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A Legacy of AAPI Cross-Racial Solidarity

The popular narrative would pit us against each other — ignoring our solidarity

Authors: Steph Hsu, Strategic Ops Director

Since the 1960s, the popular narrative upheld by white supremacy, has been to uplift Asians as the model minority. As we work to eliminate the racial wealth gap, it must be noted that Asian Americans only began to see economic success once the racist narrative around them, and the racism they experienced diminished.

As we explain in Breaking Down the Model Minority Myth, this wasn’t born out of thin air. For over a century, Asians had been scapegoated as racial others, not worthy of citizenship, equality, or entry to the country — suddenly accepted into society once America needed to court Cold War allies. Essentially, America needed allies from Asia, and couldn’t be seen as racist towards immigrants from those countries. This led to the relative economic success, shrinking the racial wealth gap that they experienced.

From this model minority myth, a new narrative was born: that Asians somehow proved themselves as upstanding, hard working citizens, and ascended to diminished racism — proving themselves as inherently “better.” And since then, it’s been the popular story to pit Asian and Black communities against each other. The news coverage of anti-Asian violence in the wake of Covid-19, is a perfect case study. As Brookings Institute explains, ”Because some of the video-taped perpetrators appear to have been Black, observers immediately reduced anti-Asian violence to Black-Asian conflict. This is not the first time that the trope has been weaponized. Black-Asian conflict — and Black-Korean conflict more specifically — became the popular frame of the LA riots in 1992.” But we have a legacy of cross-racial solidarity, fighting for a shared goal to eliminate harm.

Roots of Cross-Racial Solidarity

We can trace the historical roots of Asian-Black solidarity back to Frederick Douglass, who advocated for Chinese and Japanese immigration. In 1869–6 years before the passing of the racist Page Act of 1875 — Frederick Douglass gave a speech about immigration. “It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”

Black leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X , and eventually Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out, fearing that if Japanese Americans could be placed in concentration camps, so could Black people, and together rose against Japanese internment, the occupation of the Philippines, and the Vietnamese war. Protesters carried signs reading “Black men should fight white racism, not Vietnamese freedom fighters.”

Malcom X would be particularly significant for cross-racial solidarity, famously befriending Japanese American human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama. They would ultimately change each other’s perspectives through life, and tragically, it was Kochiyama who cradled Malcom X in the moments after his assassination. Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American activist married deeply-respected Black leader, James Boggs. Long after the death of her husband, Boggs worked on the front lines of the struggles for justice in Detroit, Michigan. And in Detroit, Jesse Jackson joined forces with AAPI activists to demand justice for the murder of autoworker Vincent Chin.

What’s more, it was through this era of civil rights that Japanese survivors of internment came to see the internment camps as another form of racial oppression that needed to be spoken out against. 10 years later, in 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which offered a formal apology and paid $20,000 to each survivor. That legacy of solidarity continues today, where we have seen many Japanese Americans testify in support of studying the legacy of slavery, including racial disparities in wealth, health care, education, and housing, and consider a formal national apology and reparations. AAPI and Black people continue to come out in support of the fighting the racial violence both groups disproportionately face.

Owning Our Struggles

These stories of cross-racial solidarity don’t cover or absolve the racism that does still exist in AAPI and Black communities. In a system where whiteness is the default and even the desired norm, we have seen Asian Americans internalize the model minority myth and assimilate into a system of oppression. AAPI and Black people are not immune from being swept up in a system of white supremacy. We saw this in 2020 with Tou Thao, the Hmong American police officer who stood complicit in the murder of George Floyd.

To further examine one common example of what the dominant narrative paints as a Black-Korean conflict, let’s turn to LA’s Koreatown in the 90’s. Following the Korean war, Korean immigrants found their way to LA. Many left behind a comfortable middle class, white collar life in pursuit of the “American dream.” In reality, the American dream often meant running a shop in the few places where real estate was affordable — predominantly Black communities. The proliferation of Korean and other Asian-owned businesses in predominantly Black communities further bolstered suspicion towards banking and governmental institutions — fostering a myth that Koreans received special assistance to open in Black neighborhoods. Korean business owners expressed frustration with instances of shoplifting. Simultaneously, Black patrons and community members were frustrated at being treated in dehumanizing ways.

In the face of their respective traumas, neither community was prepared to navigate the cultural differences, and certainly not prepared to organize and challenge the larger economic and policing systems that disenfranchised both communities. We see how individual reactions to structural systems of oppression create and perpetuate cycles of hatred and dehumanization. Our work now is to create reparative systems that allow us to see each other and our shared responsibility in the work.

Looking Forward

The model minority narrative would pit Asians against all other BIPOC groups, claiming that they have ascended to economic success, deserving of an alleged reprieve from racism — despite very much being subject to stereotypes. As a result, throughout history, we can find examples of how our AAPI communities either reacted in solidarity with other communities of color OR chose to assimilate into a system of oppression. We are in a pivotal moment now, as individuals within a community, of distinguishing whether we will continue to perpetuate harm or continue building on the work of those who came before us and pioneered a possibility for multi-racial futures.

Our AAPI colleagues have repeatedly shared stories where the outside world claimed they knew nothing of oppression, or that they had little to contribute to the fight for racial equity, though our history paints a very different story. It is in our history, that we are grounded by the truth that our common future is intertwined, and that we are stronger together.

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