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his is an unprecedented moment, with the greatest nationwide recognition ever of violence and racism impacting Asian American communities. It is thus a time of heightened responsibility for us to build toward liberation for ourselves and also for all aggrieved communities. The moment of Atlanta and Minneapolis requires us to think and act relationally.
Beyond comparative race, Natalia Molina and colleagues’ relational analysis of race compels us to examine how the material conditions and representations impacting one group are shaped by and affect the racialization of other groups. That the model minority image of Asian Americans, for example, is popularized in the same year, 1966, as Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture’s call for Black Power and the formation of the Black Panther Party, links the racialization of Asians and Blacks and works to contain Black radicalism. This is precisely why activists like Soya Jung call for a “model minority mutiny” to reject the false imposition of supposed gains for one group at the expense of another.
My focus here on Black-Asian solidarity is not intended to diminish the need to create conditions for the liberation of all vulnerable communities. Instead, I prioritize Afro-Asian solidarities because Black and Asian American communities have experienced among the highest increase in discriminatory incidents since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and are problematically racialized as “opposites”—in addition to my own scholarship, activism, and personal life centering on Afro-Asian solidarities.
Understanding Violence Relationally
Some in Asian American communities are calling for more policing and better diversity training for police, and are offering rewards leading to the arrests of perpetrators of anti-Asian violence. These are understandable responses to the vicious attacks on Asian Americans--that is, if one believes that the police keep us safer. I want to make two arguments here. First, even if calling on the police keeps Asian American communities safer, if doing so increases harm and vulnerability of others, most notably the Black community, then it requires us to rethink our strategies for safety. Second, I believe calling on the police also increases the harm to and vulnerability of our Asian American communities. Responding in this moment requires us to do the hard work of thinking collectively and building collaboratively the alternative programs that ultimately create a society where this kind of discussion—to increase policing or not—becomes irrelevant.
I raise four interrelated points. First, while there is long history of people working out of self-interest or their own group’s interest, this is a losing strategy that keeps us in a competitive, zero-sum game. Besides, who is “my” and “our” group, when we all inhabit multiple identities, including our race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability that simultaneously connect and divide us, and includes a growing number of people who are multiracial and multiethnic, including Afro-Asian. I am not calling for a colorblind strategy, but instead one that operates on the principle of ideology and not identity per se. This means supporting policies and practices that serve the most oppressed among us. And here, I’m not talking about oppression Olympics or the ranking of oppression on a singular hierarchy—Claire Jean Kim’s concept of triangulation is helpful here. Instead we need to recognize that if Black people are at greatest risk of being killed by the police and if anti-Black bias motivates 48 percent of reported race-based hate incidents, then we need to form our strategies of resistance that prioritizes the impacts on Black communities.
Second, we need to ask: What is the source of violence, including anti-Asian violence? Is it individuals with racist motivations? This raises questions about the very concept of “hate crimes.” As UCLA law professor Karin Wang stated at a recent UCLA Town Hall, the idea behind hate crimes legislation is that imposing harsher penalties for crimes with bigoted motivation would act as a deterrent to racist attacks—but it has not. Moreover, the narrative of “hate crimes” fosters a problematic focus on the individual –their attitudes, feelings, bigotry – and thus erases the structural violence of policing, militarism, White supremacy, racialized heteropatriarchy and more that fuel individual attacks. We should not be surprised that attacks by people emboldened to act on their White supremacist views or by people with mental illness reflect societal inequities. We saw this in 2014 in Santa Barbara, CA, where I live, when Elliott Rodger asserted misogynistic views before killing three women; there was lesser attention to the fact that the first three people he killed, his roommates, were all Chinese.
There is a cautionary lesson here as we seek solutions to the problem of racist attacks on Asian Americans. Because any action, no matter how well intended, can create other kinds of problems, our taking the time to analyze a problem in all its complexities and to create solutions that arise from these complexities is crucial. This is best done in collective discussions where objections and critique are encouraged. The short-term, easier-to-implement solutions—ones that often align with rather than challenge dominant narratives and institutions—can and often have led to the problems that relational thinking and solidarity praxis can help to avert.
Third, structural violence takes many forms, including being locked in exploitative jobs, extreme food and housing insecurity, racialized sexual violence, poverty, prisons, and policing. I ask: How might the problems of anti-Asian and anti-Black violence be mitigated if we as a society prioritized meaningful work with living wages, adequate housing, nutrient-dense locally grown food, parks and other common spaces of nature and beauty, holistic health care and mental health prevention and intervention? Might this transform the conditions that give rise to individual and structural violence? This question involves the vexing problem of the need to hold the state and corporate world responsible, while recognizing the very formation of these institutions to do otherwise. The focus on mutual aid as solidarity, cooperative economics, and other forms of grassroots participatory democracy are especially encouraging at this time.
Fourth, we need to call out the contradictions of what is deemed illegitimate violence versus legitimate violence. In 1963, in his famous “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, Malcolm X asked the Black community, “How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you are in Korea?” He was condemning the expectation for Black people to respond with nonviolence against the violence of the police and the KKK in Mississippi, while being asked to serve as soldiers killing Asian people overseas in the Korean War. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King stated that he could no longer keep quiet about the violence of the US military in Vietnam, while asking civil rights workers to exercise nonviolence in the South. Today, people are quick to condemn individual acts of violence against Asian Americans, but quiet about the US imperial and military violence historically and continuing in the Philippines, Yemen, Palestine, and Puerto Rico. Some are saying, just as policing is core to violence against Black communities, militarism is core to violence against Asian American communities. (I recognize too the intertwining of the police and military and their impacts of Black and Asian communities). Scholars have indeed written cogently about the links between US militarism and the sexualization of Asian women in relation to the killings of Asian women in Atlanta. We must focus away from only the individual perpetrators towards analysis and action centering on the state-sanctioned institutions that foster racist violence.
