I first became aware of Minnesota’s outlier status when I lived there between 2002 and 2006. The Twin Cities are vibrant havens for Native American life. Black heterogeneity invites East Africans and African Americans to commune and code-switch across their differences. The infamous anti-communism among Southeast Asians is absent; refugees of the Vietnam War vote for and run for office as Democrats. Minnesota was the lone dissenting voice to back Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan was swept into the White House following ballot box victories across America’s other 49 states.. Throughout much of America’s history, Minnesota has stood valiantly, if understatedly, in opposition to much of the rest of the country.
I lived in St. Paul, a half block away from either the right or the wrong side of a gentrification line, depending on how one sees it. Three buildings away, a poorly maintained apartment complex crumbled from neglect by its slumlord owner. An equal distance in the opposite direction stood a house that debuted the market with an asking price of over half a million. Just north, one might find an overpass for Interstate 94, which runs through the bowels of the old Rondo neighborhood. Every year, the predominantly African American former residents of Rondo host a festival to remember their beloved space, and to lament its destruction in the 1960s to make way for an increasingly automobile-centered society. Many of them were (and still are) reliant on public transport, yet they lost their homes to make way for our cars. In this and other aspects, Minnesota is typical—its inequities are congruent with those of the country at large.
On July 6, Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled Philando Castile over during a traffic stop just five miles away from Rondo, in the nearby suburb of Falcon Heights. He had a broken taillight. When Castile reached to present his ID, Yanez panicked and fired five shots into his body in front of his panicked girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Castile died shortly thereafter in hospital.
The fact that Castile was African American is significant. Numerous studies, historic narratives and contemporary accounts testify to the existence of police aggression targeted at black people — an unbroken thread stretching from slavery to emancipation to the present day. That Yanez—whom Castile’s companion described as “Chinese” in the video she live-streamed of his killing—is phenotypically Asian is also significant. Days after Castile’s death, Yanez’s name and race – he is Latinx – were revealed to the public. Nonetheless, the questions surrounding race and solidarity between Black and non-Black people of color as raised by Philando Castile’s fatal shooting and its aftermath need some parsing.
Last week, America once again recoiled under the weight of this country’s ongoing criminalization of the Black body when two Black men were shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in less than two days. Demonstrators once again took to the streets to raise the banner of Black Lives Matter to protest the growing militarization of law enforcement that disproportionately victimizes people of colour, and Black and Native people in particular.
AAPI have also added our voices to this growing coalition for BlackLivesMatter, many of us writing think-pieces to document why our community must fight to ensure that this society places value in Black lives. Yet, while many of those pieces are targeted towards English-speaking progressive AAPI youth, they rarely permeate other (often non-English-speaking) spaces where other Asian Americans who choose against Black lives digitally congregate. As a consequence, our community remains politically Balkanized. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a question I am routinely asked in workshops I give about AAPIs and intersectional race politics is: How do I bridge that divide? How do I talk to my parents about anti-blackness?
Last night, I sat down with six of the Letters Project’s coordinators — including Letters Project founder, Christina Xu — to talk about their thoughts about the project, and why it matters for the AAPI community; Poetically, it was also the first time many of the Letters Project’s coordinators actually met one another face-to-face (albeit through video streaming). What follows is a transcript of our hour-long conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Recently, I was approached by an Asian American ethnic media reporter (who approached me off the record to express his own apprehension at speaking out, and thus whose identity I will protect) who was interested in possibly writing about the pro-Liang rallies. He said: “Anti-indictment people have taken the upper hand in voicing their opinions, and those who disagree with them have been branded as ‘traitors'”.
I was asked how — given this — I was able to write so openly in support of Officer Liang’s indictment.