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Can Black, Asian Americans move past historical animosity in the interest of solidarity?

The recent show of solidarity among Black and Asian American activists belies a fraught history. Can the communities now work side by side? Stephanie Sy explores the question with Tamara Nopper, a sociologist at New York University’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, and Brenda Stevenson, a history and African American studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The recent attacks in this country against Asian Americans have been met with condemnation across the political spectrum and support from other communities of color, including black Americans.

    Stephanie Sy has a look at the state and history of those relationships.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, the recent show of solidarity among Black and Asian American activists belies a fraught history between these groups.

    For example, during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, racial tensions exploded, with armed Korean-American shopkeepers facing off against rioters. A year before the brutal police beating of Rodney King which set off the uprising, a Korean shop owner had fatally shot a 15 year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, for allegedly trying to steal a bottle of juice.

    Then, more recently, a Hmong American Minneapolis police officer, Tou Thao, was one of four officers accused of standing by while Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck. Both communities are now working urgently toward greater racial and social justice.

    The question is, how might they work side by side?

    I'm joined by Tamara Nopper, a sociologist and fellow at New York University's Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, and Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    Ladies, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour" for this important conversation.

    And, Professor Stevenson, I want to start with you, because the last time I interviewed you, we talked about how a broad racial coalition had emerged after the killing of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement growing.

    As we started to see these increased attacks on Asian Americans, I wonder, do you feel that solidarity held, or are there still those fractures among communities of color that we saw in Los Angeles nearly three decades ago?

  • Brenda Stevson:

    Well, I think that the answer to that question is, both things have occurred.

    I think the solidarity, it's certainly holding. Many people who are in the African American or African diaspora community, including my family, have been very much supportive of the stop hate Asian movement. And I know many people who are, a number of people who have not been.

    And, indeed, some of the people who have been accused of being a part of the attack on — or this increased attack on Asian Americans have been African American. So, both things are happening. We're seeing that the solidarity is not only holding, but growing, but there are also other problems, other kinds of tensions and conflicts that are there that are still being maintained as well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Professor Stevenson brings up the fact that the small number of perpetrators of attacks on Asian Americans have been other people of color, including African Americans, although the data shows the vast majority of those attacks have been white perpetrators.

    But, Tamara Nopper, I wonder how you see the dynamics between the Asian and Black communities in the U.S. in this moment.

    Tamara Nopper, New York University Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies: Thank you.

    Well, on one hand, I think that there is this kind of increased call for coalition. And I think that more Asian Americans, as individuals, activists, Asian American organizations, are starting to kind of publicly talk about anti-Black racism and about Asian Americans confronting anti-Blackness.

    I think one of the ongoing tensions, though, is that a lot of solidarity discourse, and solidarity discourse that non-Black people of color of communities, not only Asian Americans, but you see this with other non-Black people of color groups, there is often this kind of disciplinary gesture involved in solidarity discourse, meaning there's often a lot of anti-Black aggression.

    There's often a lot of assumptions that Black people need to come — quote — "learn" to be in coalition with other groups, or that Black people supposedly are politically selfish and are helping perpetrate harm or violence against non-Black people of color if they don't engage in solidarity.

    And so, even as we're seeing this kind of increased emphasis on Black-Asian solidarity and on non-Black people color groups confronting anti-Blackness, I think there's a lot of tinges of anti-Blackness in the solidarity approaches from non-Black people of color that's still being perpetrated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Professor Stevenson, you're a professor of history.

    I wonder, from that lens, what forces you see at work that have sometimes pitted Blacks and Asians against each other in this country.

  • Brenda Stevenson:

    Well, I think part of it is that a lot of people don't know the history of African Americans or of Asian Americans within this community, within our country.

    And so African Americans sometimes don't understand that Asian Americans have had the same kinds or very similar kinds of discriminations against them and abuses against them because of their race.

    As well, sometimes, Asian Americans do not understand that African Americans have been, from day one, racialized and criminalized and victimized in this country. And so there's — there are miscues with regard to what we have in common and what we share, and this common relationship to white supremacy, a common relationship to marginalization culturally and racially and all of that within the country.

    And so, without this history, without knowing the kind of histories in which we actually absolutely connect and have parallel or connect or have parallel lives in a nation that is partly defined by othering people who are not white American, and the difficulties are maintained.

    But that is changing, and more and more people are taking the time to understand that there is a connection, absolutely, with the plight of African Americans and the abuse of Asian Americans and white supremacy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tamara Nopper, what are your thoughts on that phrase white supremacy and how the system and the world that we all live in, a society where racial discrimination has shaped all of us, where Asian Americans fit in, in that equation?

  • Tamara Nopper:

    Thank you.

    Well, I think there's — there's always been this ongoing debate in Asian American spaces, whether it's Asian American studies or activist spaces, about this kind of idea that Asian Americans are perceived as either honorary whites or so-called model minorities, or are we really kind of embraced as part of a people of color coalition?

    And so there's also this question about what makes kind of a race a race? Is it just our politics? Is it the way we're socially and politically structured in relationship to the state?

    So I think the question about Asian Americans' relationship to whiteness, I think, is something that is a deep anxiety in Asian American discourse and politics. And I think that part of the issue is that we can think about, what is our relationship to whiteness, but we also have to think about, what is our relationship to Blackness?

    Social scientists talk about this idea of a Black/non-Black divide. And what they say is that it's not just about people's relationship to whiteness that makes a definitive factor in kind of their life chances, but it's also their relationship to Blackness and how far they can actually be distanced from Blackness.

    And so I think it's about not only thinking about white supremacy, but also Asian Americans' relationship to anti-Black racism and anti-Blackness.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Professor Stevenson, you brought up again these anti-Asian attacks, and the perpetrators sometimes people of color.

    I wonder, how do we talk about violence within communities of color and between communities of color without reinforcing extremely damaging stereotypes? I mean, you wrote the book on Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old killed in Los Angeles all those years back.

    How far have we really come?

  • Brenda Stevenson:

    Well, I think, again, it's a strange dance that we have with race in America. We come forward with many steps, twirl around, and we're going in the opposite direction. So, this continues to happen.

    But I think everyone has to own up to the fact that we live in a racialized society. The ways in which we find ourselves or define ourselves as being American, in part, is to have digested some of that racism.

    So, no group is — does not have it. No group does not act on it. And we have to understand that and we have to have some real hard discussions with ourselves, our families, our communities, and with other communities about how we fit into this dynamic of race within our society.

    Do we perpetuate racism, stereotypes, et cetera, or are we actively trying to recognize that we hold some of that within ourselves and that we act on it and we need to eliminate it, or at least get it to a level where we can all act towards one another with respect, dignity and equality?

    But it's very, very difficult. It is bound in the roots of American society. And once you eat of the tree of America, it becomes part of you.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And the uprooting of all that, I think, begins with conversations just like this.

    Professor Brenda Stevenson with UCLA and Tamara Nopper with New York University, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Tamara Nopper:

    Thank you.

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