The history of tensions — and solidarity — between Black and Asian American communities, explained

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Against the backdrop of anti-racism protests last summer, racist violence was surging in Chinatowns and Asian American communities across the country.

In July, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was set on fire while walking on the street after being slapped in the face in Brooklyn, New York. The two assailants, she said, didn’t say a word before attacking her. She scrambled to put out the fire, but it left a large burn mark on the back of her pink blouse — a grisly reminder of the attack.

It was not an isolated incident. Between March 19 and December 31, 2020, there were more than 2,808 “firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate,” according to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that has been tracking reports on anti-Asian violence — a 150 percent rise since 2019. From being barred from establishments to being spat or coughed on, Asian Americans have reported physical and verbal harassment throughout the pandemic, as they’ve been used as a xenophobic scapegoat for the spread of a virus that originated in China. According to one survey conducted last April, 32 percent of Americans have “witnessed someone blaming Asian people” for Covid-19, and 60 percent of Asian Americans have witnessed this behavior.

This year, the attacks have seemed to take a more gruesome and visible turn: A 61-year-old Filipino man was slashed in the face as he rode the subway in New York; a 64-year-old Vietnamese woman was robbed in a parking lot in San Jose ahead of Lunar New Year; and an 84-year-old Thai man was shoved to the ground in San Francisco, which resulted in his death.

These attacks may have been spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and then-President Donald Trump repeatedly using racist terms for the virus, but anti-Asian sentiment in the United States is not new — just look to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order in 1942 that put Japanese Americans into internment camps.

“When the pandemic emerged and the president began calling the virus ‘kung flu’ or ‘China virus,’ those who were aware of how race operates knew that we were about to experience a surge of racism that we haven’t seen in a while,” said Pastor Raymond Chang, founder and president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, a faith-based group advocating for Asian American communities while also leading Black and Asian solidarity. “Racism against Asian Americans has always been a part of the fabric of our society. It just depends on whether it’s overt and violent, or subtle and kind of flies under the radar.”

What also isn’t new in times of anti-Asian sentiment is the focus on relationships between Black and Asian communities. Many of the attacks that have gained widespread attention have featured Black assailants, and have threatened to inflame tensions between Asian Americans and Black Americans. While Vox found no evidence that Black Americans are predominantly responsible for this rise in attacks, or that they are particularly hostile to Asian Americans relative to the rest of the population, the narrative of Black-Asian hostility is rooted in immigration and economic policies that have historically pitted these communities against one another.

In America, “what we need to realize is that there’s this timeless structure, in which there’s always one group on top and another at the bottom,” Scott Kurashige, professor and chair of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University, told Vox. “Though there certainly is an unchanged structure in the sense that this country has had a white supremacist ruling class structure since the beginning, it’s not the same techniques of governance or the same ideology, and certainly not the same people.”

Ultimately, there is a failure to remember what got America to this place of racial hierarchies and lingering Black-Asian tensions: white supremacy. White supremacy is what created segregation, policing, and scarcity of resources in low-income neighborhoods, as well as the creation of the “model minority” myth — all of which has driven a wedge between Black and Asian communities. In fact, it is white Christian nationalism, more than any other ideology, that has shaped xenophobic and racist views around Covid-19, according to a recent study. And for Black and Asian American communities to move forward, it is important to remember the root cause and fight together against it.

There is already a long history of Black-Asian solidarity against oppression and structural racism, which has been obscured by these recent fissures. In the late 1960s, for instance, Black and Asian activists led the Third World Liberation Front movement to establish race and ethnic studies in college and university curriculums in California. And today, members of both communities are showing up for each other in demonstrations for Black lives and against anti-Asian violence.

“This is a moment for us to really tell that history to share that not only have Asians and other immigrants and people of color been blamed and scapegoated, but that there’s also a history of our community, mobilizing, and demanding change and action — that we’ve stood in solidarity together with other communities,” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.

How policy created the conditions for Black-Asian tensions

The models we have for understanding and interpreting racism are often oversimplified and lead to frustration and resentment.

A simple model of racism that casts people as either perpetrators or victims of racism is divorced from the reality that individuals have dozens of identities outside of just their race. The fact is that Black Americans are native-born Americans, and, like all native-born people, they are susceptible to xenophobic and nationalistic sentiments that can place blame on an “other” — in this case, Asian Americans, who can be seen as “forever foreigners” even if they, too, are native-born.

