I possess a masochistic streak that frequently compels me to read the comments section of online stories. Doing so offers insight into many things, including the psychology of people who fearlessly (i.e., anonymously) spread racial animus as if they were smearing a pound of expired butter onto a single slice of bread. Sadly, it isn’t surprising to witness in this shadow world an undercurrent of anti-Black bias in the wake of last week’s horrific mass shooting in Atlanta.
Instead of focusing on the actual killer (and whatever his motives were), clandestine cowards consistently pivot to instances of Black-on-Asian harassment and crime. (For example, the trolls cite statistics regarding the rate at which Blacks physically attack Asians, especially as compared to the reverse.) This tactic clearly is intended to stoke — and to exacerbate — longstanding tensions that exist between African Americans and Asian Americans.
To be clear, many of us have been quick to condemn the violence that has been directed against our Asian American brothers and sisters. (By the way, our doing so is not a new phenomenon.) At the same time, we also have long vented our justifiable frustration with segments of the Asian community regarding our treatment at nail salons, hair supply stores, convenience stores and other small businesses. Both situations constitute objective reality.
I would highlight three key facts that describe the state of play. First, as I stated, African Americans have long stood in solidarity with Asians and Asian Americans. (Even Spike Lee offered a nod to this fact in his classic “Do the Right Thing.”) Indeed, Frederick Douglass spoke against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, just as he fought against unjust laws that targeted Blacks — and those that discriminated against white women. (Incidentally, the act subjected Chinese Americans to being indiscriminately jailed, with bail being available only if they could find a “credible white witness” to vouch for them.) Blacks have always understood the importance of fighting for all victims of white supremacy.
Second, there are several examples of allyships and even formal alliances between Blacks and Asians. For example, it isn’t uncommon for Asians to lock arms with us during Black Lives Matter protests. Similarly, even as some Asian Americans are arguing in court that they have fewer spots in elite academic institutions because of African Americans, the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey demonstrates that 70% of that population supports affirmative action. Chinese Americans are the Asian group that is most likely to oppose affirmative action, yet 56% of them support it.
Third, and most importantly, African Americans are not responsible for the worst atrocities against Asian Americans. We did not generate anti-Asian laws or use the levers of government to dehumanize Asian Americans. We didn’t add the phrase “Yellow Peril” to the American Dictionary of Racial Slurs. We didn’t force Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. We didn’t conceive, implement or even support the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented them from becoming citizens — or kept them out of the U.S. altogether. We didn’t cast Mickey Rooney in a disgustingly racist movie role. And we didn’t refer to COVID-19 as the “Kung Flu.”
Further, I should point out that the term “Asian” is a paradox. In America, we typically think of Asians as yellow (i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Korean). But that taxonomy is far too limiting. Some Asians are brown. And, yes, some Asians are Black. (And we don’t have space to get into the complex — and convoluted — history of the word “Caucasian.”) In short, “Asian” is both a useful shorthand and a gross oversimplification of the geographic, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of “the subcontinent.” But that’s a story for another day.
Interestingly, I came of age during a time in which the phrase “Asiatic Blackman” was frequently uttered with pride among members of the “Five-Percent Nation,” which is a small, highly pro-Black religious group that split from the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s. (They might reasonably be considered the forerunners of the “woke” crowd.) The point is that there is a long and very complicated history between Blacks and Asians.
In the end, the most important fact is that African Americans don’t murder groups of Asian Americans in cold blood — even when we’re having “a bad day”.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.