Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao an Asian American, thinks Asian Americans don’t get enough attention and respect.
“Our story is inextricably linked to America’s story,” she said in a May 30 Washington Post column.. “Yet our history is too often overlooked, our contributions to this nation are sometimes forgotten, and our right to be here is too often questioned. Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) history is American history. And it is time for it to be recognized as such. “
Her solution? Yet another museum on the national mall in Washington, D.C., a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture.
It used to be that the national mall, the public lands around and between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, was a place to celebrate the nation as a whole. Its initial structures included the Smithsonian “Castle” (1855), the Washington Monument (1884), the National Museum of Natural History (1910), the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the National Gallery of Art West Building (1941), the National Museum of American History (1964) and the National Air and Space Museum (1976).
The mall began to turn to celebrating specific segments of the national population when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. Then came the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
President Biden set in motion Elaine Chao’s vision on June 13, 2022, when he signed into law a bill (H.R.3525) authorizing a commission to examine how to make a National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Museum a reality and whether to make it part of the Smithsonian Institution.
One problem is that Asian Americans are far from a monolith. Instead, they have a complex history and cultures. Even the term encompasses dozens of ethnic groups of Asian descent. Just Southeast Asians, for example, includes Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Burmese, Indonesian and Malaysian.
An analysis from Common App, a nonprofit that allows prospective students to apply to more than 1,000 member colleges using one application, noted that the term Asian American can refer to around 50 ethnic groups. “While Asian American was a term established by activists in the 1960s as a means to build political power, it’s also been criticized for obscuring the immense diversity among those it purports to cover…,” notes a Vox article, part of an Asian American identity series.
If built, it would supplement the National Museum of the American Latino. Legislation calling for the Smithsonian to establish that museum passed in Dec. 2020.
“The new museum will be the cornerstone for visitors to learn how Latinos have contributed and continue to contribute to U.S. art, history, culture, and science.,” according to the Smithsonian. “Additionally, it will serve as a gateway to exhibitions, collections, and programming at other Smithsonian museums, research centers, and traveling exhibition services.”
The next battle is likely to be whether to call the new structure the Latino, Hispanic or Latinx Museum.
Then, of course, where all these museums will be planted in in an already crowded mall is unknown.
Some might argue that recognition of America’s diversity through such museums is a good thing. I’d offer a “Yes, but”. There’s no question that education about our multifaceted country can combat stereotypes and misconceptions, but excessive focus on identity is not such a good thing when it exacerbates divisiveness and encourage a splintering of the populace.
All this identify politics also leads to even more minority designations. As Amy Chua says in Political Tribes. “Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition.”
What are craven politicians going to endorse next? A German Museum, an Irish Museum, a Hungarian Museum? The high immigration numbers in the 1800s were largely fueled by German and Irish immigrants. The Hungarian revolution in 1956 led to a burst of Hungarian refugees coming to the United States.
The 1959 Cuban revolution drove hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States. Given their concentration in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other politicians seeking the Cuban vote could probably be counted on to endorse a Cuban Museum on the National Mall.
At the rate things are going, today’s pandering politicians, who, as Blake Smith, says, eagerly “offer cultural victories instead of substantive ones,” will eventually advocate the creation of museums for every single racial or ethnic group in America. We’ll need another National Mall.