A Philadelphia SAG-AFTRA board member has resigned after members of the actors and broadcasters union called out the labor organization’s tepid response to a racist, anti-Asian meme he had posted.
John Mitchell, an actor who served on the elected board of Philadelphia SAG-AFTRA, which represents 3,000 people in the region, posted a meme of President Joe Biden done up with stereotypical East Asian features. “Introducing our 46th president,” the meme reads. “Sum Dum F—.” The post, which went up shortly after Biden’s inauguration, has since been taken down.
“While SAG-AFTRA respects each individual’s rights to free speech, members of the local board are held to a higher standard,” a union spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday morning. “The Local Board will now fill his spot with a union member that better reflects the diversity of our union. This incident is not reflective of who we are as a union and will not slow our work to achieve a more just society.”
Mitchell originally defended his post as “satire,” not racism, in the comments of his post.
In a Facebook message Wednesday morning, Mitchell said the post was “not meant to be against anyone other than this administration.” He didn’t answer further questions.
SAG-AFTRA members were frustrated by their union’s initial response to the post. Philly SAG-AFTRA president Sam Clover, a traffic reporter at KYW Newsradio, sent a message last week to members denouncing “a recent disturbing social media post … found on a Philadelphia local board member’s social media page” but did not identify it specifically or describe any action the union would take.
Denise Nakano, a Japanese American KYW Newsradio anchor and SAG-AFTRA member, wondered how someone who could post such a meme could represent her on her union’s board.
“At a time when Asian Americans face an increase in hate crimes, how is this board member still allowed to serve on the board of a union that supposedly holds sacred — democracy, truth, respect for our fellow Americans of ALL races and faiths?” Nakano posted on Facebook on Tuesday night.
Trang Do, a Vietnamese American CBS Philly anchor and SAG-AFTRA member, tweeted Tuesday night, “I will not allow this behavior to go unchecked & neither should anyone else.”
The Mitchell incident comes at a time, as Nakano noted, of increased reports of violence against Asian Americans, especially Asian American elders. It’s also a time when unions and workplaces are dealing with allegations of racism within their ranks.
A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that CBS Television Stations president Peter Dunn and a top official “cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists,” including at CBS3, the Philadelphia station.
Last year, the president of Delaware’s AFL-CIO and the state’s Building Trades, James Maravelias, apologized after posting anti-Asian memes about the coronavirus.
And the Philadelphia Carpenters denounced one of its elected officials’ use of blackface at the 2020 Mummers Parade.
There’s a long history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the labor movement, as employers sought to divide support for unions by pitting different identity groups against one another. Labor advocates say that when labor officials share racist memes — or when unions don’t take action against racism — it harms the struggle for workers’ rights. The stakes, they say, are especially high, as union membership has fallen to 10%, a historic low.
Commenting on Maravelias’ post from last year, Jeeva Muhil, a bartender and member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, said: “These racist Facebook posts hold back the entire labor movement from organizing.”