Significantly, if we endorse a structural analysis of violence, then why would we call on increased policing as a solution to anti-Asian attacks? Are we doing so because we feel we have no or few other choices, even as we recognize and fear that calling the police will increase harm? Too often when the police are called to respond to a mental health crisis, the police end up killing, rather than helping, the person in distress, as happened to Daniel Prude, a Black man in Rochester, and Christian Hall, a Chinese American man in Pennsylvania. Does calling the police feel like the only option, even when we know that policing is rooted in slave patrols, the police are increasingly militarized, and the police disproportionately kill Black and Brown people? There are other options, such as mutual aid as solidarity, community escorts, bystander training, mental health emergency interventions, and building cooperative economic movements, all of which are already happening and in need of our collective creation.
Afro-Asian Solidarities Historically and Today
This work to build a transformed society requires relational thinking. Instead of asking--as I’ve been hearing--why did Black people not show up for Asian Americans when we showed up for BLM protests, or instead of asking why do Asian Americans get an executive order to end anti-Asian racism when this did not happen for Black people, what would it mean to ask a different set of questions? How have Black and Asian Americans enacted solidarities? How does learning about Afro-Asian solidarities transform our narratives and our sense of possibility?
Many are writing about the long history of Afro-Asian solidarities, domestically and internationally. So I offer only the briefest of examples.
§ In 1949, the Nisei Progressives teamed with a Black tenants committee to fight for fair housing for Black and Japanese residents of Little Tokyo being displaced for the construction of a modern downtown Civic Center.
§ The 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia, became a lightning rod moment that inspired Afro-Asian convergences that adopted even more radical politics against racism, colonialism, and racial-gendered capitalism.
§ The Black Panther Party famously centered Black communities and forged cross-racial solidarities. In the May 1967 event that placed the Panthers on the national radar, while protesting the Mulford bill that limited the carrying of visible weapons used for the Panther’s police patrols, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale read a statement on the steps of the California state capitol that connected “the enslavement of Black people from the very beginning of the this country” with “the genocide practiced on American Indians,” “the droppings of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nakasaki,” “the concentration camps in which Japanese Americans were interned,” and the “racist war of genocide in Vietnam.”
§ While struggling for redress and reparation for Japanese Americans’ World War II incarceration, activists like Yuri Kochiyama consistently raised the need for Black reparations for the long legacy of and intergenerational ways in which anti-Black structures and practices have harmed Black communities.
Today, the African American Policy Forum, Cooperation Jackson, the Rev. William Barber, and Congressperson Raphael Warnock are all examples of Black communities extending solidarity against violence and racism impacting Asian American communities. CAAAV in New York and #Asians4Blacklives in multiple cities have mobilized against police violence in Black communities and Asian Americans have long worked to address anti-Blackness in Asian American communities.
Some contend that such solidarities represent a minority of both communities and they may well be correct. But, the history of political struggle reveals that a numeric minority of people can and have sparked and provided the major organizing knowledge and praxis that builds antiracist, labor, and other movements, joined by many others who participate in lower-risk, less intensive ways, that work to change discursive narratives and material conditions. Plus, how many acts of solidarity occur that we will never know about?
The question is less about the quantity of solidarities and more about what such solidarities produce and what it means that we learn our histories of Afro-Asian solidarity?
Thinking Relationally to Build Movements Towards Liberation
Thinking relationally means not creating an uncritical parallelism between Asian Americans and Black communities and instead recognizing the ways the groups are racialized differently. This requires acknowledging the model minority images and logics used to locate Asian Americans within an economically stratified society. The model minority image erases recognition of anti-Asian racism and its illogic dismisses the necessity of dissent, while particularly denigrating Black struggle.
At the same time, Asian American and Black communities are both structured by White Supremacy, while Black experiences are additionally structured by a long legacy of slavery. This calls upon Asian Americans to fight against anti-Asian racism and to oppose the ongoing impacts of racial capitalism and colonialism resulting in Black genocide and Indigenous land theft. Like the Black Panther Party before them, the Movement for Black Lives forges a vision that connects economic, ecological, racial and gender justice and offers far-reaching but possible solutions. While Black centered, both movements work on the principles of solidarity. Likewise for Asian Americans, we can, like Grace Lee Boggs, Michael Yasutake, and Philip Vera Cruz before us, forge movements of cross-racial and cross-generational solidarity—and not the model of White allyship—that are rooted in developing relationships of trust and mutuality over time.
Asking questions such as--How do we keep Asian American communities safe, while also keeping Black communities safe?—requires thinking and acting relationally. Ultimately, activists such as Yuri Kochiyama and Black Panther artist Emory Douglas teach us that solidarities are essential to building movements for liberation.
Diane C. Fujino is author of Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, co-editor of Black Power Afterlives: The Enduring Significance of the Black Panther Party, and co-editor of the forthcoming Contemporary Asian American Activism: Building Movements for Liberation, among other books. She is professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an organizer with Ethnic Studies Now! Santa Barbara and Cooperation Santa Barbara.