By: Dorothy Wang
In history class and in public media, racially charged disputes in the United States have often been painted as a “black and white” issue. Yet, there is a long, forgotten history of support and collaboration between Asian-Americans and Black Americans. Everything began with the increase in immigration of Chinese men in the 1850s. Then newspapers mirrored the hostility felt by Americans “that Chinese immigrants [were] the dregs of the laboring class,” and had “most of the vices and few of the virtues of the African” (Guo). This period of extreme “Yellow Peril” resulted in the massacre and regular lynchings of hundreds of Chinese immigrants and saw the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882. By 1924, the US had banned immigration from all Asian countries. Those already in the US were not allowed to naturalize as citizens or own property. Asians were placed in segregated schools and barred from certain jobs. Much of the struggles Black Americans and Asian-Americans faced were shared. The attitude towards Asian-Americans worsened during WWII, when fear of the Japanese enemy (but not European ones), led US government officials to call for the internment of every person in the United States with Japanese ancestry. At the same time, thousands of African-Americans moved to Los Angeles to help with war defense efforts. After their release, many Japanese-Americans found that their homes and businesses had been taken. Little Tokyo, an area that housed about 30,000 Japanese-Americans, changed to “Bronzeville,” with 80,000 new workers (Nakagawa). This overcrowded housing situation led to a huge increase in crime and poverty and a decrease in public health and safety, resulting in a negative outlook towards African-Americans. In 1963, Hokubei Mainichi editor Howard Imazeki challenged African-Americans to “improve their own communities before asking for equal rights.” While there was animosity from some members of the Japanese-American community, racist incidents rarely went unchallenged. The Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL) president of the time, Jerry Enomoto, called for supporting human rights for other minorities. An Asian-American newsletter known as Gidra was strongly anti-racist, often criticising Asian owned businesses guilty of discrimination. In one such criticism, the author, Mickey Nozawa wrote, “How can we ever bring about meaningful changes in this blatantly racist nation if we allow racism to be practiced within our own community?” (Varner). Because of their experience being discriminated against during the war, some Japanese-Americans turned to activism and were very vocal in their fight against discrimination.
Ina Sugihara was one of the first prominent Japanese activists. While her fellow Japanese-Americans were interned. She helped establish the New York branch of CORE- the Congress of Racial Equality in 1943. She was also active in several other groups and coalitions that promoted multiracial alliances and worked together with several prominent Black leaders. In the same city, a few decades later, Yuri Kochiyama was arrested at a protest for Puerto Rican and Black construction workers. At that courthouse in Brooklyn, Malcolm X walked in. Yuri insisted on shaking his hand, and from that brief conversation stemmed a two year long friendship. Later, Malcolm came to her house to meet survivors of the nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima/Nagasaki. In a Democracy Now! Interview, Yuri remembered that, “Malcolm was interested in every group, and especially when he would hear the kind of harassments and all the negative things that always seemed to be happening to people of color. And he knew about Asian history so well.” When Malcolm was shot, Yuri was one of the first people to run up on stage. She held his head in her lap as he lay dying, and said, “Please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive.” For the rest of her life, Yuri remained committed to fighting for the rights of POC. She always saw similarities in the profiling of Japanese people during WWII and the profiling and bigotry against Black people, Latinx people, Muslims, Middle Eastern People, and South Asians in the United States. She supported the Black Nationalist movement, advocated for Cuba, Peru, and the Nation of Islam. She fought for Puerto Rico’s independence; and helped push for the U.S. government to offer an apology to all internment camp survivors and pay $20,000 in reparations a decade after.
In Detroit, a Chinese-American woman by the name of Grace Lee Boggs was creating waves within her own community. She was most well-known for her involvement with CLR James and as one of the founders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a radical left organization. Grace was so active in the fight for African-American rights that in the FBI files of that time, Grace was suspected of being of Afro-Chinese descent. She also helped establish Freedom Now with the goal of realizing the political power of Black people, and was the only non-Black POC in its ranks.
Japanese-American, Richard Aoki was one of the founding leaders of the Black Panther Party. He helped provide weapons, tactical expertise, and arms training. Although he was known for his activism in the civil rights movement, a 2012 report alleged that Aoki was actually an FBI informant. FBI reports show that Aoki was most active from 1961-1964, and again in 1966-1970 when he was involved with both the Black Panther Party and the Third World Liberation Front. It’s not clear what exactly was the extent of his relationship with the FBI, and there is no evidence in the (heavily redacted) documents that shows Aoki consciously worked against his comrades. Regardless, some people still argue that Aoki’s impact on civil rights is non-negotiable and solidified in history (Griffey).
