Friends from Trinity Presbyterian Church in San Carlos, California, Sabine Won and Deborah Kemper have marched for women’s rights and affordable housing, protested gun violence and detention centers for immigrants.
By the time the Black Lives Matter movement erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, and this year’s anti-Asian hate crimes sparked a new round of rallies, there was no question they would be speaking out together for justice.
“She was just as outraged as I was about what was going on,” Kemper said. "And I was just outraged as she was about the Asian hate crimes."
Their long friendship meant that they naturally formed the kind of alliance others are seeking more deliberately, as the country again confronts racial strife. They have struck a chord. A photo that Won posted on Facebook in March showing the women wearing T-shirts reading “I will use my breath to speak up for those who can’t breathe” quickly got 11,000 likes.
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“Sisters in the resistance as we stand in solidarity against bigotry and hate!” she wrote. “We've marched for #BlackLivesMatter and to #StopAsianHate and will continue to #ShowUpForRacialJustice until our last breath. Please join us in choosing #LoveOverHate!”
"I felt really good that I could be there for her, to support her and family for the Black Lives Matter movement last year and ongoing, obviously," Won said. "And for me, it feels so good, it's a relief, to go to a protest but have some good friends who are not Asian at that rally to stop Asian hate."
Running to Protest
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African Americans and Asian Americans are reaching out across past tensions to present a multiracial front to the violence of the last two years, from acts of friendship like Won and Kemper’s to joint rallies across the country. In Brooklyn, N.Y., Coffey — who uses just one name — began organizing protests of runners last year to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and in particular Ahmaud Arbery, the Georgia man shot to death while he was out running. “Running to Protest” events have drawn hundreds of people, and in March, runners joined together in solidarity with the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.
"I saw them out there fighting for us," he said. "They were actually out there running and marching with us so now with what has happened to their culture and the things that are going on, it's only right to ask for a Black and Asian solidarity."
He said he wanted the Asian American community to know it had the support of African Americans. The two groups should be united against white supremacy, he said.
“The major problem in this country is white supremacy, and their culture,” he said. “That comes with any race. You could be Asian, you could be Black.”
A recent survey from SurveyMonkey and AAPI Data shows that white supremacy harms people from all racial minorities. The survey finds elevated levels of experiences of hate crime and hate incidents across all communities of color. Among Asian Americans and Latinx surveyed, 27% report experiencing hate crime and hate incidents, higher than the national average of 22%. Black and multiracial respondents report a level of 34%, highest among all communities of color.
The report also shows that Asians are more likely to face discrimination or micro-aggressions based on their presumed “foreigner status,” and are asked “Where are you from,” whereas Black people are subject to racial stereotypes related to criminality and violence.
“That to me points to the possibilities for coalition building and solidarity,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data. “This is not to say that racism affects all of our communities equally. It affects our communities in different ways.”
For Asian and Black Americans to build coalitions on a deeper level, Ramakrishnan said that a lot more needs to happen within the Asian American community. “Most Asian Americans came to the States after the Civil Rights era,” he said. “It takes a lot to remember how the Black community showed up for Asian community.”
Collaborations between Asian and Black communities in the U.S. are based on deep historical and cultural ties, said Benji Chang, an activist and professor at The University of North Carolina Greensboro. Asian Americans owe their rights in the U.S. to Black activism and the Civil Rights Movement and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he said. Martial arts and hip-hop have influenced youths from Black and Asian American communities to “participate and create at almost every level," he said.
As a youth in the late 1980s, Chang was heavily influenced by the merger of the two cultures. He remembered the emergence of Black Power martial art schools and the import of Hong Kong kung fu films coming together. “It really caught fire,” he recalled.
"Having that to youth like myself... to be educated during that hip-hop-as-a-social-movement time in the late '80s to '90s, and thinking about that type of solidarity,” he said. “Not just an academic one, or not just in terms of law or policy, but a pop cultural social movement. It was very engaging."
The Black organizers saw Asian martial arts as an inspiration for anti-imperialist, anti-colonization, and social uplift, while “many Asian Americans have gone on to make music, teach, and organise around ‘woke’ hip-hop’s themes like decolonisation, feminism, pro-Blackness, and social justice movements,” Chang later wrote.
Those aspects of history are often overlooked and Chang believes it is because the history of multiracial collaboration “doesn’t fit the narrative of how we’ve constructed our history and looked at things,” which is “very individualized, very patriarchal.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, or the way it was framed,” Chang said, recalling his experience teaching in elementary schools, where the Civil Rights Movement was framed as a “black thing,” and the farmworker struggle was taught to be specific to Mexicans. “Multiracial coalitions don’t get talked about. They really get swept under the rug.”
