Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely of the author.
We are living in an unprecedented time, a time in which I believe will be the defining moment of many of our lives. At this point, many experts believe that coronavirus will ravage the country, with heavy human costs exacerbated by economic ones. However, while most Americans have to be concerned about not getting the virus and how they are going to survive economically, Asian Americans have to wage war on another front: the growing threat of hate crimes and violence. More troubling and confusing is the fact that many of these crimes are committed by people of color. However, the rift between Asians and other minorities is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back centuries to how colonization, eurocentrism, and white supremacy has played a role in creating and fostering the conflict between marginalized groups.
By the 18th century, white supremacy was at the apex of its power. In England, the British employed the British Indian army, an army with British leadership but consisting mostly of Indian infantry known as sepoys. The British used the British Indian army in the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 and 1901. Afterwards, the British would use Indian soldiers to maintain control over their concessions in China. The Chinese began to call Indian soldiers a slur “Yindu A San” and develop a growing hatred for them.
Then in 1948, the South African government created apartheid, a racial hierarchical system designed to maximize white supremacist power and interests in a majority Black country. They classified people into four different races, white, Indian, coloured (which meant half Black and half white), and Black. The system created tensions with Black people and the Indian/colored people because they were seen as privileged and part of the ruling class, and while a colored person could actually apply to be legally white, they would never be quite fully accepted by whites either, detailed in Trevor Noah’s book “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood”. They were stuck in limbo, a buffer that the white ruling class used to keep Black people at bay.
In America, while there was a clear white/Black dichotomy, all racism wasn’t race-based, insofar that the idea that white is a race. Irish, Italians and Jews have all at one point or another faced some sort of discrimination from the Protestant Anglo Saxon American, and they all, to this day, suffer some degree of lingering racism. However, over time, America started loosening the standards to be considered white, as long as you assimilated and looked the other way (or even participated) in America’s hatred and subjugation of Black and Brown people.
However, a massive wave of Asian immigrants changed the calculus. While heavy Asian American discrimination existed long ago with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the racial narrative shifted fairly recently in how Asian Americans were perceived and treated in this country. In 1965, the Asian American population was 0.6%, according to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Committee on the Judiciary. Today, it sits at around 5.6%. The majority of Asian immigration to America came after the 1965 Immigration Act. Some were refugees from Cold War conflicts, but many were highly-skilled or educated elites of their respective countries. They were, quite literally, sending their best and brightest, insofar as education was concerned. This large influx led many Asian immigrant families to prosper quickly in America, and make sure that their kids were educated as well, resulting, in high college matriculation rates for Asian Americans. Thus, Asian Americans have managed to succeed to the point of creating the widely quoted stat that an Asian American man has the higher income per capita of any group, so much so that they were given the model minority stereotype, a stereotype constantly weaponized against other minorities essentially amounting to: “Why can’t you be a good boy, like Asian Americans?”
What all of these systems have in common is that they create some sort of hierarchical system, where in each system, the white ruling class manipulates the classes beneath them by creating one class as an “honorary” class, and another class as the “marginalized” class. The honorary class doesn’t want to go back down to the marginalized class, so they do everything in their power to avoid that fate, even if it means doing the white class’ dirty work. In this system, the white class controls the honorary class by disincentivizing them from organizing and fighting for equal rights: They point out the advantages they have over the marginalized class. They then keep the marginalized class at bay by using the honorary class as a buffer, knowing that it’s easier for the marginalized class to fight over the scraps they give the honorary class instead of gathering to form a rebellion.
When the majority of Asian Americans came to the states soon after the 1965 bill was passed, we had predictably similar growing pains. On top of tensions from veterans and racists from the aforementioned Cold War conflicts in Asia, “economic anxiety” of the automobile industry laborers during Japanese global market dominance in the 1980s, and a full on assault by the media to control our influence from the time we got here, Asian Americans had to clear unimaginable hurdles to acquire the same benefits that their white counterparts did in every arena of life.