While Black Americans (who are overwhelmingly Democratic) often have more liberal views on immigration reform, there is also existing research that indicates that Black people may feel economic competition with new immigrant communities that can manifest as broad anti-immigrant sentiment and racism.

Scholars also highlight that a lot of this competition is due to a racial hierarchy that has placed Black Americans at the bottom. When newcomers enter the country, they encounter a system that reserves the best for wealthy, white Americans, engendering resentment and zero-sum thinking among everyone else for whatever is left.

The conflict between Korean Americans and Black Americans is one of the most visible examples of this phenomenon.

In 1965, the United States ended the quota-based system of immigration and began to push for high-skilled labor to enter the country. One group that was able to enter the country were Korean Americans who were hyper-selected — that is, they had much higher socioeconomic and educational attainment relative not only to their country of origin but also to the native-born US population.

Yến Lê Espiritu, a professor of ethnic studies who specializes in Asian American studies at the University of California San Diego, explained how this highly educated population came to the United States and was often unable to replicate the social status that they enjoyed in their home country due to racial discrimination and other barriers. Instead, they found employment as small-business owners, opening up shops in predominantly Black communities.

“Many of these immigrants didn’t intend to be small businessmen. The structural context is that Korean immigrants couldn’t regain the employment and educational status they once held,” Espiritu told Vox. Their proximity to Black people was because they were only able to start businesses in “economically disadvantaged areas.” This, coupled with the fact that anti-Black racism in financing meant Black people often couldn’t start their own businesses, sparked bitterness on both sides.

Espiritu added that an additional barrier was that both groups had already been primed to mistrust each other. As Koreans consumed American media, they internalized the racist depictions of Black Americans as violent, uneducated, and poor — similarly, Black Americans had watched (with the rest of America) as Koreans were depicted as untrustworthy during the Korean War.

Edward T. Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California Riverside, explained the “middleman minority” theory, which helps further explain the tensions that arose at these Korean-owned businesses.

“‘Middleman minority’ is a term derived from the historical experiences of Jews in Europe and Chinese in Southeast Asia and Asian Indians in Africa,” Chang told Vox. Middlemen minorities exist between dominant and subordinate groups in society and often hold professions heavily concentrated in the retail and service industries like grocery markets and liquor stores, he explained.

These groups often have daily contact with one another in a way that white Americans often do not due to segregated neighborhoods, shopping centers, and schools. Between the racist stereotypes both groups have internalized and the linguistic and cultural barriers separating them, it’s little surprise the continual interactions could lead to conflict.

In America’s collective memory, the most notable such collision occurred during the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked by the acquittal of four white LAPD officers after they were videotaped beating Rodney King, a Black man. Over the following week, more than 50 people were killed and 1,000 were injured in the uprising that showcased not only anger at the verdict but also longstanding resentments between Black and Korean communities in the LA area. According to CNN, roughly half a billion dollars’ worth of damage was borne by Korean-owned businesses.

Scholars and activists agree that Black-Asian tensions have obscured America’s root problem: white supremacy.
Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A store owner seen in South Central Los Angeles during 1992 Los Angeles riots. In the LA area, Korean Americans no longer occupy the same role as “middleman minorities.”
Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many believe the 1992 riots are emblematic of the relations between Black Americans and Asian Americans despite being the product of a specific time and place. After the riots, churches and community organizers worked to educate the two communities on their shared histories of oppression — many Korean business owners, for example, were unaware of the violence and discrimination Black people have faced in America.

Today, more than nine in 10 Korean Americans believe there is at least some discrimination against Black people, according to a survey by Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Korean Americans agree that the government should do more to protect the civil rights of Black Americans.

White supremacy is at the crux of these tensions, including the model minority myth

According to scholars and activists who have experienced it firsthand, Black-Asian tensions have obscured America’s root problem: white supremacy.

“Racism and white supremacy have created longstanding rifts between communities of color,” Pastor Chang said. “The way the system works, the rhetoric around Black and Asian tensions will be used to discount the white supremacy that actually drives these tensions.”

To be white is to sit atop America’s ruling class — and since darker skin has historically been deemed undesirable and equated with being poor under Western and Eurocentric views, anyone who is not white falls at the bottom of this hierarchy. In this dominant Black-white paradigm, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have had to find a way to fit in, rendering them at risk of invisibility. Those who could assimilate into the dominant framework often did, buying into the notions of racial hierarchies and white supremacy — including internalizing racism against their own communities.

