This past week, the U.S.’s deadly legacy of systemic racism was once again on full display as video captured African American George Floyd being murdered under the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer who was utterly indifferent to his cries for help. Unfortunately, what happened to George Floyd is the same as what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Atatiana Jefferson, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, and countless other unarmed Blacks for centuries who have been stereotyped as sub-human, dangerous, and summarily killed under the weight of White supremacy.
It should be abundantly clear to everyone in the U.S. and around the world by now that racism continues to play an insidious and deadly role in the lives and deaths of Blacks every day. When we see ongoing examples of police brutality and murder of unarmed Blacks and other minorities, along with other systematic but less-visible forms of racism such as Black communities being devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and other institutional inequalities related to health care, or being more vulnerable to economic insecurity and being evicted from their homes, just to name a few examples, there can no longer be any doubt that race remains a central dividing line in U.S. society in terms of who suffers versus who prospers, and even who lives and who dies. This is true even without getting into a discussion about the ongoing examples of Whites calling police on “suspicious” Blacks who are doing nothing more than everyday activities that Whites can take for granted, such as walking in the park, taking a nap, eating lunch, having a picnic, sitting in a Starbucks, mowing a lawn, using a swimming pool, playing golf, or other examples of “Living While Black.”
It is with this understanding in mind that I call on members of the Asian American community to unite in solidarity with our Black brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family to support the Black Lives Matter movement and embrace their struggle for racial justice. Many Asian Americans have recently felt the sting of racism and xenophobia in the form of harassment, bullying, verbal assaults, discrimination, and violence related to the CoViD-19/Coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully Asian Americans recognize how racism against Asian Americans is the same racism that operates against Blacks and other people of color, and how such acts of discrimination are all interconnected into institutional structures of privilege, authority, and power. If we want others to stand up in our defense during those situations, we also have to show up and do the same without hesitation when it happens to Black people.
Many of who already know this political and moral need to ally with and support the Black community, but unfortunately many other Asian Americans do not. Specifically, two types of Asian Americans come to mind when it comes to this form of personal and collective ignorance:
- “Model minority” Asian Americans who have internalized the myth that Asian Americans have succeeded by working hard, staying quiet, and individual efforts rather than relying on any kind of government or outside assistance. Many who fit in this category have indeed worked extremely hard and made numerous sacrifices to attain a good education, land a well-paying job, and provide a safe and comfortable standard of living for themselves and their family. The problem is when they use their personal example of success to then say, “If I/my family can make it, why can’t Blacks? Something must be wrong with them.” Clearly, what they don’t see is what’s wrong is not with Blacks themselves, but the system of racism that all too often denies them equal opportunities to succeed, or even opportunities to remain alive. “What’s wrong” is the pervasive pattern of police officers and other “law enforcement” authorities to quickly act on deeply-ingrained prejudices (and institutional mechanisms like the principle of “qualified immunity” that shield them from prosecution) and to immediately use deadly force to murder Black people. Hopefully these “model minority” Asian Americans see that after attaining success themselves, rather than pulling up the ladder and criticizing everyone below them, they should instead reach back and offer their support to those who are most vulnerable to inequalities and injustices and are dealing with numerous disadvantages that have made it much harder for them to succeed.
As luck would have it, there was a recent news item that illustrates one example of these “model minority” Asian Americans who are utterly ignorant of how racism works — members of the Lambda Phi Epsilon Asian American-themed fraternity at NYU who were recently exposed to have shared numerous racist and anti-Black messages among themselves. As the news article summarizes:
“As fucked up as it is, I think the threat of police brutality actually keeps those communities more safe than without it,” [wrote] one member of the chat, Stern student Roger Sun. . . . Justin Tung wrote in the chat, “. . . we [Asian Americans] grinded significantly harder while black peoples were lazy.”
I wish I could say that I am surprised, but I am not. While I am not saying that all members of the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity are wildly ignorant racists, I will point out that as the fraternity’s Wikipedia page says, “Lambda Phi Epsilon has experienced the most hazing incidents among Asian-American fraternities” and that since 2005, there have been numerous deaths of fraternity members or pledges, and that 18 chapters have closed as of 2019. Scholarly research by Minh Tran and Mitchell Chang in 2013 found that Asian American fraternities have experienced a disproportionately high number of violent hazing incidents and deaths and that within many of them, there is an implicit or even explicit culture of challenging stereotypes of Asian American men as weak, passive, or feminine by promoting an image of them as physically strong and if needed, violent. As this news from NYU shows, these misguided attempts at asserting power can also involve reinforcing and perpetuating White supremacy.
- The second type of Asian Americans who seem to be unwilling to ally with the Black community are many recently-immigrated Asian immigrants. A number of Asians who recently immigrated to the U.S. tend to be unfamiliar with the U.S.’s tragic history of racism and racial injustice, especially perpetrated against Black people. Instead, they are more likely to see the U.S. as a true meritocracy where, similar to the aforementioned model minority Asian Americans, a person’s success is entirely dependent on their own level of hard work and individual effort. Those within this category also tend to rely disproportionately on stereotypical portrayals in the mainstream media and popular culture of Black, Latinx, and Native American & Indigenous Americans as lazy, unintelligent, and therefore, undeserving of any support of sympathy.
Based on these structural socializations, many recently-immigrated Asians have also bought into the implicit or explicit belief that in order for them to attain success and be accepted as part of the U.S. mainstream, they need to embrace Whiteness and reject Blackness. One clear example of this category are members of groups such as the “Asian American Coalition for Education” (AACE) that are at the center of the recent lawsuit alleging that Harvard University systematically discriminates against Asian American applicants. As research has shown, members of this group (and Asian Americans in general who oppose affirmative action) are disproportionately comprised of older middle-class and affluent, recently-immigrated Chinese, who among other things, believe that affirmative action in favor of Blacks and other underrepresented minorities means less opportunity for their children and spread misinformation through their WeChat social network. Unfortunately, one of the things that members of this category don’t recognize is that allying with Blacks and other people of color and fighting against systematic racial injustice will mean that everyone’s child will have greater access to educational and other opportunities for success.
Ultimately and at this crucial moment in history, Asian Americans have to make a choice — unite in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters and mobilize collectively to fight for racial justice, or internalize the ongoing racial lies and stereotypes and side with White supremacy. As simplistic as it sounds, it comes down to the old adage — you’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.