I believe that many Americans, including many prominent speakers on race, have bought into this white supremacist American narrative, that race is a hierarchy where white people placed themselves on top, then Asian people, then Latinx people, then Black people and Native Americans. To me, white supremacy operates more like an octopus, using all of its tentacles to deal with different minorities, and with their firm control on each group they are able to manipulate them against each other. While progress has been made in America, white supremacy still pervades every lever of society, from big business, media and government. While different levers are appropriate for different groups at different times, with most Brown and Black people in American history, white supremacy uses the stick, and with non-Anglo whites and then after with the huge Asian American wave of the 1960s, it was the carrot, as long as they participated in the same anti-Black activities as whites.
But Asian Americans soon realized: the carrot could quickly turn into the stick.
Policies of white isolationism and gentrification separated white and Black communities while using Asian communities as a buffer between them. While Asian Americans enjoyed having less racism against them from white people when building their communities and businesses, because of white isolationism, they had to situate them in poorer neighborhoods, predominantly in Black communities. However, this caused tension within the Black communities, as many became outraged that Asian immigrants were allowed to set up shop in communities where there were few Black-owned businesses.
Slowly but surely, conditions dictated by white supremacist policies created a powder keg between Black and Asian communities. Some Black people started to target these businesses, and as a result, Koreans became increasingly racist towards them. It came to a head in 1991 when Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl, was fatally shot by Soon Ja Du during a race-related altercation at Du’s liquor store in South Central. Du had experienced many robberies before at the store and it’s likely that those experiences factored into her response. However, the African American community was rightfully incensed at this incident, and the resulting tensions between the two groups worsened after Du was essentially given a slap on the wrist during her sentencing for voluntary manslaughter
This all set the stage for a massive explosion during the LA Riots in 1992. After Rodney King experienced extremely racist police brutality, Black communities became incensed. As a result, the LAPD and United States army set up barricades to protect Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and other wealthy white-dominated neighborhoods, essentially hanging Asians out to dry. Korean Americans were scapegoated: Rodney King had assaulted a Korean store owner to be thrown in jail prior to the incident. African American groups almost exclusively raided Korean stores (65% of the businesses vandalized were Korean owned). Du’s own business was raided and burned to the ground, never to reopen again. LA Korean radio started mobilizing Korean Americans, telling them that because the police and the army were not going to save them that they had to defend Koreatown themselves. If they didn’t stand their ground, everything that they had built would be overrun and destroyed. With such high stakes, many Korean store owners acquired guns and situated themselves on rooftops, defending their stores. It was an effective deterrent and Koreatown was able to defend itself from total annihilation. But in the aftermath, the LA media spun the story, showing it to be an example of Korean anti-Blackness towards African Americans, not their own. Just watch the first season of “Lost” and watch the tension from supposed Black/Korean relations (from white screenwriters) from the LA Riots brought up to create an awkward love triangle between Daniel Dae Kim, Harold Perrigneau and Yunjin Kim’s characters.
While Korean (and some Vietnamese) businesses were destroyed in the raids, Asians were later on trashed in the press. Somehow, Asian immigrants who owned small businesses in impoverished areas like liquor stores, dry cleaners, nail salons, gas stations, drugstores, were just as culpable if not more than white people for anti-Black oppression because they took business away from other PoC communities, while serving communities in high-Black-crime trafficked areas. That Vietnamese aunty demanding a customer pay upfront because she’s been walked out on too many times on a bill became “anti-Black.” That convenience store owner who’s seen too many thefts by African American kids and watches them now when they come into their stores is now seen as “anti-Black.” While it may be technically true, I want to be clear about one thing: there are levels to this. Asian Americans are not responsible for low hiring rates of Black people at big corporations, as we are primarily in high-skilled labor positions, not executive positions. Asian Americans do not have the political power to change redlining, gerrymandering or other racist policies within our country. And Asian Americans certainly have less representation than any other racial group when it comes to the media. Most Asian American anti-Blackness, because we have no institutional power, is self-preservational and not exploitative, but Asians end up footing the bill for the entire plate of white supremacy in America.
