A common misconception is the belief that Asian Americans prefer to keep their heads down on political matters don’t “make waves.” In addition to being flat-out untrue, the idea of Asian Americans being apolitical is a reflection of the model minority myth and often used to create divisions between Asian Americans and other minority groups. Asian Americans of all nationalities have been vocal allies of other communities throughout history, regularly showing public solidarity for those who needed it most. And when it comes to police violence targeting Black and brown communities and combating anti-Blackness within their own communities, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are becoming increasingly vocal.
A complicated history
In general, Asian Americans—who all have diverse experiences and origins—have varied in their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle against police brutality targeting Black and brown people. Some people say the support for the movement is merely generational, and that young Asian Americans have shouldered the responsibility of educating their elders about the issue of police violence.
Claire Kim, a professor of Asian American studies and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming book Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World, has focused her work on anti-Black racism. Though Kim acknowledges the sporadic pro-Black movements taking place in some Asian American circles, she’s hesitant to say the support has been overwhelmingly positive. Kim says the upsurge in Asian conservatism, especially surrounding issues like affirmative action and sanctuary cities, has been concerning.
“As far as whether things are getting better or not, in some ways they’re better and in some ways they’re worse,” Kim said. “Some people are taking a very different political line and it’s pretty alarming to many progressive Asian Americans.”
Some organizers have emphasized Kim’s point, stating that Asian Americans are not a monolith and that parts of the community are often polarized by political affiliation, ethnicity, and class.
“On the one hand, there are right-wing Asian Americans who are spearheading the opposition to affirmative action. … On the other hand, there are Asian Americans on the left that have been working alongside Black and Latinx communities for decades,” said Vivian Truong, a historian and community organizer for Asian American youth working to fight against police violence. “The stories of right-wing Asian Americans get amplified because they fit preconceived notions of the model minority, but these other stories aren’t often heard.”
Though the hashtag #Asians4BlackLives has been used thousands of times over recent years as a way for Asian Americans to proclaim their support for the Black community, Kim is skeptical of attaching too much legitimacy to online activism, arguing that the movement is still in its infancy.
“It’s significant because it shows there is an element among Asian Americans, especially younger people who have different mindset, who want to support Black Lives Matter and they want to challenge the passivity or indifference that many Asian Americans have shown toward the Black freedom struggle,” Kim said. “That’s really quite promising, but the question is going to be how much that can translate into real world activity and organizing and political power. How many of those people are going to be organizing and getting involved in actual organizations and not just tweeting?”
The fact is that Asian Americans have had a strong history of civil rights activism, often drawing inspiration from and working in collaboration with Black- and Latinx-led movements. Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American philosopher and activist, was deeply involved in the Black freedom movement in Detroit for decades. During WWII, Boggs publicly called out the lack of freedoms experienced by Black Americans at a time when America was peddling the idea of a free society to the rest of the world. Boggs also regularly addressed the issues of wage inequality and unfair housing by Black Americans until her death in 2015.
Another civil rights activist was Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American who was detained in a U.S. internment camp during WWII. In addition to fighting for reparations for victims of Japanese internment, Kochiyama advocated for Black separatism and was associated with prominent Black leaders like Malcolm X. Leaders like Boggs and Kochiyama have served as inspiration for the modern-day Asian American civil rights activists who work to educate the public about the plights of other communities.
Combating anti-Blackness in Asian American communities
Young Asian Americans in particular have joined and led national movements that have helped propel the issue of police violence to the forefront of the national discussion. In 2016, the large number of high-profile police shootings targeting Black men drew criticism from across the country. The influx of deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians that year has been referred to as a “fork in the road” for the Asian American community, who were publicly encouraged by several Asian journalists to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
There is a fraught history of Asian Americans as complicit and active participants in police violence directed at Black and brown communities. In 2015, former Oklahoma City officer Daniel Hotzclaw was convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault against eight women, all of whom were Black. A year later, former NYPD officer Peter Liang was found guilty but served no jail time for the shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man. In both cases, there was support among the Asian American community for the officers, who were also Asian American, despite their clear crimes.
After the murder of Philando Castile, a Minnesota man who was fatally shot during a traffic stop while his girlfriend and her young daughter were in the car, the officer was incorrectly identified by Castile’s girlfriend as Chinese American. Out of fear that Asian Americans would again throw their support behind an Asian police officer, Christina Xu, a Chinese American ethnographer, wrote an open letter about why Asian Americans should care about police violence against Black Americans. The letter was also translated into dozens of languages, including Korean, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.
“Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today,” Xu wrote. “We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.”
Other groups like Asian and Pacific Islanders for Black Lives and Asians 4 Black Lives were also formed to show support for the Black community. More recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Freedom, Inc.’s Southeast Asian team penned an open letter to announce their solidarity with Black and brown communities in the midst of ongoing violence that targets them.
“COVID-19 is highlighting the historical conflicts between Asian American and Black communities. Though there is a long history of our communities building and supporting each other, we must acknowledge that our community has also contributed to anti-black violence,” the team wrote.
Nancy Vue-Tran, director of grants and development at Freedom, Inc., said the letter sparked some anger amongst the Asian American community. “In certain segments of our communities, Asian American and Black communities are working together, “ she said. “But capitalism and white supremacy is set up to divide our communities and pit us against each other. While some Asian Americans are striving to succeed, we are often doing it without understanding how our actions do not uplift other Black and brown communities. We must work harder to understand how dismantling anti-Blackness actually uplifts us all.”
Community groups and organizations step up
Several Asian American-led groups and organizations regularly work to establish police accountability. Though their work isn’t specifically directed toward a specific race, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago works to address issues that disproportionately affect Black and brown communities, like immigration, police accountability, and racial equity.
“Ending police brutality is also an Asian issue. Many people see Asians as being light-skinned and middle class, but ‘Asian American’ includes so many different populations, including people who are both Black and Asian,” said Cori Nakamura Lin, a member of A Just Chi, a community-ran organizing program of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago. The group focuses on increasing engagement in Asian American communities, as well as supporting citywide work that addresses police accountability and mass incarceration.
“If I want to help to end police brutality, I know that I need to support the people who are most affected right now,” Lin said. “The police system has an overtly racist anti-Black history, and the disproportionate amount of Black men currently incarcerated is truly devastating.”
No Cop Academy is another group working on a similar cause, hoping to end the expansion of policing in Chicago. The group has organized press conferences and events that focus on improving community safety, which was supported by several Asian American groups and organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, DOPE AAPI Chicago, and more.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of solidarity for us and Black communities,” said Lin. “I do not think that it will be easy, cohesive, or in the near future, but slowly—especially with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment—I’m seeing more Asians examine the relationship to whiteness. I do think that some segments of Asians are doing this much better than others. We are a very diverse community but that is our own challenge to overcome.”
Carolyn Copeland is a copy editor and staff reporter for Prism. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.