Rallying in New York City to Stop AAPI Hate
Among the talk of solidarity, the presence of tension and mistrust between the two communities remains. Video footage showing Black people as suspects in some attacks is fueling a troubling narrative of anti-Black sentiment among some Asian Americans on social networks. Memories from the Los Angeles riots in 1991, when a Korean convenience store keeper unlawfully shot and killed an African American girl, Latasha Harlins, are painful reminders for Black people of racial profiling by some Asian store owners, making some reluctant to voice their support for Asian Americans. These have created a new wedge into an age-old fracture between Asian and Black American communities.
Soonkyoo Song has felt the tension. Having lived in New York City for 20 years, the 52-year-old Korean American has found the city increasingly unrecognizable, especially since anti-Asian hate crime spiked during the pandemic. Over the past few weeks, Song went to several rallies in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Flushing, where she heard a lot of talk about Black and Asian solidarity. However, Song has “mixed feelings'' about it, because she believes that most of the attackers are Black. Videos of anti-Asian violence show people of different races committing the crimes.
“I would like to see more collaboration. But I’m not sure they are willing to support us,” Song said. “They see the discrimination against us not as bad as theirs.”
For Terry Allen, a 33-year-old Black American, “Racism and hatred is the focus... not the ones who have been used.”
“We have to understand that this movement is very much tied into something that is beyond what our eyes see,” he said. “What we see is the Black man, and the tension between this Asian man and Asian woman and Black. But what is the influence of those things?”
Gerald Horne, a history professor at the University of Houston, has long warned that African Americans will only be harmed by bigotry against Asian Americans. In a column in 1997 in the Baltimore Sun, at a time when a campaign finance scandal was targeting Asian Americans, he wrote: “Perhaps there is a naive idea that putting the spotlight on some other racial group for a change will deflect bigotry away from Blacks. But this is a gross miscalculation.” And he urged the groups to work together.
“It’s well past time for that sort of relationship,” he said recently. “Obviously both communities have similar issues particularly in confronting white supremacy.”
Horne is more optimistic now than he was 25 years ago, but he notes differences between the groups. He singled out Affirmative Action as a potential source of tension, given its strong support among African Americans, though he said it was a hurdle that could be overcome.
Even given a well-publicized lawsuit claiming Asian Americans face intentional discrimination in Harvard University’s admissions process -- the plaintiffs have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal -- the majority of Asian Americans support Affirmative Action. A 2020 AAPI Data poll found that 70% of Asian Americans supported Affirmative Action, compared to 16% who opposed it. Chinese Americans, the least likely to back the program, still favored it by 56%.
An attempt to reinstate Affirmative Action in California failed in November. The opposition was most dramatic among white residents, 31% in favor to 47% against. Support among Asian Americans was 35% to 21% against, while Latino voters were evenly divided 41% for and against.
Tamara K. Nopper, a sociologist who has been researching Korean-Black conflicts and Korean immigrant owned businesses for 25 years, asks whether it is possible to create a coalition between African and Asian Americans and still grapples with questions about relative power. One of the narratives she has worked to puncture is the idea that Korean immigrants opened their businesses solely by pooling money, when actually they also sought loans from banks, including from Korean American banks.
“This myth of self sufficiency is being used to delegitimize Black people’s political questions about power,” she said. “Because to me the question about how did Korean immigrants open up all these businesses isn’t just a logistical question, it isn’t just literally where did you get the capital. It’s also questions about how does a non-white group who is supposed to be discriminated against get to occupy and make so much wealth off of African Americans.”
Nopper said too often explanations of tensions between African and Asian Americans pointed to shared stereotypes, shared ignorance about each other’s history or media fabrications. They were used to avoid questions about whether Koreans get treated better than Black people, a tendency she sees repeated in today’s efforts at Asian and African American solidarity.
“They often don’t want to deal with, ‘Do Asian Americans get relatively treated better than Black people and do Asian Americans also sometimes enact forms of power against Black people?”
Rallying Against Anti-Asian Attacks and Other Causes
Even if Asian Americans are subjected to white supremacy and racial violence, Black people are treated worse by any socio-economic indicator, she said. Beyond that, Black people are subjected to a particular kind of racism when they are viewed as the group others want to distance themselves from, she said.
"That’s part of the whole model minority that people talk about is that Asians get depicted as having, supposedly, values and culture that are distinct from Black people," she said.
Kemper and Won know the problems can be complex and change comes slowly. Kemper's own mother was killed after the riots in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood when Kemper was 7. Protesting with the gun control group Moms Demand Action helped her see how pervasive gun violence was and the effects on her own family, she said.
The last few years have pulled the curtain back on hate crimes so people can confront them openly, Won said.
" I think in our society that the powers that be try and pit us against each other," Won said. "I wanted to counter that narrative, I wanted to show people that we can and do show up for each other."
Both women say that having diverse groups of friends enriches their lives and hope that others will join them at the protests.
"I would hope that people see us together in that photo and realize that we are all interconnected, that we all feel this hate floating around in our society and it has nowhere to go," Kemper said. "We love what we're doing and we know deep down inside that love will overcome hate. We know that."