Shino Tanikawa is Japanese American and has lived in Soho for 30 years. She is married to a white man and they have two grown kids. For most of her life, she said she gave little thought to matters of racial justice.
“I was a very whitewashed, white-adjacent person thinking horrible thoughts,” said Tanikawa. “Like, ‘If only those families could value education, the way we Asians value education.’”
But five years ago, Tanikawa, who is 58, was introduced to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the Brazilian writer Paolo Friere. The book, she said, had a profound impact on her and she immediately committed herself to school desegregation and fighting anti-Blackness.
Which is why she’s disturbed by a re-emerging narrative that pits Asian Americans against Black Americans, an idea that has grown over the last few months, with viral videos showing anti-Asian attacks, apparently committed by Black men. This narrative has gained traction in segments of the Asian American community, conservative media, and beyond.
“It breaks my heart,” said Tanikawa. “Because, as Black-indigenous-people of color, we can’t be fighting against each other. If we don’t fight the white supremacist structure, there’s just no way we’re gonna make it.”
The central question for communities of color — whether they can actually align their interests —isn’t just a matter of symbolism, but is playing out in intense, and incredibly fraught policy debates over education and public safety. At the same time, there have been significant displays of solidarity, and this has given advocates of racial justice cause for hope.
“What I see are a lot of Asian-Americans who are standing up for racial justice,” said Crystal Fleming, the author of How to be Less Stupid About Race. “That’s what I am observing as actually increasing and happening more often than in my past experience.”
Fleming, who is Black and teaches at Stony Brook University, said she is also heartened by a growing awareness among her Black students about the history of anti-Asian exclusion and discrimination.
But there is a lot of history to unpack.
Renee Tajima-Peña, a filmmaker who made Who Killed Vincent Chin and the five-part PBS series Asian Americans, quoted C.V. Stuart, who took part in California’s constitutional convention in the 1870s,
“He said that it takes two Chinamen to equal the worth of one white man, but it takes two Negroes to equal the worth of one Chinaman,” reminded Tajima-Peña. “So in labor competition and this whole racial hierarchy, you can see how Asian Americans, even at that time in the 1870s were seen as being this wedge against African-Americans, against other people of color, and that’s been weaponized, time and time and time again.”
In the mid-20th century, the U.S. valorized Asian Americans, partly in order to deflect the nation’s history of anti-Black racism.
“They’ve become sort of the poster child for showing that American meritocracy works,” said Karen Kuo, a scholar who coauthored a new paper on Asian-Americans’ indifference to Black Lives Matter. The updated narrative of Asian Americans, she said, amounted to “‘Look, these people are discriminated against. They’re still being discriminated against, yet they’re doing great.’”
Surveys show most Asian American populations maintain high levels of support for affirmative action. But there is a significant challenge to affirmative action programs from Chinese Americans, many of whom argue that they hurt members of their community.
Donghui Zang, a candidate for City Council district 29, which includes Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, is fighting to preserve the Specialized High School Aptitude Test or SHSAT, calling it objective and merit-based. (Critics have called the test “racist,” and the number of Black and brown students admitted to specialized high schools have fallen to their lowest levels in three years.) And he argued that rising crime demands more police presence on the streets and in the subways.
“So in this time, how can we even further defund the police?” he asked. “We should refund them. We should support them.”
Zang said he didn’t know enough about Black Lives Matter to take a stand, but, like many conservative critics of the movement, said he believes “all the lives matter.”
Tajima-Pena and other Asian Americans who do support Black Lives Matter argue that a better approach than more police officers is more investment in a social safety net — in increased mental health services, for instance. But many realize that this is, by no means, a quick fix. They argue that under white supremacy, communities of color are pitted against one another.
The tensions between the communities are being closely monitored by some white conservatives, and often stoked.
In March, days after the mass shootings at two spas in Atlanta where several Asian women were killed, Tucker Carlson argued on his Fox News show that there was neither evidence of white supremacy nor any indication that the shooter was encouraged by anti-Asian language from President Trump. Instead he said, “The media have done their best to ignore,” the real issue: frictions between the Black and Asian communities. (The suspected gunman in Atlanta is white.)
“Asians were more likely to be attacked by African-Americans than by members of their own ethnicity,” said Carlson. “It wasn’t Q-Anon that made violent threats against Asian shopkeepers in New York in the 1980s. It was Al Sharpton, and so on.”
But the numbers tell a much more nuanced story.
According to the FBI, 52.5% of all hate crimes offenders in 2019 were white (who comprise 60% of the U.S. population) while 23.9% were Black (who comprise 13% of the population). This indicates that as a percentage, Blacks are disproportionately likely to be hate crime offenders. But hate crimes are only a fraction of the larger universe of anti-Asian acts of violence and harassment, and the FBI’s data was compiled before the pandemic, when anti-Asian incidents soared.
Academics and activists have said the focus on Black assailants from Carlson and others is both highly misleading and dangerous. They point instead to a recent study from the Virulent Hate Project, run by Melissa Borja at the University of Michigan.
The study analyzed 4,337 news articles published in 2020 and found 1,023 incidents of anti-Asian racism. These included “679 incidents of anti-Asian harassment and vandalism and 344 incidents of stigmatizing and discriminatory statements, images, policies, and proposals,” many of which were made by white politicians like former president Trump, who has repeatedly called COVID-19 “the China virus,” “kung flu,” and other highly-racialized terms.
“White individuals were reported as offenders in 165 of the 184 anti-Asian incidents (89.6%),” reads the report. “In contrast, Black individuals were identified as offenders in 10 of the 184 anti-Asian incidents (5.43%).”
Rohan Zhou-Lee, an organizer who founded the Blasian March, a solidarity initiative meant to bring together Black and Asian Americans, said the findings of the Virulent Hate Report were illuminating.
“89.6% of hate crimes where the race was identified last year towards Asian Americans involved white perpetrators,” they said. “So what we’re looking at once again is how white mythology presents only certain narratives.”
It is also likely these narratives, pitting one community of color against another, will play out in the current New York City-wide races, including the race for mayor, as well the Congressional midterms next year.
“I think it’s just really important Asian Americans understand our positionality and how our struggles, our trauma, and also the needs of our community are being manipulated and exploited to harm other communities of color,” said Jason Wu, a legal services attorney.
He invoked the Asian American legal scholar Mari Matsuda. Thirty years ago, she argued that Asian Americans could help dismantle white supremacy, but only if they refused to buy into a racial hierarchy or meritocracy. Her appeal to the community was, “We will not be used.”
“89.6% of hate crimes where the race was identified last year towards Asian Americans involved white perpetrators,” the said. “So what we’re looking at once again is how white mythology presents only certain narratives.”