But not all Asians are offered this opportunity: The categorization of Asian Americans encompasses roughly 40 ethnicities and a vast range of economic statuses, religions, regions, and cultures. While it’s true that Asian Americans are the wealthiest minority group in the country, they also have the widest income gap of any racial group. Myanmarese Americans, for example, have a far higher poverty rate than other Asian groups, particularly Japanese Americans. A huge reason for this divide is due to the disparity between Asian immigrants who arrived in the US with skill-based visas and those who arrived as refugees.

“Our history is a story of seeking to belong but finding that our choices were often either erasure or exclusion or assimilation,” Pastor Chang said. “We ultimately chose to try to fight erasure in the form of assimilation to the degree that made us give up a lot of our cultural heritage. When it benefited the broader white society, they didn’t punish Asians as much, but when Asians are perceived as a threat, they either incarcerated or excluded us altogether.”

This rush to assimilation is what has perpetuated the model minority myth and helped further racial tensions. The model minority myth took root around the time Japanese Americans were put in internment camps in World War II. Asians were scared of returning or being put into camps, so they remained reticent and were seen as hard workers who, as Choi puts it, “have been able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps or overcome barriers.” This perpetuated the belief that nonwhite Americans can succeed and overcome racism in the US, without acknowledging the specific historical struggles of Black and Latino Americans and the role of skin color in creating a caste system meant to stoke interracial conflicts.

“The model minority stereotype really isn’t meant to define Asian Americans. Rather, it’s meant to define African Americans as deficient and inferior to white people by using Asian Americans as a proxy or a pawn to serve that purpose,” Kurashige told Vox. “It was never an accurate portrayal of Asian Americans, but actually consciously meant to distort and stereotype Asian Americans.”

For example, there are other ethnicities that meet the surface criteria of a so-called model minority but are unlikely to be seen that way. According to researchers at Columbia University and UC Irvine, nearly two-thirds of Nigerian immigrants are college-educated — far exceeding the US mean at 28 percent. Like Koreans, Nigerians were defined by hyper-selected migration, but unlike Koreans, they were racialized as Black in the US context. Nigerians are not held up as a “model,” yet more evidence that the minority myth was not about the outcomes of a specific group but a way to reemphasize the existing racial caste structure and absolve the government of removing barriers to success for Black people.

The model minority myth is to Asians what the “Black criminality” myth is to Black communities. Any image of Black people acting inherently violent toward Asian Americans or other groups of color feeds into the systemic tropes that have long painted Black people as criminals, which has been perpetuated by both American media and Asian media platforms like WeChat and Weibo. Last summer, Asian news media furthered the “Black criminality” image during the protests for racial justice, creating a fearmongering framework around incidents of looting and violence, rather than focusing on the largely peaceful protests.

In recent months, videos circulated in social media showing elderly Asians getting shoved and attacked, with a few of the attacks perpetrated by Black assailants, and the news and social media were quick to put the spotlight on historically complicated tensions between Black and Asian communities. Again, it’s not that these fissures don’t exist after decades of white supremacy-inflected policy — it’s just that the emerging narrative has too easily attributed the violence to these tensions when there are other factors in play. For example, anti-Asian (and anti-China) sentiment is on the rise globally — from Australia to Europe to Canada, people are registering increasing hostility toward China and people who they think are Chinese. Not to mention in America, it is white Christian nationalists who are the most likely to say that it isn’t racist to call Covid-19 “the Chinese virus.”

Ultimately, the recent rise in anti-Asian attacks has not only reflected the anti-Asian sentiment that has always coursed through America, but also underscores how Asian Americans’ perceived model minority status has kept that racism out of the public consciousness for so long. So when America needs an answer to why this violence is happening — the same way it was quick to blame Asians for the pandemic — the tendency is to scapegoat Black people, or to claim that these incidents aren’t racially motivated.

Moving forward through solidarity

As author and activist Helen Zia said, Asian Americans are not “missing in action”; they are “missing in history.” And because of this invisibility, Asian Americans are often unaware of their own communities’ history of activism and solidarity with Black communities and other communities of color.

While the decades-long acculturation into a predominantly white society will take a lot of work to undo, the intergenerational gap between Asian immigrants who have absorbed anti-Black sentiment and younger US-born Asians who are much more willing to speak out against injustice will play a major role in this shifting narrative. And it starts with looking at the moments of solidarity that have come before.

In his book The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans In the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, Kurashige examines the coexistence of Black and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, before, during, and after World War II, going back to the creation of the model minority myth.

