On Friday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta to confront the racial hatred that is forcing millions of people of Asian descent to live in daily fear. The trip comes on the heels of Tuesday’s carnage — in which a White man in Atlanta killed eight people, including six Asian women. Though the motive has not yet been established, this shooting spree follows a pattern of increasing violence against Asian Americans, particularly women and elders.
Harris herself is of South Asian descent and has long been a champion of racial justice. Meanwhile, Biden has continually reinforced his commitment to racial justice through his speeches, interviews and statements. And earlier this month, both the White House and Department of Justice hosted listening sessions with leaders in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
As the new Democratic administration acts, it fortunately will have the strong support of the Democratic Party’s base — especially a growing number of African American leaders who are forcefully stepping up in solidarity with the AAPI community.
Black talk show hosts, civil rights icons, faith leaders, recording artists, athletes, directors, writers, entertainers, producers, fashion designers, academics and even a Black former President are taking a stand against anti-Asian hate.
This massive display of solidarity is no surprise to those who know the long history of America’s struggle for racial equality. Today’s actions build on a centuries-long tradition of Black and Asian American solidarity when it has mattered the most.
- Frederick Douglass advocated for Chinese and Japanese immigration (1869): Legendary civil rights icon Frederick Douglass gave a speech about immigration in 1869 at a moment when restricting Chinese and Japanese migration to the United States was central to the political debate. Douglass took a strong stand for a “composite nation” with free migration as a fundamental human right. He declared, “It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”
- During the Philippine-American War, Black leaders and soldiers opposed US colonization (1899-1902): When Filipinos decided to fight for their country’s independence instead of accepting US colonial rule, the US launched a war against them. That war created a crisis of conscience for some African American soldiers. Many rejected the idea of subjugating another group of non-White people on behalf of the same country that oppressed and exploited them. In addition, prominent African American figures like Henry M. Turner and Ida B. Wells empathized with the Filipino freedom fighters and spoke out on their behalf.
- African Americans protested against the Vietnam War (1965-1975): African American opposition to the Vietnam War was widespread. Leaders like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out. Protesters carried signs reading “Black men should fight white racism, not Vietnamese freedom fighters.” That response was driven by racial injustices showing up at every turn — from Black people getting drafted at vastly disproportionate rates, to White soldiers mistreating Black soldiers on the battleground, to the White supremacist assumptions at the heart of the war itself.
- The Emergency Detention Act was repealed due to joint Black and Japanese American activism (1967-1971): In the late 1960s — 20 years after Japanese Americans were released from the World War II internment camps — rumors began circulating about a government-led roundup of African American radicals. Their fear was driven by the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, a law that gave the federal government power to incarcerate anyone suspected of engaging in espionage or sabotage if the President declared an “internal security emergency.” When African American activists were unsuccessful in having the law repealed, the Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) leaned in and helped coordinate a campaign that focused on their experiences in the internment camps. The combined effort succeeded in getting former President Richard Nixon to repeal the law.
- The unlikely bond between Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama changed both their perspectives (1963-1965): Near the end of his life, an embattled Malcolm X was isolated from his original base of support in the Nation of Islam. As he struggled to forge a new path for himself, Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American human rights activist, stood by his side. The two became friends and helped each other develop global perspectives on human rights. When assassins gunned Malcolm X down, it was Kochiyama who famously cradled his head as he lay dying on the floor of the Audubon Ballroom.
- Grace Lee Boggs dedicated seven decades of her 100 year-long life to revolutionary justice and civil rights (1915-2015): Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist who focused much of her work on labor and tenants’ rights. She was married to the deeply-respected Black leader, James Boggs; the two made a powerful, iconic pair. Long after his death, she worked on the front lines of the struggles for justice in Detroit, Michigan — mentoring generations of young leaders, especially African American ones.
- After Vincent Chin’s murder, Jesse Jackson joined forces with Asian American activists to demand justice (1982): Vincent Chin was a Chinese American man who was beaten to death in Detroit by two White autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese and blamed Japan for the decline of the US automotive market. The year after the racist murder, Black civil rights champions like Rev. Jesse Jackson and leaders of the NAACP played a critical role in bringing attention to his case. The multicultural coalition that came together in that fight helped form the basis of the “Rainbow Coalition,” which was central to Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.
- Asian Americans support Black Lives Matter (2020): Many AAPI organizations (including prominent ones like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities) have long histories of working in multi-racial solidarity with African Americans. During the summer of 2020, many Asian Americans made deep commitments to standing up for Black lives. While some Asian Americans made it a point to support Black Lives Matter in protest, some of the most impactful work has been behind the scenes — within their own families and communities. For example, Letters for Black Lives provides multilingual resources to help Asian Americans talk about BLM with their families. And more than a dozen AAPI organizations came together recently to produce a toolkit that includes ways to support the Movement for Black Lives. Now, the Black community is coming together to support their Asian American neighbors.
It goes without saying that there also have often been tensions between Black and Asian communities; there are examples of intolerance in both directions. But those low moments do not erase the fact that — at our best — both communities have come together repeatedly to advance the cause of justice. And today’s crisis is no exception.
Of course, all Americans (not just African Americans) should support AAPI organizations, learn about the issues and get active. Major Asian American organizations and leaders are justly calling for more funding for their work, physical protection, inclusion, justice and care. Their demands should be met.
Collectively, our choices today will define what our great great grandkids will learn in history class. By continuing our noblest traditions of coming together against hatred, all Americans can leave a legacy that all of our progeny will be proud of.