John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. He focuses his efforts on public policy, education, litigation and advocacy to elevate issues germane to Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other minority communities. Yang is an attorney with two-plus decades of corporate expertise in policy and litigation. He is a former senior adviser for Trade and Strategic Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Commerce and a former law firm partner in Washington, D.C. In 1997, he co-founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that addresses the legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the D.C. area. Yang is a graduate of The George Washington University Law School.
This is the 15th part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.
John C. Yang, President & Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?
A: This is a time of reflection for all of us. People are hungry for change. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor put into sharp focus what many in communities of color knew for far too long: that structural racism remains and needs to be dismantled. The unrest reflects the anger and pain that many have felt for far too long. Asian Americans are also experiencing racism as a result of COVID-19, and misinformation about how the virus spreads and who is to blame. Asian Americans are recognizing in new ways that racism still needs to be addressed.
Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?
A: My hope is that we are at an inflection point. The number of people speaking out gives me hope, as well as the diversity of people talking about this topic is important. In the Asian American community, we are having some difficult conversations that we have not previously had about our own racism, and how we have at times been complicit in allowing the current racism to continue. I see people talking about racism in a different, more authentic, way. Change is never easy, but the arc of history is on our side.
Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?
A: I think back to the peaceful protests of the 1960s that led to a series of civil rights laws that benefited all Americans. At that time, some criticized people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis for their protests. Yet, without the protests, and the attention that they created, change would not have been possible. We had leaders and grassroots activists that worked together to produce systemic change. We are ripe for that moment now.
Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?
A: We need to face some hard truths about how our structures continue to hurt Black lives and other communities of color. These structures include law enforcement, business and media. Although some strive to be in a “color blind” society, that ignores our current reality. Until we confront that reality, it will be hard to make progress.
Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?
A: Social justice is important to everyone. Without it, we cannot be in a society where we become better together. As a former undocumented immigrant and a person of color, I recognize the importance of valuing all humans equally and being allowed to realize their own dreams. Without social justice, there will always be those who are left behind through no fault of their own. Society is better when everyone is allowed to contribute and no one is devalued.
Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?
A: There is both a human component and a structural component. We as humans must recognize our commonalities and also celebrate how our differences make us better. But we cannot ignore the disparities of the past. Recognizing that the past continues to have a strong influence on the present-day lives is critical to developing solutions that will work. Thus, we need to have laws that recognize how disparities developed in order to undo that damage. Then we need to be forward-looking to ensure that those disparities don’t get recreated in the future.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: I am an optimist. I look at the young adults and the energy that they bring, and I feel extremely hopeful for the future. Periods of turbulence and storms may be difficult, but it makes us appreciate the rainbow when it appears. This country is strong because of its diversity and ability to adapt and improve. If we come together, there is no question that the future is bright.