I moved to Baltimore in August 2013. Prior to that time, I was pretty ignorant of the African American experience. I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in school, and I remember that making a strong impression on me. I was also a bit of a history nerd, so I had read up a little bit on the slave trade, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.
But I don’t think I ever had a substantial conversation with someone who was black about race before.
Within a few months of moving to Baltimore (which is a majority-black city), I became friends with a guy named Mani. Mani was an African American born and raised in Baltimore, and we would hang out to talk about faith and make music. The first time I went over to his apartment, I remember noticing three things.
The first was a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. The second was a picture of Malcolm X. And the third was a bag of Skittles and a soda can on the coffee table.
Every time I would go over, I would always notice those three things. Perhaps the third or fourth time at his place, I asked Mani why he always had snacks on the coffee table. He replied with a voice of resolve, “That’s what Trayvon Martin was holding when he was shot.”
When I heard that, my first thought was, “Travyon Martin… that name sounds familiar. When I get home, I need to look that name up.” Of course, I was too embarrassed to say that out loud. I didn’t want Mani to know that I was so ignorant. But right then and there, I realized that there was a vast difference between my experience as an Asian American and Mani’s experience as an African American.
So over the next several years, as I got to know Mani more, I decided to read up on what it was like to be black in America today. I explored the criminal justice system, the prison system, police violence, infant mortality, social mobility, wealth distribution, college enrollment, etc., and I slowly became more and more aware of the structural disadvantages that continually plague African Americans in our country. Additionally, the more I learned, the more shocked I was at how ignorant I was before.
Meanwhile, I watched with the rest of the world as the lives of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, and Ahmaud Arbery were taken away.
But with this video, there was something else that disturbed me too. While the white officer was pinning down Floyd’s neck with his knee, an Asian officer was standing by in silence, and even at times preventing protestors from intervening.
To me, it was the perfect representation of Asian American complicity in racism.
I acknowledge that there have been Asian Americans throughout history who have fought alongside their African American neighbors against racism. However, they have been far outnumbered by Asian Americans who have chosen to be ignorant at best or complicit at worst in their racism.
There are many complex historical and cultural reasons for this Asian American status quo, and it would take forever to address them all. We can talk about the fact that many Asians value harmony and sacrifice, even at the expense of integrity and justice. We can talk about the fact that many Asian immigrants come from countries where there are dictators, and where political advocacy results in imprisonment or death.
But the fact remains: too often, Asian Americans have chosen to side with the white racist over the black victim.
Much of the national conversation on race has focused on the relationship between whites and blacks. As a result, Asians are often found in the messy middle. However, most Asians don’t want to be in the middle. Even though we have also experienced a long history of racial discrimination at the hands of our white neighbors, many of us still see assimilation into white culture as our path to fulfilling the American dream. And so we work hard, we study hard, we don’t ruffle any feathers, and we continue to live up to our status of the model minority (which has been granted to us largely at the expense of African Americans).
We Asian Americans might not say it out loud, but many of us have internalized a racist, reductionist history. We believe that the way to success is to work hard, and we pride ourselves in having done just that. We came to this country with nothing, speaking a foreign language, and we worked hard, saved money, and we achieved the American dream. And so when we look at the status of African Americans, we dismissively assume that they didn’t work as hard as we did, and we just conclude that only they are to blame.
Unfortunately, this narrative has driven Asian Americans to be at political and social odds with African Americans. This division is most apparent in conversations about affirmative action, which has become the defining political issue for many Asian Americans. In many universities, Asian Americans are overrepresented in college admissions while African Americans are underrepresented, so affirmative action works against Asian Americans but for African Americans.
This political division is highlighted in events like the LA Riots, in which predominantly African American rioters caused significant damage in predominantly Asian-American-owned stores, and the shooting of Akai Gurley, in which an Asian American police officer accidentally shot and killed an African American.
However, this narrative is a very incomplete picture. What many Asian Americans fail to realize is that our success is largely built on the backs of African Americans themselves. After all, if African American slavery did not exist, the United States may not have been such a desirable country to immigrate to. It was through the enslavement of African Americans that American prosperity was built in the first place. Additionally, if it wasn’t for the generations of African Americans fighting for their rights before most of us ever arrived, it is possible that Asian Americans would not have been as easily accepted here as well. In many ways, African Americans laid the path for other ethnic minorities to come to America too.
The reality is that we Asian Americans have unknowingly reaped from the sufferings of our fellow African Americans. The least we can do is stand with them as they continue to suffer.
Perhaps some of us, like my former self, are willing to admit that we are uninformed or uneducated about the African American experience, but we argue that that doesn’t make us complicit in racism. We are not actually killing anybody, we might say. However, sometimes it is precisely the inaction of the bystanders that perpetuates societal racism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,
…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Here King describes “the white moderate” of his day—those of “shallow understanding” who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” who prefer a “negative peace” over “the presence of justice.” What an apt description of so many Asian Americans today.
A similar sentiment is expressed in James 2:1-7,
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
“We are not actively harming the poor,” we may say, but doesn’t our partiality for the rich perpetuate the inequality between the rich and the poor?
I believe the same principle can be applied to race. Many Asian Americans have shown partiality by honoring their white neighbors while dishonoring their black neighbors. Doesn’t our partiality for those who are white perpetuate the inequality between whites and blacks?
I confess that I, like the Asian American officer at the scene of George Floyd’s death, have been a part of the problem. For much of my life, I was complicit in my racism toward African Americans, and I was completely oblivious to that racism. I was more devoted to order than to justice. I sought to honor the powerful, not realizing that doing so was dishonoring the powerless. But that is not the biblical way. James writes, “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” I would also add, “Are not the people who are racist against African Americans also racist against Asian Americans as well?”
I don’t want to be ignorant anymore. I don’t want to be silent anymore. I don’t want to be complicit anymore.
Fellow Asian Americans, let’s stop defending the racism in our culture. Let’s stand in solidarity with our African American neighbors.