The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hosted a panel April 2 on Asian Americans and the racism African Americans face. Journalist William Gee Wong, formerly with the Oakland Tribune, moderated the discussion between San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, designer and activist Nadia Khastagir, black radical farmer and organizer Karissa Lewis and Chinese Progressive Association Executive Director Alex Tom.
Titled “Asian Americans and the New Racial Justice Movement,” the talk centered on “Black Lives Matter,” a hashtag developed to affirm the value of black peoples’ lives. To start the conversation, Wong asked, “Is ‘Black Lives Matter’ only a black and white issue?” and “Where do Asian Americans fit in the American racial justice landscape?”
While Wong said that Americans owe a great deal to African Americans for the gains in social and racial justice, he said the issue is far from resolved. “Barack Obama’s election, some of us thought, would bring racism to an end, but that was not the case,” he said. Wong read off a list of instances where black men have been killed, many by police, in recent years and also mentioned San Francisco, whose police department has recently been rocked by racist text messages sent by police officers.
Why Should Asians Care?
Tom, who was born an raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been with his organization for 11 years, spoke on why Asian Americans should care about “Black Lives Matter.” “I feel grateful that the ‘Black Lives’ movement is making black lives and black liberation an everyday … conversation.” However, he added that “there are a lot of challenges.”
Tom said Asian American support for African Americans not only shows solidarity, but addresses marginalization among Asian Americans. He spoke about Errol Chang, a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by a Daly City SWAT officer. Tom said Chang was largely ignored by the Asian American community because of the stigma against mental illness. He said that the Latino and black communities were the Chang family’s strongest supporters after his death about a year ago. “People always say Asians show up for Asians, but that’s not actually true,” Tom Said. “How do we show up for our own people who are marginalized?”
Lewis, who was a member of the “Black Friday 14” who shut down BART service in West Oakland on last year’s Black Friday, began with the hashtag’s meaning. “What we’re saying is that all lives should matter, in theory, but they don’t. In reality, black lives are devalued at every junction,” she said. “So ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a rallying cry. It was a cry to say we will value ourselves and we will demand that other folks honor our lives as well.”
Lewis said Asian Americans should embrace “Black Lives Matter” because their liberation depends on it as much as that of blacks’. “We are all fighting a system that does not respect or value our leadership, our gifts, our talents.
As long as we continue to buy into this system, we will continue to put our lives in jeopardy.”
Khastagir is an activist who represented “Asians 4 Black Lives,” a hashtag created by Asians to support “Black Lives Matter.” “We as Asians are tasked to creating space within our communities to address the history and systems which perpetuate the war on black people,” she said. She said Asians have faced injustice before, harkening back to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the racial and religious profiling that Arabs and Muslims have faced since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Khastagir said, as a sign of solidarity, “Asians 4 Black Lives” helped shut down the Oakland Police Department last December.
Can the System Be Better?
Wong asked Adachi if any institutional reforms could help close the gap between “the community that feels victimized and the system.”
Adachi, who became a lawyer after working to exonerate Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee from prison, said he joined the public defender’s office in 1986 and quickly learned that the system was “set up in a way that you can’t get justice.” As San Francisco’s elected public defender, he said he has tried to improve his office, but he cited the grim reality in numbers.
“Our statistics are worse than Ferguson,” he said. According to Adachi, while blacks only make up six percent of San Francisco’s population, they make up 56 percent of the city’s jail. Within the courtroom, with few black residents in San Francisco, Adachi said defendants faced juries devoid of black faces.
“The reality is that the system won’t change unless people want it to change,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to speak up about racial justice issues, you need to.” Adachi called for police to doing the same and said he is asking the city to break down the code of silence among police officers.
Wong posed a question to the other panelists, asking how to improve the system. Lewis replied that it was “built on white supremacy” and fundamentally broken. “We’re talking about a system that is intentionally oppressing people of color with an emphasis on black folks,” Lewis said. “And so, to change the players and not the game, does not work.”
Tom said that, “People know what’s wrong with the system, people just don’t have hope.” He called the issue of racist police as “an entry point” and said that the movement must build a larger coalition from there.
Adachi warned against a bigger problem of unconscious bias among police officers. “It doesn’t take a person to wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to be racist today,” he said. The public defender, citing a meeting with the city board of supervisors, said he advocated for the reinstatement of sensitivity training, but noted, “we can form alliances, but the problem is far deeper.”
Effects of the Model Minority Myth
Wong asked whether some Asian Americans are comfortable being part of the so-called “model minority” and whether they prefer to be upheld as success stories.
Tom said most Asians are lumped together. “All of our folks are very diverse,” he said. “So when you talk about the model minority, it actually invisiblizes (sic) a lot of the oppression.” He said that in the 1980s, black hotel housekeeping staff were gradually replaced with Asian and Latino workers as “the subservient” workers, driving a wedge to divide workers along ethnic lines.
Following immigration reform in 1965, Khastagir said many South Asian professionals, including her family, moved to the United States. “Many, particularly Indian Americans, are buying into this capitalist structure, this white-supremacist structure of upward mobility,” she said, which requires another race or class to ultimately be left at the bottom. Khastagir said Asians must support “Black Lives Matter,” to show solidarity and combat the model minority myth.
While the museum is known for its collection of Asian art, Indra Mungal, the museum’s community engagement officer, said she hopes to open the institution up to greater issues and foster dialogue. “We hope to provide a safe place for discussion about sensitive issues … and have multiple perspectives presented,” she said.
Wong, who has covered both Asian American and African American issues for the Oakland Tribune, told the Nichi Bei Weekly, that he agreed to moderate the panel because the issue of racial justice is “one of our nation’s biggest puzzles,” and that honest conversations are needed to “collectively make America a better place.”