While Japanese Americans were incarcerated in camps, Black folks from the Jim Crow South migrated West to Los Angeles and settled in spaces that were previously occupied by Japanese Americans. After being released from internment camps, Japanese Americans found themselves having to integrate with their Black counterparts. Fearing being put back into camps, they tried to prove themselves worthy of earning back their constitutional rights by working hard. As policing and white fearmongering intensified in these communities, Japanese Americans were further invoked as a “model minority” for being able to rise up economically after their internment.

But that status didn’t necessarily translate into divides between Japanese American and Black communities themselves. Kurashige cites stories of an African American elder who delivered care packages and letters to his Japanese friends when they were first put into temporary assembly centers before they were interned, and another story of a Black woman who sent high school yearbook copies to her Japanese American classmates who had been put in camps. When politicians and media stoked fears of “race riots” upon Japanese Americans being released from internment, one Black activist told the media, “I have nothing against the return of the Japanese.”

“A friend who was a waitress at this cherished, now demolished, bowling alley in Crenshaw in Los Angeles said she would serve udon noodles to African American customers who were having lunch with their Japanese American friends eating grits,” Kurashige said. “You can find solidarity moments like this all over the place when we shift the framework. We can still be concerned about racism and white supremacy, but we don’t have to center whiteness and white ideologies all the time.”

Movements of solidarity between both communities are even more widespread and out in the open today. Like many Americans this summer, Asian Americans rallied around Black Lives Matter protests and vowed to interrogate anti-Blackness within their communities. “I’m tired of the Asian community being quiet or missing in action when it’s time to side with our Black brothers and sisters,” one Asian American activist who joined the Black Lives Matter protests in Austin, Texas, told Vox last June. And now Black activists have joined the fight at recent rallies in New York and California, calling attention to the resurgence of anti-Asian violence. Heartwarming videos circulated on social media showing Black people chanting things like, “We are on these streets fighting for Asian lives.”

Healing is happening at the community level, too. Last May, Pastor Chang led an effort to bring Black and Asian communities together by hosting a three-part panel series titled “Interconnected,” in which they discussed racial biases and the deep-rooted history of Black and Asian American conflicts. And in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, Ray brought together two churches a mile apart from each other — an African American church and an Asian American church — to lead a historic solidarity march for Black lives in Chicago.

“If you take a holistic look at our history, I truly believe that Asian Americans have more in common with the African American community than with the white community in America,” Pastor Chang said. “The fact that many people don’t know that shows how historically malnourished we are and how fragmented our understanding of history is.”

In addition to understanding this history, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and principal of Black Futures Lab, said it’s important to continue fostering these interracial relationships. Without these interracial relations and solidarity movements, she said, white nationalist groups will end up benefiting if Black and Asian communities are seen at conflict with each other instead of addressing the overall problem of systemic racism and white supremacy head on.

A rally in Seoul, South Korea, was held in solidarity with anti-police brutality protests in the US on June 6, 2020.
Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A rally titled “Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power” was held in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence on March 13.
Ringo Chui/AFP via Getty Images

“We need to make sure that we’re not falling into the wedges and the traps that get set for us,” Garza said. “There is a long history of solidarity in Black communities and Asian communities — and those relationships are needed more than ever.”

In this moment of racial reckoning, Garza, Pastor Chang, Choi, and others say it’s imperative to have difficult and uncomfortable yet meaningful conversations across all racial groups to understand one another’s collective struggles.

“We have to enter into the stories of other people and understand how their communities have been shaped and formed, and why they are the way they are,” Pastor Chang said. “That comes through learning, unlearning and relearning, because there’s a lot of misconception and misunderstanding around how we actually got to where we are today.”

Ultimately, the pandemic has exposed the cracks in America’s society, bringing forth the layers of systemic racism and legacies of injustice that many Americans have chosen not to pay attention to until now. And it’s not only up to Black and Asian American communities to do the work of building solidarity — it’s the responsibility of all Americans to understand the role that white supremacy has played in creating these rifts that are exploited again and again.

“The crisis for me is not that there’s this intractable clash of cultures between Black and Asian Americans,” Kurashige said. “The crisis is systemic: It is Covid-19, the persistence of white nationalism, police brutality, and these really anti-human discourses and practices that are at the center of so much of what’s wrong in our country’s history.”

“We need dramatic change,” he added. “Radical solutions never come from the top down. They start off with groups at the grassroots level breaking through the status quo.”

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