Inside Black-Asian Tension: Sometimes It Is About Racism

Inter-ethnic tension between the Black and Asian communities has risen to the forefront of blogosphere discussion in the last couple of weeks, following several reports of violence between the two groups. In Brooklyn, five elderly Asian women were violently assaulted; some of their attackers, all of whom were Black teens, were turned in by their parents.

And in San Francisco, a 59-year old San Francisco man named Tian Sheng Yu, was brutally attacked while he and his son were out shopping last Friday afternoon; Yu died this morning following a head injury sustained during the attack. Prosecutors — who arrested the perpetrators (who happen to be 18-years-old African American men) after one turned himself in — note that the attack appeared to lack an obvious motive (such as robbery), and that Yu and his son may have been targeted based on their race.

Tian Sheng Yu
Tian Sheng Yu, 59, died this morning following a brutal assault on Friday afternoon in the San Francisco area. Prosecutors are investigating whether this is a hate crime.

These are only the few of the many examples of Black-Asian tension that make the headlines; yet, (as many within both communities can attest) deep conflict and resentment between our two communities persists below the surface.

New America Media posted a commentary from 22-year-old Amanze Emenike, a Black man who was raised in one neighbourhood in the San Francisco area to target Asians and Latinos, not fellow Blacks, for petty theft and crime. Emenike argues that recent examples of violent and non-violent crime (apparently targeting Asians) are not symptoms of anti-Asian racism, but of economic opportunism.

If young people try to rob an old black person in Hunters Point, they usually don’t know who they are messing with and they can fall into beef with the victim’s family or community. Robbing African Americans, it’s more likely that the family will come back and harm the robber. So young people go after Chinese and Mexicans.


The reason Asian kids are getting robbed is because there is an assumption that young Chinese kids on Third Street are filthy rich and have an i-Pod or laptop on them. To a young, broke black male, the appeal of nabbing a few hundred dollars from some Asian kid’s pocket is even greater during this recession. The young homies in Hunters Point need money for shoes and clothes.

It’s true that racism rarely manifests in the outright, pillow-case-wearing, cross-burning variety: most racism hides in the guise of economic misfortune and ignorance. After all, when Asian immigrants (from countries like China, Japan and Korea) landed in the West Coast, anti-Asian sentiment arose from fears that Asian “coolies” were taking jobs from hard-working White Americans. Anti-Asian hatred was then justified as backlash due to rampant unemployment, not rabid KKK-ness — even if the consequences of both forms of racism (such as discrimination, assault and even lynchings) were the same.

Here, Emenike argues that the targeting of Asians by young Blacks who have fallen into a criminal lifestyle is a matter of survival and opportunism. Fellow African Americans weren’t targeted because you didn’t know whose grandmama you might have just assaulted; but Asians, on the other hand, were fair game because not only were they unlikely to ever be able to track you down (because they aren’t part of your community), but they might have lots of cool Stuff(tm).

Yet, how is this not still racist stereotyping of Asians? Emenike’s sentiments describe the model minority myth to a tee — the justification that Asians should be targeted for crime arises from the presupposition that Asians are meek, mild-mannered and unassuming folks who have shit tons ‘o cash on their person. Moreover, Emenike demonstrates how petty criminals like those he grew up with dehumanize their targets; Emenike thinks about how Black victims are potentially family members of people he knows, whereas he has no problem not thinking about the consequences of his childhood crimes on the families of Asian victims. In other words, Asians (somehow) won’t really be affected by the crime, so we’re all fair game.

Now, this isn’t to say that the inter-ethnic tension between Blacks and Asians is a one-way street. Asians (as Asians will tell you) can be particularly racist against the African American community. Colourstruck hatred of dark-skinned people arose, independently, in many Asian cultures — and manifests today in a “light makes right” mentality that encourages distrust of Blacks amongst Asians (particularly more elderly Asians).

In addition, many Asian immigrants have made their money by being willing to enter economic niches generally not tapped by other entrepreneurs. Because of White flight and anti-Black racism that diminishes opportunities for Black small-business owners (when it comes to getting start-up loans, for example), Asian immigrants frequently have started small businesses in the virtually uninhabited commercial-sectors near predominantly Black residential areas; consequently, in many cities, Asian businesses tend to serve predominantly Black clienteles, where we are perceived as siphoning money from the Black community.

And then, there’s the purely American, directly conflicting stereotypes, themselves. Blacks are depicted in American media as ignorant, lazy, poor, and criminal (which they aren’t). Asians are perceived as meek, eager-to-please, upwardly mobile, and opportunistic (which we aren’t). We sit at the opposite extreme constrasts of racial stereotypes; and in one another, we resent and hate that which we are told they are, and that we are not. In other words, we’re buying into all the racist shit they’re saying about each other.

Couple all of that with a language barrier a mile thick, and you’ve got a recipe for a perfect storm of distrust, tension, and open hostility.

But, what we must realize is that the Black-Asian tension and hostility is not predestined. There’s nothing about our communities that require that we hate one another; indeed, it is the stereotypes, perpetuated by mainstream American culture, that fuels the rage and conflict between our communities.

And, rather than to talk about how both communities have internalized racism against the other community, we hide behind our own oppressions and make excuses about our own bigotry. Mundane conflict between our two groups makes for fodder on YouTube.

In the wake of crimes between Asian and Black communities, it is tempting to, as Brooklyn resident Tiffany Tan remarked, “[not] go near them”.  But that self-imposed segregation will only exacerbate the problem, by allowing racist ideas and prejudice to fester. Instead, to end these rash of Black-Asian conflicts (some headline-making and some mundane), we need to address the root of the problem: why do our communities have beef in the first place?

In order to do that, we need to open the lines of communication between the Black and the Asian community, and address the racism that both our communities are guilty of internalizing. We need to talk about the reasons that we foster prejudice against one another, and the costs — in human lives — of that hatred. Only by interacting with (not isolating ourselves from) each other will we see how the real problem is not one another, but the racism that we collectively face.

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