Photo by Linda Nkauj Xwb Hawj
National Public Radio aired a story by Nurith Aizenman on the tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans in Baltimore during the unrest that unfolded this past week. In the Sandtown neighborhood, located in West Baltimore, many Asian owned businesses were destroyed by rioters, while stores owned by African Americans were spared.
From the Los Angeles riots in 1992 to more recent riots in Ferguson, and now in Baltimore, where riots occurred after the death of Freddie Gray, Asian owned businesses have been destroyed and, as mentioned in the NPR story, even targeted by rioters. The majority of people who live in the neighborhood own little to nothing of wealth within their community, and see that Asian businesses profit off their neighborhood but never hire or provide employment for the community. At the same time, Asian business owners see and experience the crime within black neighborhoods that contribute to mistrust.
The mention of this controversial issue between communities of color is one that is divisive in nature when it comes to solidarity against racism. It’s a sensitive issue, and when known or brought up in front of white people the automatic response is: “So you all are just as racist. You have your own problems to worry about.” But it’s not comparative to racism because neither do African Americans or Asians benefit from the racist system in place.
It should be noted that though there is truth in these tensions, this is a common narrative seen in mass media, one that pits Asian Americans against African Americans. It is the deliberate comparison of Asian Americans as a model minority to African Americans, which is used to chastise and attribute the source of poverty, crime, and broken communities to the black character and mentality, that can create animosity.
Many of my friends and colleagues showed up to the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis protest with signs that said “API for Black Lives Matter” this past Wednesday; we wanted to show solidarity. Prior to the protest, we brought up the frustration that we all had when it came to talking about police brutality towards black people with the Asian community. It felt like there was no conversation to be had about the state of black people in the US because it wasn’t ‘our problem.’
Some of my friends have commented on my Facebook page or said to me that “there is no excuse for them people to act like that,” and that “these people don’t know how to react civilly to racism.” Most appalling was the constant agreement that it shouldn’t be about black lives, but that “all lives matter.” To acknowledge that all lives matter is to say that racism does not exist. We cannot call out racism against Asian Americans and then turn a blind eye to police brutality in Baltimore. Just because there were rioters and violence doesn’t not mean Baltimore and its people are deserving of poverty, police brutality, and losing their rights. Violence of any sort, from anyone, should be met with consequence and accountability, but to let that shadow and reaffirm beliefs that black people are deserving of police brutality is wrong.
Stronger than the opinions of my friends and family members is the silence from the Asian American community regarding this issue. This silence is possibly related to the complexity of being Asian in the US. Asian Americans don’t quite fit in the dominant white or black political consciousness that continues to influence current conversations of race and racism. To understand and live the pain and marginalization of racism, and then to know that you have privileges that other people of color don’t have is a confusing. Our experiences, history, and current status doesn’t necessarily clearly outline where we should stand on these issues.
So, how should we as Asian Americans react to the protests and riots in Baltimore?
We may not constantly feel that we are the target of racism when it comes to laws, public schools, government programs, and other areas of society, but there is a sense of neglect and exclusion. Asian Americans know better than anyone that the model minority concept is indeed a myth especially that there is intersectionality of identities. Many of the problems that our community experiences are belittled, invisible, or deemed nonexistent by dominant worldviews.
With the trial underway of the 6 police officers who were involved in arresting and transporting Gray up to his death, Asian Americans should stand in solidarity and press for justice for the city of Baltimore. There is a larger picture that we must see and it means peeling the layers and layers of distractions that continue to be thrown in front of us. It is too easy to be stuck on who is to blame for destruction of the city. We should be focusing on the why. Why and what would make people take to the streets to protest? What would make people so angry? Why did Freddie Gray die in the custody of the police? We should not linger on easy questions when we have harder ones to answer.