‘Black and Asian unity’: attacks on elders spark reckoning with racism’s roots
An 91-year-old man shoved to the ground in Oakland, California’s Chinatown. A 50-something woman thrown into a set of newsstands in Flushing, Queens. An 84-year-old man fatally assaulted in San Francisco. A recent spate of violence against Asian elders has left many Asian Americans across the country feeling targeted, wondering whether these are random acts of crime – or fueled by anti-Asian bias.
The attacks have shaken Asian immigrant communities already struggling after a year of pandemic-related challenges, including racist taunts of “kung flu” or “China virus” and economic devastation for Chinatowns and other immigrant communities – and four years under an administration whose trade war with China fueled xenophobia.
Some, including Asian movie stars and celebrities, have called for greater recognition of the racism that targets Asian Americans. Some have demanded quick police action. And some have pointed the finger, not at the white political leaders who have long trafficked in xenophobic rhetoric, but at another minority group.
The suspects in some of these attacks were Black men, and some Asian Americans have responded with stereotypes of their own, blaming supposed anti-Asian sentiment from the Black community for the crimes. This narrative, which has not been supported by evidence, has nevertheless shoved a new wedge into age-old cracks between Black and Asian immigrant communities in the US.
“People want to have a Black villain and scapegoat,” said Carroll Fife, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area activist and Oakland city councilmember, who is Black. “People are right and justified to feel beset upon because Asian folks are othered in America. But you can’t fight racism with racism.”
Organizers in the Asian and Black communities have been quick to denounce this rhetoric and call for solidarity. Last weekend, hundreds gathered in the Bay Area to call for solidarity and pay homage to the victims, wearing shirts emblazoned with “Black and Asian unity”.
“Supporting our Asian community is not about dividing us. This support is for all of us suffering under white supremacy. We need to understand that so we can triumph and have public and personal safety,” said Eddy Zheng, an Oakland organizer and youth counselor.
But the issue is complicated and plucks at years of racial divisions.
Some Asian Americans are frustrated that discussion of attacks on Asians are being used as a teachable moment to discuss anti-Black racism. Others agree with Black Lives Matter activists that calling for more policing is the wrong approach to increasing community safety, and poses a threat to people of color.
Organizers in both communities are now battling to balance the pursuit of justice for the crime victims with the broader goals of fighting racism in the US and increasing understanding and solidarity between Asian and Black communities.
“We all need to understand that it is possible to hold multiple realities at once,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. Communities can uplift and support the survivors of these attacks, she said. They can acknowledge complicated – and, at times, racist – feelings and educate people on the origins of racial divisions within each community without pitting communities of color against one another.
“I lived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the civil unrest [the 1992 Rodney King riots and widespread destruction of Korean American businesses],” Choi said. “The lesson that keeps coming up for me is that this powder keg that is always about to ignite is by design. And if you don’t offer people the ability to live and to have opportunities and to see hope and to be able to take care of themselves, we’re going to continue to see generational cycles of violence.”
Thousands of accounts of hate crimes
In late January, a video of a man shoving a 91-year-old Asian man to the sidewalk in Oakland’s Chinatown went viral, with high-profile Asian Americans such as the actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu posting about the attack on social media and offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. With the attention, celebrities highlighted the killing of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai grandfather who died after a teenager allegedly shoved him to the ground in San Francisco a week earlier. Both attacks appeared unprovoked.
The stories kept coming. A 64-year-old woman assaulted and robbed of her Lunar New Year money in San Jose. A 70-year-old woman robbed leaving a bank in Oakland. Local reports estimate that there have been at least 20 robberies or violent incidents in Oakland’s Chinatown within a two-week span.Advertisement
These attacks took place as Asian Americans reported more than 2,800 first-hand accounts of hate crimes between late March and 31 December, everything ranging from being coughed and spat on to having “kung flu” shouted at them in grocery stores.
But while many perceive an increase in anti-Asian racism and violence, there is no evidence as yet to support the idea that recent Bay Area victims were targeted because they were Asian. Antoine Watson, 19, was arrested for the assault on Ratanapakdee and charged with murder and Yahya Muslim – who the Alameda County public defender says is homeless and struggling with mental health issues – was arrested for assaulting several people in Chinatown, including the 91-year-old. So far neither has been charged with a hate crime.
“Connecting this case to a rise in racist violence against Asian Americans is not appropriate,” the Alameda county public defender, Brendon Woods, said of the Oakland assaults.
The lack of evidence has not prevented some Asians from ascribing the assaults to anti-Asian bias. “It is becoming alarmingly clear to me now that attacks against our elderly are not isolated incidents,” tweeted the actor Simu Liu.
For some Asian elders in the Bay Area, memories of a decade-old spate of attacks on Asian elders in the city’s majority-Black Bayview district is fueling fears and bias. “It wasn’t always robbery or crimes of opportunity. The community felt they were racist hate-filled crimes, like knocking seniors onto Muni tracks. It was a very ugly situation,” said Adrienne Pon, executive director of San Francisco’s office of civic engagement and immigrant affairs.
