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The History Of Solidarity Between Asian And Black Americans


The mass shooting in Atlanta last month and the surge of anti-Asian attacks across the country over the last year have intensified the rallying cry to end violence against Asian Americans. That crescendo comes less than a year after the wave of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For years, Black Lives Matter has demanded an end to police brutality and racially motivated attacks against Black people. And now, with heightened calls for solidarity between the Black and Asian American communities, we wanted to look at the relationship between them and how their civil rights movements have interacted. Joining us now is anti-racist author and consultant Kim Tran. Her research focuses on Asian American solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Welcome.

KIM TRAN: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So I'm just wondering, Kim, as you've been listening to the calls for solidarity between Asian Americans and Black Americans right now, how much of this moment feels reminiscent to you of other times in the past - like, say, after the L.A. riots in 1992?

TRAN: So the first thing I want people to know is that solidarity is there. It's been there. You know, we can trace the historical roots of Asian-Black solidarity back to 1955 with the Bandung Conference, where representatives of people from the Asian continent and folks on the African continent came together to talk about what decolonization was going to look like for both of us. Fast forward to things like the relationship between Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King, and then all the way to, you know, the fight against the Klan in New Orleans in the '80s with Vietnamese fishermen.

So within the American imaginary, we are interested in racial antagonism between Black and Asian folks. However, what we see time and time again is that we also work in concert against racial injustice. And the most recent iteration of what that looks like is the formation of Asians For Black Lives in 2014, 2015, after the call for solidarity from Black Lives Matter.

CHANG: Well, as you say, there has been tension between these two communities - Black Americans and Asian Americans. And even though the common goal of these two movements is to address colonization and to dismantle white supremacy, white supremacy has harmed Black Americans in a very different way than it has harmed Asian Americans. Like, Asians in this country have never felt what it's like to be enslaved in this country, to be mass incarcerated, right?

TRAN: Yeah, that's true. And this is the moment where I ask us to walk and chew gum at the same time, right? If I'm being really honest, I think one of the things that would be the most productive move for American racial discourse is to be able to hold racial difference and racial injustice in their own specific and unique lived experiences. They're not equivalent, and we should not rank them. What we have to do is have a conversation about the ways in which the Asian American experience is unique and different from the Black American experience and vice versa.

CHANG: But given that experiences within the Asian American community are different from experiences within the Black American community, can you talk about how those differences have played out in terms of tension between the two movements?

TRAN: So one of the tensions is we're actually talking across each other, even within our own racial group. There are Asian Americans who are abolitionists who don't want to increase funding for police, who don't believe in locking folks up. And then there are other Asian Americans who say, let's persecute and prosecute these people who are perpetuating the hate crimes. That's a tough conversation, and it's a really good example of the deeper seeded kind of chasms that exist within the greater racial injustice discourse.

So BLM was a very crystallizing moment in that it forced us to reckon with the specificity of anti-Blackness. And now, as we're seeing Asian Americans come into this conversation a bit more on a wider scale, on a grander scale, what we're seeing is the capacity of Asian Americans to say, OK, Black Lives Matter is this thing, the fight against anti-Asian violence is this thing. We are ajoint in some ways, we are unique in others, but we're going to show up together. And that is extremely exciting.

CHANG: Well, where can Asian Americans start to better show up? Because at some level, it seems that there has to be some acknowledgement that they do enjoy greater privilege in this society than Black Americans do and therefore might be able to exert leverage if they were to fuse their movement with Black Americans.

TRAN: Let's start by being honest. As a Southeast Asian woman who is light-skinned, when I walk down the street, I am not worried that a police officer is going to pull me over and kill me just for existing on the sidewalk. On the other side, as a queer Vietnamese woman, I am extremely afraid in this moment that walking down the street, I might encounter someone who wants to do something really violent toward me because they don't think I belong in this country and because they think I brought the pandemic that we're currently experiencing.

CHANG: Yeah.

TRAN: This is a kind of nuance that activists are really good at. It, however, is not a skill that American racial discourse has developed on a wider scale. And as Asian Americans, I'm really asking that we push ourselves to hold that kind of complexity. It's hard. There are very few models for it, but it's what we need to do in order to get to where we have to go.

CHANG: Kim Tran is an anti-racist consultant and author. Thank you so much for joining our show today.

TRAN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCH BROTHERS' "CLARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.