Why Asian Americans Have to Show Up for Black Lives

The cost to murder an Asian American in 1982 was $3,000. How African American Civil Rights leaders showed up for Asian American Civil Rights in the 80s and what today’s generation needs to carry forward.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

here was a time, not too long ago, that Asian and African Americans fought for each other, against each other, and for each other again. However, as the memory of those lessons start to fade, Asian Americans today have a duty to come to terms with those lessons and show up against anti-Black racism. In this story, I share my opinion on why there is a need and how some can get started through the lens of a PBS documentary that opened my mind to the issues.

Just to be clear, everyone has a duty to step up. However, as a first-generation Korean American, I write this story as an open letter primarily directed to the Asian American community that I’ve grown up with.

Realizing I Know Nothing

As I observed the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement evolve in the Spring and Summer of 2020, I started to wonder about my own identity as a first-generation Korean American. More specifically, there was a part of me that knew I had to support the movement — after all, I am a minority in America — however, I came to the realization that I did not understand enough about history to understand the why and the how.

Simply being an Asian minority in America and expressing support without understanding why is not sufficient to stand against anti-Black racism.

In other words, other than an uninformed feeling, I did not specifically know why or how I should be an ally against anti-Black racism. I felt an intense sense of shame as the sudden realization about my ignorance in the matter settled in. However, while I circled in self-pity, I ended up watching a PBS documentary on Asian Americans, thanks to a text from my childhood best friend (who just happens to be a Chinese American).

Although I am not yet out of the “Woods of Ignorance,” I now know a little more than nothing — it’s not much but it’s the very least anyone can do right now.

Murder and Injustice

After watching that PBS documentary on Asian Americans, I started to get an idea about the complicated intersection of Asian and African American history. Take, for example, three pivotal events from the 80s and 90s.

  • In 1982, two white men beat Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, to death with a baseball bat in Detroit.
  • In 1991, a Korean American woman shot Latasha Harlins, an African American girl, to death in Los Angeles.
  • In 1992, three white policemen were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, and Los Angeles erupted into five days of riots.

If it’s news to you that no one went to jail in direct connection to the Vincent Chin and Latasha Harlins murders, then I humbly suggest you take an hour this weekend to take in Episode 5 of Asian Americas.

Where Asian American Civil Rights Come From

In Vincent Chin’s case, the presiding judge, Wayne Country Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman, sentenced the killers to probation and a $3,000 fine. In defense of his decision, Judge Kaufman remarked, “these aren’t the kind of men you sent to jail.”

In response to the laughably light sentence, Asian Americans across the country rose up in protest by marching down streets and organizing the community. But there was a major problem — according to Constitutional Law professors at the time, American Civil Rights were only meant to protect African Americans and did not apply to Asians.

Asians had no civil rights, legally speaking, in this context, before 1982.

In the legal battles that ensued, civil rights activists, including Jesse Jackson, stepped up in support of Vincent Chin’s mother and the Asian American movement for civil rights. Further, with support from the Department of Justice, Vincent Chin’s killers were eventually found guilty of violating his civil rights; however, the case was overturned on appeal. In essence, the killers went free again and would never spend a day in jail.

For a second time, Asian Americans gathered, en masse, and protested in the streets. For more on this case, see an interesting 2009 article from the Michigan Bar Journal.

The Cost of Forgetting

A decade after Vincent Chin, as a new wave of first-generation Asians established a Korea Town enclave in Los Angeles, many forgot, or were simply not aware of, the importance of African Americans in establishing their civil rights in America. As PBS documents quite well, the new Americans blindly pressed on and in search of opportunity, Koreans established shops and businesses throughout LA.

By 1991, Korean Americans were operating the majority of small businesses in predominantly African American neighborhoods and cultures ultimately clashed. On the one hand, the Korean American community became upset with robberies and killings at their stores. On the other hand, the African American community became upset with a lack of respect from Korean-owned businesses. On top of it all, the media played up racial tensions between both communities until tensions eventually exploded.

A Korean American shop proprietor shot and murdered a 15-year old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, for allegedly stealing a bottle of orange juice. In the legal aftermath that followed, the Korean American community rallied around the killer, who was eventually sentenced to a shockingly lenient sentence of probation and a $500 dollar fine. Sound familiar?