It’s through that lens that some in the Asian community find themselves faced with uncomfortable conversations.
Before last year, Max Leung centered his advocacy on anti-Black racism. He was jailed after protesting against police brutality and went on a hunger strike in solidarity with the “Frisco Five”, who demonstrated outside the Mission police station demanding justice for people of color killed by San Francisco police officers.
But now he finds himself struggling in discussions with scared Asian elders and survivors of trauma ask him why they’re being targeted – and specifically, now, why they think they’re being targeted by Black people.Advertisement
“No matter how you bring it up, the Asian community gets silenced and that frustration becomes internalized,” Leung said. “What about us? What about our frustration and our issues? You can’t be anti-racist without also acknowledging the Asian American experience.”
‘It’s about looking at the root cause’
Eddy Zheng, the Oakland organizer, however, has been watching this discourse play out and wondering how he, at the age of 10 growing up in the Guangdong region of southern China, had never met a single Black person yet was familiar with the derogatory Cantonese slang for Black people.
“For these communities, they’re just focusing on the harm and trauma they experienced without understanding the origins of this country and white supremacy,” Zheng said.
Betty Louie, an adviser to the San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association, remembered that back when she had owned gift shops in the neighborhood, 25 years ago, “we would always be suspicious of the Black people who would walk in”. Then one day, a Black man decided to write her a letter about how it felt to be racially profiled in her store.
She felt awful. “I wrote him back,” Louie said. “He wrote back, and we just listened to each other.”
Organizers, activists and academics have repeatedly said that it is white supremacy, a system that oppresses non-white groups, that is at the crux of these racial divisions. It was white supremacy that created the model minority myth around Asians and allowed a hierarchy of races to come to be. It was white supremacy that redlined Black Americans into poorer neighborhoods and forced Asian immigrants into their space, creating tension over a scarcity of housing and resources.
But it’s not just white supremacy that pits the two communities against each other, it’s anti-Blackness, said Claire Jean Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who is currently working on a book titled Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World. Anti-Blackness is “everybody elevating everybody who is not Black and putting people who are black at the bottom”, Kim said. “Asian Americans are put in the position in that they are not white and not Black. The power of that is that there is a structural gap between Asians and Blacks,” she said.
This structural gap has become a crisis point repeatedly. There were the 1992 Rodney King riots. There were the international demonstrations in support of Peter Liang, the New York police officer who was convicted of fatally shooting an unarmed black father, Akai Gurley. Some in the Asian community believed he was being scapegoated.
Advocates and organizers confronting these divisions are working to prove that multiple truths can exist at the same time. Asians have been attacked and communities from all sides must rally around them, they said. The perpetrators in these crimesmust be held accountable and uncomfortable conversations need to take place in all communities. And the only way to truly solve this violence is not by fighting, or by arguing who is discriminated against more, but by educating each other on the origin of structural racism and ending the cycle of violence.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to say this is about Black criminality. It’s what we’ve been trained as a culture to say,” Kim said. “If we care about social justice, it’s not just about uplifting Asian people. It’s about looking at the root cause.”
Following the Oakland Chinatown attacks, more than 40 Bay Area Asian American organizations issued a joint statement that acknowledged a need for “cross-community education and healing in Asian American and Black communities that humanizes all of us rather than demonizes or scapegoats any community of color”.
The groups also strongly pushed for a public safety solution that was not rooted in law enforcement. Here, divisions arise again. Some members of the Asian community seek more of a police presence because they fear violence while members of the Black community fear for their lives with more police on the streets.
“It’s hard because we want people to really center it on survivors of violence, and how do we validate their feelings and fear?” said Zheng. “Accountability is important. When they say we want more cameras and surveillance and more police, they feel like that’s accountability for the people inflicting the harm, while we understand that hurt people hurt people.”
Nikki Fortunato Bas, the Oakland city council president, says she is working to build a community ambassador program akin to the one in San Francisco that features a group of unarmed people walking through neighborhoods and escorting seniors on their errands. Bas hopes the program can be a good example of ensuring public safety with minimal police involvement.
Meanwhile, violence against Asians continues across the country. Some of the suspects have been Black. Some of them have not. It’s exhausting for Asian Americans to keep having to bear witness. It’s exhausting for organizers to have to keep fighting off both anti-Asian and anti-Black racism in both communities.
But it’s also a moment.
“To me, this is an incredibly invigorating time because we’re finally talking about this,” said Cynthia Choi with Chinese for Affirmative Action. “I have three young daughters, and we talk all the time about how this is happening, what is our responsibility, the cultural work that is going to be necessary. We need to address the anti-Asian racism and we need to address the anti-Black racism. We need to hold all those things at the same time and not be against each other.”
Vivian Ho and Abené Clayton