As I approached the field behind the Georgia State Capitol last Saturday afternoon I was aware of a strong feeling of deja vu; the masses of mostly young people brought together by a great atrocity, the handmade signs with anti-racist slogans drawn on them, the applause for speakers exhorting the crowd to organize against prejudice. As the crowd formed to march and took to the streets the feeling became stronger.
The difference in this case was that the majority of the marchers were not Black but Asian, organized to protest the killings of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in three different spas in the Atlanta area on March 16th.
The marches, chants, and imagery of the nationwide outrage over the murders owe a huge debt to the Black social justice movements that emerged over the last half decade after the killings of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement. But amid calls for justice and calls for solidarity between all people of color who have been the victims of white supremacy, another call has come from many African-Americans, asking what took people of color-who are not Black-so long to join the struggle.
There have always been people of Asian descent connected to the Black human rights struggle. Yuri Kochiyama was a close confidant of Malcolm X, and Maoist China offered support to Robert F. Williams and the Black Panthers as did North Korea and North Vietnam. But those black & white newsreels and sepia toned images are much older and less familiar to Black people in poor and working class neighborhoods than the memory of the death of Latasha Harlins at the hands of Soon Ja Du, the images of demonstrations protesting the conviction of former NYPD officer Peter Liang’s killing of Akai Gurley, Officer Tou Thao standing guard as Derek Chauvin snuffed out the life of George Floyd, or the present day feelings of harassment and disrespect that many African-Americans say they receive while patronizing Asian owned corner stores and beauty salons. These are issues that must be confronted.
America promotes itself as a nation of immigrants that offers opportunities to people to succeed and that is largely true, so long as you visibly conform. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants all went through periods of being discriminated against but were able to assimilate into American society by incorporating their culture into the dominant one, and because of their skin.
For immigrant communities of color unable to assimilate physically, one of the ways to do this was to conform psychologically, and an important aspect of that is to adopt the idea that America’s socioeconomic hierarchy must always have African-Americans at its lowest tier, and that status is solely the fault of African-Americans themselves. There are worldwide, color based caste systems and a universal disdain of the darker members of every society that many people find easy to buy into and American society encourages.
Now we have an incident that drives home the truth that no one whose skin carries a color is exempt from being racially targeted in America. The shock of that reality is driving Asian-Americans to become more vocal about pushing back against discrimination and in some cases insisting that people historically disenfranchised by this society join them. This is an opportunity to have a frank discussion about race, class, and anti-Blackness among people of color and why some African-Americans are cautious.
“Swim Like Me.”
There’s an old African-American rhyming toast made popular by Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite, called Shine and The Titanic. In the story, Shine was a Black boiler room worker on the Titanic who was the first to notice the ship was sinking. No one heeds Shine’s warnings until it’s too late and he jumps overboard to save himself, then everyone runs onto the deck expecting Shine to come back and save them. That tale can be read as a metaphor for how Black people are the first affected by America’s racist customs and are usually ignored or criminalized until those issues reach other demographics. Look no further than the different reactions to crack addiction compared to opioid addiction.
African-Americans have historically joined with every group seeking justice from a white supremacist system but that support hasn’t always been returned. Allyship in the traditional sense is mutually beneficial and it is not the duty of Black people to offer themselves up as lifeboats for people who may discard us the second they reach the safety of dry land.
What happened in Atlanta on March 16th is a tragedy. Hopefully it will make people understand that there is no way for a person of color to assimilate into a system based on racial hierarchies without sacrificing some part of yourself. These issues are too deep to gloss over with platitudes about unity when the day-to-day reality often shows otherwise.
Americans usually turn a deaf ear to social issues until tragedy and death drives the point home. Time will tell if this current call for solidarity is a lasting one or a marriage of convenience.