As shown in the documentary, the injustice of Vincent Chin’s murder was essentially repeated just 10 years later with Latasha Harlins’ murder — the Korean American community was suddenly out of the “multi-racial coalition.” To make matters worse, just a few months later, the policemen who beat Rodney King were acquitted and LA erupted into five days of riots.

A Few Lessons

What do Asian Americans have to learn from lessons of the 80s and 90s?

First, Asian Americans have civil rights today because African Americans fought for civil rights in the 1960s and showed up again in the 1980s after Vincent Chin’s murder.

Second, Asian Americans quickly forgot about Vincent Chin, and in their pursuit to “make it in this country,” a Korean American became the equivalent to Vincent Chin’s killers with the murder of Latasha Harlins.

Third, by the end of the LA riots, Korean and African American leaders came together in peace and Asian and African Americans once again joined together in a multi-racial American coalition.

Where are we, almost 20 years later? Does the coalition still exist or have Korean and Asian Americans forgotten the lessons, once again?

Like every population, Asian Americans have choices to make.

They can dwell on their own victimization, which is a choice that is there for every so-called minority and for the majority. They can choose to side with power, or be complicit with power, and to be perpetrators or to at least enjoy the profits of being aligned with perpetrators.

Or they could refuse these kinds of choices and instead, seek to transform the system into something more just, more equitable, for everyone. That’s the hope of activism, that's the hope of solidarity, that’s the hope of alliance…

— Viet Thanh Nguyen, PBS Documentary “Asian Americans” Episode 5, at minute 29:46.

What I Took Away

Although the PBS documentary goes deep into dozens of issues that I never knew to explore, I came away questioning whether Asian Americans have ever shown up for African Americans in a high-profile case.

To me, it is undeniably clear how much Asian Americans owe the African American community for the civil rights that we enjoy today. However, the documentary does not detail a single account of Koreans or Asian Americans going to bat and showing up for African Americans in the same way Jesse Jackson did for Vincent Chin.

To be fair, it may be true that Asian Americans have shown up in big ways for the African American community and those stories simply didn’t make the final cut. However, what if it’s true that Asian Americans have not lived up to the duty they owe to African Americans? I honestly cannot answer these questions because, yet again, I am ignorant about the issues just as much as I was before I started to care to learn about them — can you?

My Reactions

I am in my mid-30s, my parents immigrated from South Korea and worked at the local post office, and I grew up as a very average person on the East Coast. Unfortunately, my average life experience means that Vincent Chin’s case went down before I was alive and Latasha Harlins and the LA riots are just a distant memory of the television news.

Growing up, we never discussed political issues and instead, life was largely and regrettably about school and Korean church. Although I later added some very “American” things like sports and the military to the mix, I never truly cared or had to care about the issues that gave me my Asian American Civil Rights. Worse yet, if I am truly close to being an average Korean American, then by definition, there are many others who similarly have not paid attention as well. What does this say about our generation?

For most of my life, my decision to “opt-out”, attempts to “fit in,” remain “professional,” and blindly pursue a career and education without regard to the sacrifice of preceding generations means I am complicit. In the future, a decision to stay back and silent means that I will continue to be part of the problem.

This story is for anyone trying to figure something out about the times we live in today. Still, it is most notably for the Asian Americans that have enjoyed opportunity and privilege since the day they were born or immigrated to this country and haven’t had to worry about injustice because they are. Everyone has a different life situation and as a result, I cannot tell you exactly how to proceed — no one can — however, I believe you can teach yourself how to get there by taking the effort to learn, understand, and appreciate how we got here in the first place.

TL;DR

  • The African American Civil Rights movement in the 60s made it possible for Asian Americans to have civil rights today
  • Asian Americans have forgotten history’s lessons on civil rights and paid a steep price as a result
  • A small but important step that everyone can take right now is to learn about our history, the PBS documentary is one option
  • A decision by Asian Americans to remain silent or ignorant right now about anti-Black racism puts the the sacrifice of past generations at risk
  • Asian Americans have a duty to show up and speak out against anti-Black racism and avoid repeating past mistakes

I write about technology, programming, and general interest topics. https://justinhchae.github.io/

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