, 46, referring to the growing number of people who have both African and Asian ancestry.

The statement is painful for her mother, who loved a Black man and raised biracial children, warning them throughout their lives about the racism they would face.

“To just take a paintbrush and try to say with one broad stroke that Asians or Asian-Americans are anti-Black isn’t true,” said Champion, a Boston attorney who ran unsuccessfully for Suffolk district attorney in 2018.

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Champion and others, including Sanjay Kaul, national vice president of the Natick-based World Hindu Council of America, said the commission should apologize for its statement, but stopped short of calling for resignations.

“As human beings, we all relate to what has gone on with the Black community and the way they have been targeted,” Kaul said. “To say we have some deep-rooted anti-Blackness within us is very, very wrong.”

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, said she supported the commission’s statement and said everyone needs to recognize their role in systemic oppression.

“This is a time for every single person to commit to taking action against racism, and that starts with the recognition that we are all part of a system,” said Wu, 35. “This is not about combating individual people or weighing any person’s experience against someone else’s. This is an affirmation that by supporting Black lives we stand up against injustice for all people.”

Amilcar Shabazz, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of Africana studies and president of the of National Council for Black Studies, called the negative reaction to the statement “fake controversy.”

Shabazz said he supports Douangmany Cage and the commission, and he appreciates the statement — for as far as it goes. With countless corporations, organizations, and individuals pledging their support for Black Americans, what really matters is action, he said.

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“To call out or to recognize a degree of anti-Black attitudes and anti-Black complicity in the Asian community, to me that’s a no-brainer,” Shabazz said. “Everybody’s subject to anti-Blackness, just like everybody’s subject to anti-Asian stereotypes.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the vote tally of the Asian American Commission to approve the statement.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.