But it wasn’t just individuals. The Black Panther Party and other radical organizations inspired Asian-Americans to create their own. Black Power inspired Yellow Power. The Red Guard Party, a radical street youth organization of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco, fought police brutality/oppression, sought access to adequate social services, and promoted solidarity with other oppressed minorities. In Seattle, the Asian Coalition for Equality (ACE) organized Asian-Americans in solidarity with Black civil rights campaigns. They protested for desegregation, and against police segregation (Gregory). Universities across the country saw an increase in Asian American groups such as the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), Orientals Concerned, I Wor Kuen, and Asian Americans for Action.
Notable South Asian names include Kartar Dhillon who was a political activist and writer from California. Her parents helped found the Ghadar Party, which strived to end British colonialism in India. As an activist, she supported unions, the Black Panther Party, farm workers, political prisoners, and the Korean reunification movement (Kim, H). Indian freedom fighter Ram Manohar Lohia was one of many activists jailed in Jackson, Mississippi for breaking Jim Crow laws and working towards desegregation. He along with other Gandhi followers taught Black activists non-violence protest tactics.
Though not all Asian-Americans during the civil rights movement were perfect progressive radicals, the introduction of social media has reduced our relationship with Black-Americans to one defined by viral nail salon fights and racially motivated hate crimes. Within the Asian community, there is visible anti-black rhetoric. Young Asian males find no issue saying the n-word. There have been several incidents in the past few years of Asian owned beauty supply stores or nail salons attacking or calling the police on their Black customers. Many Asian-Americans still hold racist views of Black Americans due to a lack of exposure to Black culture, education, and knowledge about America’s white supremacy system. What they do know about Black culture is heavily reliant on popular media- movies, music, and TV shows. Chinese corporations are all over Africa – exploiting it for its resources and cheap labor, while confidently spouting racist rhetoric. Just last month (October 2018) a Chinese investor was deported from Kenya after a video of him referring to local Kenyans as “monkeys” went viral.
Likewise, there is anti-Asian racism within the Black community. A Black comedian recently mocked nail salon workers in one of his skits. Another video of a black man mocking a Chinese restaurant owner as she took his order also went viral. Recently, a Black teacher came under fire when she suspended a student for wearing “hair sticks” and called a student’s self-portrait “chinky”. After she had been called out on her behavior, the teacher doubled down on her statement by claiming that because she was a Black woman in the United States, she could not be guilty of racism. “I sent an Asian student home for hair sticks and I said the work (sic) chink. However, I did not do it to be racist. I can not personally be racist to Asians because they are closer to white people in terms of supremacy. My chink comment was a lighthearted joke and the student was not at all bothered. The mother is trying to make me look bad because I am black.” She then goes to state that her babysitter is Asian, so she can not be racist. “Due to wealth statistics, I don’t believe East Asians can be subject to racism.”
Though this teacher’s blanket statement and ideas about Asians and racism are heavily misplaced, many people agree with her and share similar views towards the Asian American community. But this “model minority” discourse is a myth and should be looked at through a more accurate historical lens. The treatment of Asian-Americans in the 19th and early 20th century showed extreme racism and bigotry against Asian-Americans. The mid 1900s saw a rise in respect and better treatment for Asian-Americans; aka the model minority myth. Though the myth was furthered and promoted by white Americans, Asian-Americans were complicit in the creation, continuation, and belief of the model minority story. After decades of mistreatment within the US, Asian-Americans started to push the idea that they were respectable, had family values, and worked hard, and were well educated. Chinatown leaders began to push and advertise Chinese youths as obedient, hard-working, ideal children and students. Meanwhile, the United States was being more involved globally. The government realized that if they wanted to form good international relationships, such as with China and Japan, they had to start treating the domestic Chinese and Japanese Americans more fairly. Thus, the Chinese exclusion act and other discriminatory practices began to be appealed. The politicians also took the self-promotion of Asian Americans and magnified it in order to proclaim diversity and equality within the United States. The stories of Asian-American success were being lauded worldwide as international propaganda for Cold War efforts. By the 1950-60s, anxieties about the civil rights movement pushed the model minority myth even further. White Americans promoted the idea that Asian-Americans, especially Japanese-Americans who had just come out of the internment camps, were living examples of success in spite of their difficulties and racial differences. This helped to shift the blame for Black poverty and helped the government deny any culpability in the struggles of Black Americans. They insinuated that unlike violent and nonviolent protests, hard work and faith in the US government was the key to success. Slowly, the wage gap between Asians and white Americans began to close, and even the data began to mirror the story of the Model Minority (Wu).
