Anti-Asian racism is surging, and it’s no secret as to why. Thanks to the bigoted lie that our community was responsible for bringing Covid-19 into America and the morally bankrupt leaders who doubled down on discrimination, hostility towards the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) peoples has run rampant. In the six months after the nationwide lockdown, there were more than 2,500 reported anti-Asian hate incidents. Although the majority of the cases primarily involved verbal harassment, there was no shortage of violence.
This violence has burst into the forefront of the national conversation once again with the multiple violent attacks against AAPI elders in the Bay Area. A 52 year old woman was shot in the head with a flare gun; a 91 year old man was hospitalized by a push to the ground; a 64 year old grandmother was assaulted and robbed. The most heartbreaking and most infamous story is of 84 year old Vicha Ratanapakdee, who fell after being violently shoved and later died from his injuries.
As his and other stories have attracted mainstream attention, calls for justice and equality have intensified. The State of California committed $1.4 million to combating anti-Asian racism and House Democrats called for the Justice Department to take a stronger stance. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Asian American to hold the position, denounced the skyrocketing xenophobic attacks. But in some communities, there’s a different response brewing.
Bigotry Begets Bigotry
Anti-Black racism has been a persistent issue in the AAPI community, and recent events have caused the wound to fester. Scores of online “truthers” within community spaces rush to spotlight the race of the perpetrators. They mock liberal politicians for their criticism on White supremacy, which serves as clear evidence in their eyes of a grand conspiratorial attempt to silence some alleged truth. To many increasingly vocal voices, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Black criminals, and a White leftist society that shields them at all costs.
“I don’t give a fuck about BLM when they don’t give a shit about Asian Lives,” says one user on reddit. “Can you boba libs finally stfu about antiblackness?” writes another on Instagram. A post addressing anti-Black dog whistles in the community from a moderator of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group was locked after the vitriol inevitably found its way to a warring comments section.
This bigotry that we are seeing right now needs to be addressed. But the elephant in the room regarding anti-Black racism among the AAPI diaspora is that this is nothing new. We have seen it erupt on a national scale, made manifest into disastrous violence. We have seen it growing up from behind closed doors: in parent group chats, in hushed conversations, in uncomfortable dinner table rants. And we are seeing it now, as racist attacks fuel yet another wave of racism in response. Just as the pandemic did not start anti-Asian racism but instead made it more visible, the surge in violence has brought anti-Black racism in our community to the surface of the diaspora’s discourse. This is both unconscionable and useless. It is only through intersectional allyship that we can win our struggle.
A Legacy of Conflict
In the Spring of 1992, Four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted of the charge of assault against Rodney King. King’s savage beating was filmed and the subject of national attention, and the outrage sparked by the trial court’s decision almost immediately turned into the infamous Los Angeles riots.
King’s case was not the sole reason for this eruption, but rather a culmination of years of injustice. One of the most stunning injustices that activists pointed to was the killing of Black 15 year old Latasha Harlins by the Korean American Soon Ja Du. Soon, a convenience store owner, suspected Harlins of shoplifting. Harlins was shot dead with two dollars in her hand, and Soon received no jail time.
As UCLA Professor Brenda Stevenson notes, the case of Latasha Harlins received limited national attention at the time because “it did not fit the typical black/white/male problematic [framework].” Americans already held a conceptual model of a White man beating a Black man. But a Korean woman shooting a Black woman? The media had no interest in trying to make heads or tails of the intricate racial politicality inherent to the situation.
But none missed the opportunity to sensationalize the violence between the two racial minority groups once violence erupted, particularly between Black rioters and Korean stores. In the week following the King decision and the ensuing riots, over 2,200 Korean owned businesses were damaged or destroyed. Stevenson argues that national media tying Harlins’s death to the destruction of Koreatown was for good reason, as the violence was largely an act of retaliation. Still, the largely White apparatus highlighting inter-ethnic conflict was not aiming to help Americans gain a broader understanding of race relations. Rather, it sought to profit off the situation’s novelty.
Yet local ethnic media played a critical role in shaping the discourse as well. American University Professor Jane Twomey covers two minority focused newspapers based in Los Angeles: The Korea Times and the African-American owned Los Angeles Sentinel. The coverage of the events and the violence between their communities differ. But both exhibited exercises in seeking White validation in their framing of the events, seeking to pin blame on the opposite community. Both thus worked against the goal of an cross-racial alliance “that might substantially challenge white hegemony.” Directing the conversation along the axis of the Korean/Black dialectic reinforced inherent White supremacy.
The legacy of the Los Angeles riots and its spread through Koreatown is today sustained by the notion of the “roof Korean.” In a phenomenon that attracted sensationalized coverage, Korean American store owners attempted to defend their businesses by waiting atop them, wielding pistols or rifles, cigarettes in mouths and fingers on triggers. These images were burned into the cultural consciousness. “Come to loot my store,” they seemed to say, “and you’ll be the next Latasha Harlins.”
Their legacy survives in modern alt-right spaces. Amid last summer’s violence, one Twitter user wrote that we should “bring back the #RooftopKorean and the looting will stop.” Their commercialized likeness has been plastered onto stickers and posters, their smirking depictions immortalized in pro-gun, anti-Black memes. Roof Koreans have become icons of conservative trolls and Second Amendment activists.
But that status is unwarranted. The Korean Americans who defended their stores did so precisely because it was the White society that failed them. Protecting the Koreatown neighborhood was not seen as a priority for the Los Angeles Police Department or local politicians, as the blockades were set up to protect wealthy White neighborhoods and leave Koreatown vulnerable. Korean store owners did not bear arms out of hatred for Black rioters; they were forced into desperate defense because the White government had abandoned them.
A History of Injustice
Racial tensions between the Black and AAPI communities have been made further complicated by the Black Lives Matter movement against policing injustice. No case is more evident of this fact than that of Akai Gurley, a 28 year old Black man who was shot dead by Chinese American Police Officer Peter Liang.
Similar to the Harlins case in Los Angeles decades ago, Liang’s initial arrest received moderate coverage by the media. But it was his conviction that truly interested White America. Wen Liu, writing for the Journal of Asian American Studies, argued that Liang was “the first officer to be indicted since BLM’s call for police accountability began.” So while this was a victory for Black activists, it also brought national attention because of Asian American internal conflict. Dueling factions within the AAPI community fought between supporting racial justice and worrying that Liang was being made out as a scapegoat to protect White officers.
Within this latter group, Liu observes that their primary motivation was to fulfill an idealized construction of the American dream. Pro-Liang marches were splattered with so much patriotic imagery that they were hard to recognize as protests. This might seem hypocritical, given these protestors disagreeing with White society’s conviction of Liang, but most were upset about Liang’s treatment precisely because he had not been given the benefit of whiteness. The flags and anthems make perfect sense. Chinese Americans wanted Liang to be given honorary whiteness and de facto acceptance into a culture that seemed to now reject him, so much so that they banded around their desire to fight for his freedom.
A pro-Liang organizer, Wu Yiping, told NPR that the police officer’s conviction represented how “American society won’t give you rights. You have to fight for [them].” The meaning, of course, being that one must fight for the right to shoot a Black man dead without punishment, as Whites had the privilege of doing. The statement is rooted in anti-Blackness, yes, but even more critically it is drenched in the aspiration of whiteness that pervades the mindset of so many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Many of us have never felt truly welcome here, and that has only intensified the need to belong. The model minority enjoys their status as a model, but would much rather stop being a minority.
There is a particular scene that will define the civil rights movement of the summer of 2020—the video of George Floyd’s murder. It shocked us as a society right to our core. If you watch the video, there are three people in view: there is the Black Floyd, pleading for his life; there is the White Derek Chauvin, with his knee lodged into the former’s throat; and there is the Asian American Tou Thao, Chauvin’s junior, who attempts to block the cameras from capturing the grisly scene. That is the true portrait of America that we all ought to recognize. The White man chokes out the Black man, and the Asian man stands where the White man told him to.
The Racial Triangle
This is the ubiquitous pattern, the eternal constant in the White/Black/Asian connectivity triad. It’s what UCI Professor Claire Jean Kim calls racial triangulation. White society performs relative valorization of Asian Americans, labeling them superior to Blacks as a stopgap to reinforce White/Black domination hierarchies. Simultaneously, White civic ostracism leads to Asian Americans being seen as more foreign than either Whites or Blacks, ensuring that the model minority never rises above the White majority.
This is not some sociological abstraction. This model has been directly felt by every AAPI student at UC Berkeley and beyond. We all have memories from our childhood where we have been made to feel culturally othered: our food, our language, our names. At the same time, I’m sure we all have experiences where a friend, a family member, or even ourselves were propagating the model minority myth. If we hadn’t, then Affirmative Action wouldn’t be a taboo topic at so many gatherings. Relative valorization and civic ostracism are terms from a textbook, but the racial triangle and the model minority structure are present in all of our shared histories.
My overarching point, then, is that it is never as simple as an Asian/Black issue. Considering the racial history between the AAPI and Black communities, it is absurd to posit that targeting Black movements is in any way productive to protecting our people. All that ensures is the further entrenchment of White supremacy.
A Lasting Alliance
So how do we go about dismantling this system, and in doing so actually protecting our elders? The answer rests in mutual allyship with civil rights activists of all colors, which means that antagonizing the BLM movement at this point in time is directly antithetical to our shared goal.
One of the most important cases in the history of AAPI in this country surrounds the murder of Vincent Chin. In 1982, Chin, a Chinese American, was mistakenly labeled as Japanese by two White men in Detroit, who had recently lost their jobs in the auto manufacturing industry. After a disagreement in a bar, he was beaten to death with a baseball bat. The White judge presiding over the case prescribed a $3,000 fine.
Anger over the court’s decision was swift, but there was significant systemic opposition. Traditional interpretations of constitutional law held that federal civil rights law did not consider Asian Americans as a protected class, and thus Chin’s murder could not be investigated as a violation of fundamental civil rights. AAPI activists mobilized and formed the American Citizens for Justice, which was an instrumental cause in Chin’s case being retried and being the first Asian American to have his civil rights legally recognized.
But this victory was also won through the instrumental support of Black activists at the time, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, leader of a so-called Rainbow coalition. Jackson, whose politics of intersectionality echo to this day, utilized his paramount influence to lobby the Federal government. The basic recognition of our civil rights could not have been achieved without Black allyship and intersectional alliance.
There are countless more examples from the annals of America’s bloody, bigoted history. Black opposition to the Vietnam War, Black outcry against Executive Order 9066, Black support for Philippine Independence. Were it not for Black activists in the 20th century, my Chinese immigrant parents would never have been able to come to America. The American Dream we are supposed to strive for is for full equality, not for us to become more White. As the adage goes, justice doesn’t mean just us.
And it is for that reason that a movement seeking justice for Vicha Ratanapakdee must unequivocally reject anti-Black racism. Black people have fought and will continue to fight with us against injustice, in many contexts despite facing racism from AAPI communities. Racial equality is won through disrupting White hegemony, and we will not do so without accepting the outstretched hand of our Black allies.
Featured image source: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/Getty Images