The time has come for Asian Americans to call in our chits.
Those of us who have worked in coalition with African American partners need them to do what is most difficult: Stand up and speak out, on our behalf and against individuals who are black youth committing what could be called “hate crimes.” Again and again, Asian Americans are being attacked by African Americans. A rap video only recently making the rounds encourages robberies with explicit instructions on why to select “Chinese” as the marks and how to carry out the act. (I have not linked it, because giving it further attention only creates an incentive to be shocking.)
There cannot be much of an argument in favor of such conduct. It is deplorable. As outraged as Asian Americans might be, and I don’t blame them, Asian Americans ratcheting up of tension would not be useful. The issue is a few transgressors; they are not representative.
Asian Americans might become angry, but we are only of limited effectiveness. The assumption is that we are well off if not too much so, not really citizens entitled to protections meant for members of the society. It isn’t always said, but it is often thought: We are taking over, but we belong elsewhere.
The video incident is not isolated. It is part of a pattern, from New York City to the West Coast. In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the trend toward singling out Asian immigrants is real rather than fantasy; it has been shoppers headed to or coming from the thriving Asian supermarkets in the area who have been victims. In the San Francisco Bay Area, home to a sizable Asian American population since it was settled, a series of assaults has occurred. In Sacramento, Asian Americans have organized themselves into a mutual defense system, afraid to turn to officials entrusted with public security. Schoolyard bullying of Asian American children is extraordinarily high, with perpetrators of all backgrounds.
The problem also is not new. But it is different. A generation ago, rapper Ice Cube urged African Americans to burn down Asian immigrant businesses. Then, a series of confrontations between patrons of these modest storefronts and the entrepreneurs who had toiled 24-7 in the mom-and-pop shops in impoverished neighborhoods made for sensational headlines that divided sympathies. African Americans by and large regarded the owners of the corner groceries as exploiting them at best and disrespecting them to boot. In turn, Asian Americans, as well as white observers, took the interactions as further confirmation of damaging stereotypes.
The hostility is general, in the air. Multiple Chinese food delivery persons have been set upon, even killed. They are not wealthy, probably not even as privileged as those to whom they cater.
The resurgence of violence against Asian Americans is based on perceived vulnerability blended with racial resentment. Asian Americans are easy targets, reputed to keep cash on hand, afraid to fight back, and reluctant to file charges. Abroad, such as in Paris, Asian tourists are frequently picked out — even in a systematic tear-gas raid.
Although the truth is most crime takes place among people who resemble one another, at least racially, all of us recognize the threat from the stranger. In fact, there has been a long-standing, essentially unreported phenomenon of home invasions by Asian gangs on their own community. The few accounts that are publicized typically describe the scenarios as “brutal” and “vicious.”
Nonetheless, any of us persuaded by American ideals, or for that matter concerned about physical safety, should be apprehensive about the open hostility directed at Asian Americans. It terrorizes and traumatizes, beyond the direct casualties. It sends the signal that we are not accepted. It licenses the less extreme deeds: someone watching the video is unlikely to participate in a felony, but the animosity that has been sparked will end up having consequences.
Even those who are not Chinese immigrants, but of East Asian origin, are aware that the trespassers who wish to inflict harm in this manner make mistakes. They do not check if someone holds a passport because they are native-born, the third generation of their family on this soil. They joke we all “look alike” anyway, meaning a Japanese American or Korean American substitutes more or less. Any of us suffice for the sacrifice.
The challenge is what to do. For those of us who have worked on bridge building — I spent a decade as a professor at Howard University, the leading historically black college/university — moments such as these test whether we have been wrong. Non-Asian Americans have not noticed what is happening. Imagine if a parallel video declared whites should be besieged.
Perhaps we have bought into a delusion of interracial justice. I have insisted to other Asian Americans that we must reach out, identifying ourselves as people of color who have a common cause with African Americans, Latinos, and others who are disenfranchised. Yet I remain committed out of principle and pragmatism. I continue to be involved with causes, because I believe in the possibility of progress.
I am not alone. Many more Asian Americans than are acknowledged have dedicated themselves to the black struggle for equality. The Japanese American Citizens League, founded in 1929, fielded a contingent at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous march on Washington, when he delivered his “Dream” speech. Black and white photographs attest to their solidarity. The person who cradled the head of Malcolm X when he was assassinated in that same era was Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American homemaker who had been inspired to join him, becoming trusted to be at his side. The late Grace Lee Boggs was a radical labor organizer with her African American husband, James Boggs — her politics were so baffling to the government operatives surveilling her that they recorded in their notes the Chinese American might be an “Afro-Asian.” I was alerted to this latest video by an Asian immigrant who as a physician is most proud of his association with an African American hospital, which he served as a volunteer.
Most recently, many Asian Americans have signed on to the Black Lives Matter movement. They have been willing to align themselves with those who are unlike them, subjected to daily disparities, shot though unarmed — not randomly. They have even called for prosecution of Asian American police officers. In the Peter Liang-Akai Gurley case, their conscience put them opposite their own family members who sympathized with the rookie cop as a scapegoat, over the dead man.
In addressing the crisis, Asian Americans can and should enlist law enforcement officials. We cannot be shy. We have to support them, including if our children wish to join the department.
While it is understandable that those Asian Americans who can scarcely make ends meet cannot be bothered by a lecture on civic engagement, many others enjoy sufficient comfort that they are remiss if that is all they do. Public life, meaning participating in the processes of this great democracy, is as much a responsibility as it is a right. By showing up before the city council or at the town hall, we establish ourselves as caring about more than “our people.”
My hope is that we have made enough friends among African American leaders: elders who are respected; clergy and churchgoers; the ordinary folks who want to make it through their day as we do too — they have not lacked for similar suffering visited upon them and their kin. We need them to help us.
I beseech them.