Though popular belief is that Asian-Americans rose through the ranks through hard work and education alone, the truth is that Asian-Americans succeeded because public opinion towards Asians became less racist and more positive. Nathan Hilger, an economist, researched the wages of Asian-Americans and white American men with the same educational level over time. He found that though the education of the two groups was the same, Asian men in the 1940s earned less than their male counterparts. By the 1980s, the gap had been closed. In other words, the success of Asian immigrants wasn’t due to educational achievement. It was because Americans decided to be less racist and more equal in their hiring process and in giving equal pay. In the 1960s and 80s, a new wave of highly skilled and educated immigrants were being accepted into the United States – further reinforcing and driving up the disparity. By tying the success of Asian-Americans to cultural differences, Americans indelibly assigned a “foreign marker” on Asians – crediting their success to racial and cultural differences rather than on the individual’s capabilities and hard work .
The lives of Asian-Americans are not equal to the lives of white Americans. Asian-Americans face discrimination, violence, and racism in their daily lives. However, it often goes unreported and shows almost a cultural acceptability and a definite lack of accountability. Countless comedians have mocked Asians with exaggerated accents; Hollywood still does not see a problem with yellow face and a lack of actual Asian representation; and the music industry still makes money off of Asian figures (Jackie Chan, Chun Li) and often fetishizes Asian women as sexual tokens. Asians are stereotyped as foreigners, most often as Chinese, Japanese, or Korean; this fails to acknowledge that the continent of Asia includes 48 countries, hundreds of cultures, and 4 billion people. South East Asians often face huge economic disparities.
On November 20, 2014, a Chinese-American police officer, Peter Liang, and his partner on duty, both rookies, were walking up the stairs of an apartment complex. Both had their guns drawn. According to testimony, after hearing a sound to his left, Liang tensed and accidentally fired his weapon while opening the door. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and hit Akai Gurley, an African-American male, in the heart. Liang hadn’t seen his face. For the first time since Vincent Chin, Asian-Americans joined together in huge numbers to defend and support one of their own. Except this time, Peter Liang was not a victim. Chinese news organizations and Chinese social media networks quickly spread news among older immigrants proclaiming the innocence of Liang, suggesting that the NYPD planned on throwing him under the bus- a scapegoat, a sacrifice meant to keep #Blacklivesmatter protesters at bay. Older generations argued that like his white counterparts in similar, or worse, situations, Liang should be acquitted of his crime. The gap between Asian-Americans and Black Americans widened.
Among younger generations though, a different discussion was being held. How do we approach the issue of Peter Liang with consideration towards #Blacklivesmatter and respect towards our elders who were so quick to defend a fellow Asian? After the death of Philando Castile, a call went out to all second and third generation Asian Americans fluent in their mother tongue. A letter was written, in English, to the parents, from the children. In just a few short days, Letters for Black Lives was translated to dozens of Asian languages with hundreds of Asian immigrant children offering their voices and opinions. The open sourced letter was a cry against the anti-black rhetoric being spread around. It was a crash course in white supremacy and the ongoing fight for civil rights. The letter recognizes that, “In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.”
Along the same line of thought is “#Asians4BlackLives”, an active hashtag for Asian Americans to actively show support for the #blacklivesmatter movement, but it is also a group that acknowledges “we, as Asians, have often been used as part of a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy to uphold white supremacy. We refuse to be used as tools to uphold a racist and violent system.” On their website, there are the principles, protocols, tools, and examples of solidarity. The Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) works with civil rights partners to address issues such as violence towards Black Lives, vilification of immigrants, racial discrimination of our political process, and further the support of Affirmative Action. Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, and other Asian groups in college campuses across the United States also promote similar messages.
“We are stronger when we speak up for each other within and across racial lines… A lot of times our mistake in advocacy is not to connect the dots between communities. Would we be in a different place if we were speaking out against hate crimes when they weren’t impacting us directly?” (Hing). The connection between Black and Asian communities hasn’t been strong for several decades. But as our predecessors suggest, by working together, we can accomplish so much and work towards dismantling the system that harms us all and puts us all at a disadvantage. Solidarity is something we should all strive for. We have the heroes and idols of our past to look up to.
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Dorothy, in her own words: Hi. I’m just your typical English school teacher gaijin living in Yokohama/Tokyo. I’m also an ABC (American Born Chinese) and RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer