A brief history of Black and Asian American minorities under white supremacy

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - 5:33pm

.

Collage by Hibah Chugtai

On May 25, the Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, J Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas Lane arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin, who spent almost nine minutes kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was charged with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter. The three other officers who were complicit and silent during the arrest were fired but not arrested. As of today, Chauvin’s charge got upgraded to second-degree murder, and the other three were arrested and charges with aided and abetted murder

While many have been protesting Chauvin and the Minneapolis police department who have been known to tolerate racism, Tou Thao, the Hmong officer who also has a history of involvement in use-of-force incidents, has become the symbol of Asian-American silence in anti-Blackness sentiment in America. Thao has resparked the ongoing discussion of minority tensions and relations, especially between the Black and Asian community. 

When Asian Americans first began to immigrate to the United States, they were also a large target for white supremacy, as the government passed racist legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, fueled the anti-Japanese movement in the early 1900s and repeatedly refused to grant citizenship to Asians who don’t fit the “white” requirement.

However, as time went on, the white supremacy transformed. As fear that anti-Asian racism could jeopardize the country’s world leader status and impeded imperial expansion, white liberals sought to efface Asian exclusion legislation during and after World War II. The government believed there would be a geopolitical payoff in return for recognizing Asian Americans as “model” citizens, thus a mixture of geopolitics, the Cold War and the civil rights movement gave birth to the “model minority myth.”    

Between 1940 and 1970, Asian Americans surpassed Black Americans in average household earnings, and also closed the wage gap with whites. This was because at the beginning of the 20th century, Asian Americans were depicted as threatening, exotic and degenerate. However due to the model minority myth, newspapers glorified Asian Americans as industrious, law-abiding citizens who were docile and never complained. This wasn’t a special tactic, as many minorities in the U.S. attempted to combat racism by portraying themselves as upstanding citizens capable of assimilating themselves into American mainstream culture. Chinese Americans promoted their obedient children and traditional family values, Japanese Americans referred to their wartime service and, while Black Americans also made similar appeals, postwar America made it convenient for political leaders to solely listen to the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community. 

This made it easier for white Americans to thwart the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as they would use the positive portrayal of Asian Ameircans to deny the demands of Black Americans. It insinuated the idea of pitting one minority group against another, and in comparison, use Asian Americans as “proof” that if they could find success, African Americans could too.

However, Ellen Wu, historian and author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” clarifies that Asian Americans are a diverse community with subgroups, all of whom have different ranges of power and privilege. Specifically Southeast Asians, which include Hmong, live in impoverished neighborhoods and have inadequate support due to racial injustice which linger today. Hmong Americans have public health insurance enrollment rates which are similar to Black Americans.

Furthermore, while incidences of police brutality against Asian Americans do not occur at the frequency as they do against Black Americans, it can not be ignored that there has been a history of the police targeting Black and brown bodies, especially those in low socioeconomic communities, at disproportionate and alarming rates. For example, in 2006, Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen shot and killed 19-year-old Hmong American, Fong Lee, who was riding a bike with his friends. The all-white jury ruled Anderson, who claimed to see Lee with a weapon, didn’t use excessive force and was exonerated. In 2015, 57-year-old Indian Sureshbai Patel was slammed to the ground when visiting his family and left partially paralyzed by Alabama police officer Eric Parker. 

With the recent Asian-American backlash due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the misconduct of the Minneapolis police department against Black Americans brought to light, it is integral to integrate these recent events in an ongoing conversation of transracial communities in the United States. While it is undeniable that many Asian Americans and Black Americans face different day-to-day interactions, are in different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and are viewed differently by the white population, it is crucial to understand how the history of both minority groups shaped their positions in society today in comparison to their white peers. 

Instead of analyzing the differences between Black and Asian Americans and viewing the two as binary groups, there needs to be a call for Asian Americans to stand as allies with the Black community who have been manipulated by and suffered from the white man’s narrative. Given that Asian Americans have been manipulated by the government on a basis of different racial standards in comparison with their Black peers, it is time to reclaim who we are and how we identify, beyond the “model minority” label, and speak up as a unit against police brutality and overall, system of oppression and Black injustice in America.

Cheryn Hong can be contacted at cherynh@umich.edu