Since #Asians4BlackLives took off last year, Asian Americans have been taking a much needed look at ourselves, our places in U.S. history and what we stand for as racial justice advocates of the Asian diaspora.
Last week, I had the privilege of joining #Asians4BlackLives from across the U.S. and Canada for a story-gathering session at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Together, we saw the big picture materialize around intersecting Asian and Black histories in the U.S. Using Timeline, we started compiling the events that built up to the #Asians4BlackLives movement.
Where did it really begin in U.S. history?
The conversation started with two Asian men in 1922 and 1923 being denied U.S. citizenship. So they took their separate cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that they could legally pass as white. A generation removed from the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882, the Naturalization Act of 1906 mandated that only those of white or African descent could become U.S. citizens. Asians learned how to survive in a paradigm of white supremacy by connecting to whiteness and distancing from blackness.
We can see the residue of this misguidance a few months ago when some Chinese American activists painted former New York City police officer Peter Liang as a young victim of a biased court system. A jury found Liang guilty of manslaughter in the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was shot while passing through a stairwell when Liang and his partner were conducting a vertical patrol. A New York Post op-ed called Liang a scapegoat, opening with an agonizing comparison of Liang’s conviction to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer beaten to death in Michigan. Chin was killed by a Chrysler factory supervisor Ron Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, who mistook him for Japanese, and in lieu of prison time, got off on probation and a $3,000 fine.
This unwitting anti-black push and racial distancing by protesters of the Liang verdict ultimately resulted in no prison time for the former police officer this April. Regardless of what the circumstances of Gurley’s shooting were, Liang’s freedom denies Gurley and his family justice.
After the Allied Media Conference discussion on Asian and black U.S. histories, some of us visited the grave site of Vincent Chin. As an ancestor-abiding Chinese woman, it was hard to know what to say to Vincent exactly. It’s been 34 years since his murder, and his family must grapple every day with the injustice that Vincent’s murderers never saw a day in prison. As Vincent’s niece Annie Tan put it best in a Medium article, her uncle has much more in common with Akai Gurley than Peter Liang — a profound and timely reminder of how Vincent’s legacy is honored through #BlackLivesMatter.
What really got me, though, is when Detroit community leader Soh Suzuki, our tour guide who visits Chin’s gravestone regularly, shares his personal connection to Chin. Suzuki’s parents were among the car company employees who moved from Japan to Detroit in the ’80s. With the rise of Japanese car manufacturers, anti-Japanese sentiment was high in the once booming Motor City.
“It was because of my family that Vincent Chin was killed,” said Suzuki.
Chin’s murder was utter violence. A case of racial profiling and mistaken identity. No matter what divisive narratives suggest, Asian and black communities are still united by racism — though we are looking at it from very different places.
And we’re all living beneficiaries of Asian-black coalition building, from celebrated moments in the Asian activist canon like Asian ally-ship in the Black Panther Party, to the union of James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs’ prescient contribution to political movements.
Just like these milestones we recount now, how we talk about Peter Liang as Chinese Americans, Asian Americans and people of color is a part of our American history, and will define our collective identity whether we want it to or not.
Let’s keep talking about Peter Liang and the possibility that a young, Asian American NYPD officer killed an unarmed black man. He took a man’s life away from a family and a community. Period.
How can you begin to rationalize or qualify that?
Join me and Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (PARISOL) in a discussion about Peter Liang on Saturday, July 9 at Bethany United Church of Christ in Beacon Hill. RSVP and find more details at on the Facebook event page.