Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Representative Grace Meng (D-NY), and Representative Andy Kim (D-NJ) held a press conference on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, legislation to address the rise of hate crimes and violence targeted at the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community related to the COVID-19 pandemic at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2021. Photo credit: Senate Democrats Flickr account

It’s complicated: Anti-racist unity between Asians, Asian Americans, and Black Americans

Bill addressing the rise of racialized abuses against Asians following COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID 19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our lives. In our terror that any one of us could catch the virus and die, we started wearing surgical masks every time we left home to shop for groceries. We did not  leave home for much else for fear of becoming infected. Many quarantined in their homes for nearly a year as schools and businesses closed. We worried about losing jobs, and whether we would also lose homes, cars, and everything else for which we paid bills.

Growing numbers of Americans were incensed that they could no longer eat out at restaurants or attend events in crowded stadiums. They looked for something or someone to blame. When the first news stories about the pandemic said the virus and disease were caused by bats sold as food in Wuhan, China, many thought they had their answer: It was Asians’ fault.

There were sudden, random attacks on Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S., mostly by outraged whites. The victims were not  always Chinese. They could be descendants of Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos. It did not  matter. If they “looked Asian” they were targets. Statements made by the 45th U.S. President –  the coronavirus was “the China virus” or “kung flu” – further stoked anti-Asian anger.

Hate crimes against Asians grew between February of last year and around the same time this year. The California-based Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate counted close to 3,800 reported hate crimes within this time.

| Watch: Stop Asian Hate: What is Asian + Black solidarity in the face of white terrorism?

Anti-Asian hate crimes continue to mount.  On March 16, a white man named Robert Aaron Long, 21, shot and killed eight people at three Atlanta massage parlors. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent: Xiaojie Tan, 49; Delaina Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Daoyou Feng, 44; Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong A. Yue, 63. After his arrest, Long claimed that his actions were not  motivated by racism, but rather by his sexual addiction. He said the massage parlors were tempting to him, and killing the employees was his way of eliminating the temptation. Not everyone accepts that explanation  as most of his victims were Asian women and none of the massage parlors he attacked employed sex workers.

On March 28, 38-year-old Brandon Elliot, who is Black, was arrested in New York City for attacking a 65-year-old Filipino woman in front of an apartment building near Times Square. The woman, Vilma Kari, was walking to church. Surveillance video showed Elliot kicking Kari in the stomach, shoving her to the ground, and kicking and stomping her head. He reportedly cursed, shouted racist slurs, and told her, “You don’t belong here.”

National civil rights groups quickly denounced the attacks. Two hundred and seven organizations, among them The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Hispanic Federation, noted in their joint statement that the attacks “…follow an alarming 150% increase in violence and harassment against Asians and Asian Americans, with women reporting incidents at twice the rate as men, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no coincidence that the horrific (Atlanta) attack targeted women of color working low-wage jobs, as women of color are the most likely to suffer the consequences of racism, misogyny and white supremacy.”

. . . .
Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii testifies on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan as he appears before the Senate Finance Committee in a hearing to consider his nomination to appointment to Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, October 24, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Photo credit: Glenn Fawcett

While there are Black and various people of color standing with Asians and Asian Americans against racially motivated attacks, others are hesitant over what they view as Asian and Asian American racism against Black people. Various expressions of that apprehension have been turning up on social media. Patrick (last names are being withheld to protect individuals’ privacy) recently wrote on Facebook, “You guys forgot about the Asian store owner that shot the Black girl because she thought she was stealing. Or how about the Korean night club in the city that wouldn’t let Blacks and Hispanics in? The Asian community is asking for ‘us’ to come together and aid them in stopping the senseless violence from cowards! Are they asking ‘us’ of the Blacks they stood back and stayed silent when this was happening to us, or the white cowards that they stayed quiet against or in some cases sided with, when they were doing the same to Black families and their children?”

Kat, a woman of Chinese descent, recently posted on social media that Asians and Asian Americans experience racism differently than Black people, something that has contributed to the perception that Asians and Asian Americans are granted special treatment as “model minorities” and “honorary whites” by whites. This is because Asians and Asian Americans are believed to be quiet people who work hard and do not  cause “trouble.”

| Read: The changing of San Francisco’s food, culture and identity

“One way in which we experience racism is the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner,” Kat wrote. “Starting in kindergarten, kids would yell at me to ‘Go back to China.’ This continued into adulthood. But it’s not just conservatives; liberals make this assumption too.” Asian and Asian American women experience racism by being fetishized as “exotic.” “Guys would flat out tell me that they were into Asian women and expect me to react as if that were a compliment . . . some of them would turn violent when rejected.” Years ago, a drunken man and his friends approached Kat at a party and mentioned gang rape. “When I physically pushed him away, he flew into a rage, yelling ‘Who wants you anyway, you f—king Chink?!’”

But in a recent NPR news interview, Kim Tran, an anti-racist author and consultant, said that Black people, Asians and Asian Americans have a history of banding together to defeat racism in the U.S. Asians for Black Lives was formed around six years ago when Black Lives Matter called for unity against police brutally.

Solidarity between the groups can be traced back to 1955 at the Bangdung Conference, said Tran. Representatives of Asian and African countries “…came together to talk about what decolonization was going to look like for both of us. Fast forward to things like the relationship between Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. [Martin Luther] King, and then all the way to the fight against the Klan in New Orleans in the ‘80s with Vietnamese firemen.”

Tran urged Asians and Asian Americans to learn more about the differences and similarities between them,  Black, and other people of color in the U.S. to work more effectively with them. “I’m really asking that we push ourselves to hold that kind of complexity,” Tran said. “It’s hard. There are very few models for it, but it’s what we need to do in order to get to where we have to go.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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