Our lack of control of the media is another lever to how white supremacy operates. Because white people control the media, they can spin whatever story they can into narratives that are convenient to them. And this operates not only in conservative media, but in liberal media outlets as well. Some employ Asian American journalists, who are essentially used as co-signers or notaries to the contract of white guilt or take part in massive sinophobic campaigns that fan the flames of anti-Asian sentiment here. This lever is a lot more insidious because it operates on the error of omission and editorialization, instead of a much clearer error of submission. Asian Americans who attempt to advocate for our communities are weeded out and Asian Americans who stay on message to what white editors want to publish are promoted. As a result, many of our progressive organizations are co-opted by white liberal media and money, they are not truly grassroots Asian American organizations. Asian Americans need to start having their own independent media organizations outside of whiteness in order to represent ourselves accurately.
The resulting narrative is painted: Asian immigrants came to this country and were conferred benefits that Black people never got in this country, simply by not being Black. Asian Americans are seen as equal partners in white supremacy (some even believe the fiction that we are MORE privileged than white people in this country) and thus Asian Americans are “fair game” when minorities direct their wrath. When minorities eventually do attack us and see that white controlled police don’t come to our aid, they become more emboldened and aggressive in extracting what they see as their rightful pound of flesh. And when these attacks escalate towards violence, we need to be honest about calling these attacks out for what they are: Racist hate attacks.
But this is too clean of a fiction to be true. In reality, we have very little influence in the three main levers of American society: government, generational wealth and media. Even at our highest levels, we are still ultimately cheap high-skilled labor. And what this “Asians are all well paid” narrative forgets is that we are usually clustered towards high urban areas (higher costs of living and therefore higher wages across the board), and that our group suffers the most from income inequality. Many people to this day don’t realize that some groups of Asian Americans, particularly less privileged Southeast Asian groups who come as refugees and are significantly less advantaged, are among the poorest citizens in California and NYC, poorer even than other Black or Hispanic groups. These are the most vulnerable and the most at risk, who our white adjacent liberal elite Asians never give the time of day in terms of media coverage.
As bleak as all of this sounds, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As second and third generation Asian Americans come to have more of a cultural awareness of American history and race relations, we’re beginning to collectively become aware of how the African American struggle is one we should fight for, because of how abhorrent white supremacist policies are. The 2016 election was a wake up call for many, including myself, in parsing out how white supremacy still is an infectious disease that plagues our country just as strongly as it did years ago, just with different tools and methods.
We have friends like Cardi B and Sza calling out anti-Asian sentiment. We have Black women supporting Asians in the media, from Tyra Banks to Gabrielle Union to Issa Rae. Our half-Black half-Asian brothers and sisters have been on the front lines putting these racial fires out. We have plenty of PoC activists who are on our side against what they ultimately recognize as another shade of white supremacy and are showing their solidarity and it’s awe inspiring.
We are remembering movements like Yellow Peril Supports Black Power. We’ve become aware that much of the anti-Blackness in Asian countries is learned from American media portraying them as criminals and how American police have no qualms killing them. We are relearning that Maoist China actually supported Black civil rights movements, and that even this idea was squelched by white-dominated media back in Mao’s time. We’re beginning to realize that Affirmative Action isn’t the problem, it’s nepotistic policies like athletic scholarships and legacy admissions that maintain white control over our educational systems. Collectively, it is my hope that we can join together and dismantle the current system to produce something fairer for all Americans, by using our collective influence to raise each other in big business, media and government. We need to stand united and wake up from the nightmare of white supremacy.
About the Author: Douglas Kim is a Korean-American actor and poker player and 2006 economics graduate of Duke University. You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
Feature Image (left) via @douglassfunniest, (right) via A&E