The Asian American Response to Black Lives Matter Is Part of a Long, Complicated HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, Asian American History
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian Americans working as immigrant laborers in the U.S. were villainized (and often subjected to horrendous racial violence) as the sinister “Yellow Peril.” That experience of discrimination created solidarity with the Black community, which, says Renee Tajima-Peña, the producer of Who Killed Vincent Chin? and PBS’ documentary series Asian American, was expressed in a wide range of outlets. Frederick Douglass denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and an Indian immigrant served as the editor of Negro World in the early 20th century.
That connection endured into the decades that followed. But, as with many facets of life in the U.S., things got more complicated around the 1960s.
On one hand, as the civil rights movement introduced new ways of thinking about justice and equality in the United States, Asian American leaders drew inspiration from—and provided support for—Black freedom fighters. For example, after Japanese Americans were seen as threats and sent to detention camps during WWII, that community offered support to Civil Rights leaders trying to repeal the Emergency Detention Act over concerns that Black activists could be subject to the same kind of treatment. The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by UC Berkeley students who were inspired by the Black Power Movement; likewise, Asian American students rallied alongside Black student organizers and other ethnic student groups as part of the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in the late ’60s, which culminated in student strikes that led to equal education opportunities and the creation of ethnic studies programs. Activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs not only pulled insights from Black radical frameworks for Asian American liberation, but were also strong and active advocates for Black social justice movements.
At the same time, however, the model minority myth was spreading. This idea posited that Asian Americans were more successful than other ethnic minorities because of hard work, education and inherently law-abiding natures. But many of the advances of Asian Americans around the time of the 1960s were not the result of hard work alone, but also of the same systemic forces that held others down—such as immigration policies (like the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished former anti-Asian immigration laws and prioritized skilled workers) and political spin constructed to counter the civil rights movement.
“Before the model minority myth, Asians and Asian Americans were exploited for their labor, othered, seen as ‘Yellow Peril,'” says Bianca Mabute-Louie, an ethnic studies adjunct at Laney College. “[The myth] came about when Black power movements were starting to gain momentum, so [politicians] were trying to undercut those movements and say, ‘Asians have experienced racism in this country, but because of hard work, they’ve been able to pull themselves up out of racism by their bootstraps and have the American Dream, so why can’t you?’ In those ways, the model minority myth has really been a tool of white supremacy to squash Black power movements and racial justice movements.”
As Mabute-Louie notes, not only does such a myth create a monolithic identity for Asian Americans and render their struggles invisible, but it also drives a wedge between them and other communities of color, primarily Black Americans, because it uses perceived Asian American “success” to invalidate claims of inequality toward non-white Americans. It also reinforces a structure in which assimilation into white society is the primary goal for other ethnic groups.
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