Bringing Together Asian Americans and African Americans?

Asian Americans and African Americans need to hold a summit. There are so many issues now that threaten fragile alliances developed over the past generation through extraordinary personal determination. True leaders had to overcome suspicions, their own as much as on the other side, not to mention lack of enthusiasm from their respective constituencies. Their coalition has remained behind the scenes, barely visible at the grassroots level.

There have been tensions for some time. The conflict between Asian immigrant merchants and African American patrons has troubled major cities, flaring up in physical hostility. The aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, with its images of armed Korean shop owners guarding their property against Black residents whom they regarded as a threat, was only the most obvious outbreak of open violence. Whether the danger was perceived or real, justified or not, depended on perspective and politics. (The customers who had no choice where to buy groceries might respond that they had never been welcomed with respect.)

More recently, there has been anger about the conviction of New York City police officer Peter Liang, of Chinese descent, for the death of Akai Gurley, an African American. Whether it was another instance in a pattern of law enforcement killing an unarmed black man or selective prosecution of an accident, is an impending flash point. Our figurative black-and-white framing of racial controversies compels us to deem it exclusively one or another, instead of accepting the ambiguity of it possibly being both in some sense.

Add to that the anger over college admissions, which has been portrayed by demagogues as inexorably pitting Asian Americans against African Americans (and Hispanics) -- a framing that is as inaccurate as it is inflammatory to all involved -- and there is a mess that foreshadows the worst of our changing demographics. It likely confirms the negative perceptions of white observers.

Among Asian Americans, I wonder how many would still behave as did the lone Asian American character in Spike Lee's definitive drama, Do the Right Thing. In 1991, the filmmaker had the grocer declare, with an accent, in the midst of a riot or rebellion (another significant choice of terminology), that he was not white but black, "Like you! Same!"

Upon reflection, I am not sure the archetypal figure of the grocer, any more than the filmmaker, believed the assertion back then. Not all Asian Americans have sought to be characterized as minorities; for that matter, not all Black immigrants have either.

Asian Americans are not without their prejudices, toward African Americans -- indeed, toward whites, even or especially other Asian ethnicities. (There is no useful purpose served here by raising the mirror image, of Asian American victims being targeted in crime, or facing nativist sentiment from blacks indistinguishable from that of white supremacists.)

There is good precedent. A generation ago, Michael Lerner and Cornel West initiated dialogue between Jews and Blacks. They had the benefit of an historic partnership, dating back to the era of the traditional civil rights movement. Asian Americans and African Americans do not benefit from the same relationship, despite Japanese-American Yuri Kochiyama, an associate of Malcolm X, and Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs, a radical labor organizer with her Black husband, James Boggs.

The Jewish-Black model is apt. Asian Americans have a similar role in public life to American Jews. The Asian newcomers who buy small businesses in the inner city often buy them from Jewish predecessors; if not directly, then in a line of succession. Asian Americans also are concentrated in the professions, with fewer in fields such as law enforcement. The Asian American debate about affirmative action echoes what was on the pages of the Jewish intellectual press that once thrived.

At the turn of the millennium, Boston University convened an academic conference on the subject of Afro-Asian encounters. Scholars looked at global interactions among Asians and Blacks. There is a story that hardly anybody knows, including Asians and Blacks themselves, except for Afro-Asians who recall family lore. But there have been communities that overlapped and blended, whether in the Caribbean or elsewhere. And there is a tremendous amount of Asian (specifically Chinese) investment in Africa, though what happens overseas does not much affect Chinatown and Harlem.

Not much has been done to reach out on a sustained basis. Every now and then, there is a positive sign. For example, African American Paula Madison recently released a documentary about the search for her Chinese grandfather.

Our inspiration should be W.E.B. DuBois, the first public intellectual in this nation, a "race man" who founded the NAACP. He is known for having proclaimed, presciently, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. That quote, repeated by everyone who wishes to offer an opinion about race, is rarely given in full. The usual recitation doesn't even offer half the words in the sentence.

What DuBois really said in The Souls of Black Folk was, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line -- the relation for he darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America, and the islands of the sea."

He was committed to the uplift of a race, with his theory of "the Talented Tenth" who would pull up their brothers and sisters. He situated that profound project within a universal framework. In all of his work (sociological monographs, newspaper columns, novels, plays, speeches), he was dedicated to both African American equality and multi-racial, multi-cultural progressive politics. These ideas were not incompatible; they were mutually supportive.

Those of us who care about principles, not mere self-interest, should gather to discuss how to work together. It is imperative. Count me in.