The world witnessed this dissemblance after Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office appeared to defend the 21-year-old suspect in Atlanta last week, rationalizing that his alleged actions were the result of a “really bad day.” Police said the suspect tried to use sex addiction, not anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander racism, as an excuse for his alleged horrific actions.
The recent rise in violence against Asians and Pacific Islanders, some of which is tied to President Donald Trump’s racist characterization of the coronavirus pandemic as the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung flu,” is a reminder of the historic oppression against those communities. Although during the past year America’s racial reckoning has rightfully focused on the long history of racial oppression against Black people, aspects of Asian American history converge, overlap and intersect with these struggles for racial justice.
Racial caste in the United States makes all people of color vulnerable to assaults, diminution and violence at the hands of white supremacy. No one is safe, including Asians who at times have been burdened and elevated by a “model minority” myth that has convinced part of the community that if they work hard, keep their heads down and remain silent about the oppression of others they, too, can live the American Dream. But this is a lie. Their lives and well-being will always remain in the shadows, intrinsically linked to the pain and suffering of others whether they acknowledge this or not.
Though Black and Asian people share histories of struggle and activism against racism, Black-Asian relations are characterized by mistrust, mutual recriminations and, at times, even violence. Three decades ago the shooting death of 15-year-old LaTasha Harlins in South Central Los Angeles by a Korean store owner who mistakenly thought she was stealing a bottle of orange juice galvanized outrage against Korean-owned small businesses. Harlins’s death ignited simmering tensions among Black residents living in racially segregated and economically impoverished communities who felt belittled, humiliated and under fire in their own neighborhoods by businesses who imbibed racist attitudes against them while taking their hard-earned dollars. When Los Angeles erupted the next spring in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, half of the businesses that were destroyed belonged to Korean Americans.
Racial caste in America is rooted in a deep history of slavery and white supremacy that elevates one identity above all others. Recent Asian entree into this caste system tends to tout their success — at elite Ivy League schools, in corporate America and as small-business entrepreneurs — as proof of an American meritocracy. From this perspective, opponents of affirmative-action programs argue that Asians face reverse discrimination from elite schools that hold back their acceptance rates, despite stellar test scores, to admit less qualified people of color. Recent lawsuits against Harvard — supported by White conservatives — argued that Asians were being intentionally discriminated against at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
White supremacy operates intersectionally. Its power is framed through structures of capitalism, patriarchy, violence and hatred against “others.” For the broad range of ethnic, national and Indigenous peoples grouped under the terms Asian and Pacific Islander, white supremacy giveth but, most often, taketh away. Racial caste operates as a hierarchy with fixed points: Blacks on the bottom and Whites on top — and “others” jockeying in between. White supremacy seduces non-Blacks into believing that the further distance between them and Blackness the greater opportunity to become as privileged as Whites and, therefore, human, at least in the eyes of institutions, organizations, communities and people with power.
Not surprisingly, Asian immigrants and citizens have, at times, tacitly accepted this agreement. They’ve put their heads down, worked hard, experienced success and failure, but have opted to stay out of this country’s fraught history of racism. White supremacy’s spectacular ascent in the wake of the Trump presidency and the MAGA movement that represented the domestic face of a global rise in white nationalism has made this no longer possible.
Racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders is part of the long history of white supremacy. Chinese, along with enslaved Black people, helped to build railroads and infrastructure in the late 19th century, which proved crucial to the economic growth of America’s burgeoning empire. They were rewarded with anti-Chinese violence, racism and immigration policies designed to restrict their numbers. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II remains a permanent stain on the national character. The Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s illegal and secret bombing campaign against Cambodia reflected imperial ambitions within U.S. foreign policy that stretched from America’s late-19th-century annexation of Hawaii to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Black Americans struggling for racial justice have a complex relationship with the Asian American community. At their very best, these groups have forged radical solidarity against white supremacy to fight unfair labor practices, unjust wars and the denial of political and civil rights. The heroic period of the civil rights movement pushed the nation closer to becoming a “Great Society” through the passage of immigration and voting rights legislation that helped Asian and Black Americans. In the 1960s. Black leaders from Malcolm X to Muhammad Ali to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rejected the Vietnam War in solidarity with Asians in Third World countries. This past summer, young Asians were part of the multiracial mosaic that took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd in police custody.
Assimilation remains seductive to a wide range of immigrants, from Asians to Nigerians, who long for access to the American Dream. But the elevator to untold material riches and success that it promises is a trap door, because it is based on a system that always protects Whites.
Now is a time for choosing. Black America has a moral responsibility to unequivocally stand in radical solidarity with the Asian immigrant and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Their struggle must be our struggle. To do this we must have dialogue about public policy solutions and a way forward that prevents violence (physical and structural) directed against the Asian community.
Most importantly, we must apply our uniquely shared history to the present. Toni Morrison famously observed that the first thing European (or any) immigrants learned when they arrived on American shores was that Black people should be despised, degraded and dehumanized. Learning that lesson made anyone (but Blacks) truly American. Anti-Blackness is the organizing principle of not only racial hierarchy but of American democracy, as well. But as our Asian sisters and brothers are realizing, Whiteness plays by its own rules, and even “honorary” membership does not offer protection from the whims of homicidal white-supremacist patriarchs. White supremacy places Asians in a precarious and dangerous limbo — better than Black folk, yes, but always subject to abuse, degradation and violence at the hands of a racist system that will never see them as White.
We are at an inflection point in American history. The coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, a racially fraught presidential election and a white-supremacist assault on the U.S. Capitol mean we are long past pretending that America is now or ever has been a truly multiracial democracy.
Building what King called a “Beloved Community” requires more than expressing uncomfortable truths. We must also recognize that anti-Asian racism is a form of white supremacy that must be rooted out, confronted and defeated if we are ever again to be recognized as not just a great, powerful and rich nation but, more importantly, a good one.