Two Scholars Discuss Black-Asian Solidarity in America

Historians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, race relations, hate crimes, Asian American History, Interracial Solidarity, Ethnic Minorities

Renee Tajima-Peña and Melina Abdullah hadn’t met before they gathered in Crenshaw to have a candid conversation about Asian and Black solidarity for the L.A. Times.

Tajima-Peña is an Asian American history professor and the filmmaker behind the Peabody-winning 2020 PBS series “Asian Americans.” She and Jeff Chang recently produced the “May 19 Project,” a series of videos highlighting moments of solidarity between Asian Americans and other communities of color. May 19 references the shared birthday of Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama.

Abdullah is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Los Angeles chapter and a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State Los Angeles. She grew up in Oakland, where her school was half Black and half Chinese.

“I think the world tries to frame it as conflict,” said Abdullah, of the relationship between Black and Asian communities in America. “But it hasn’t always been like that. There’s conflict and cooperation and solidarity. That’s always been a part of our relationship.”

What follows are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation.

On sharing spaces

Abdullah: Space means a lot. When you talk about Black and Asian interactions in places like the Bay Area, well, of course, there’s a lot of interaction. Some of it is, you know, problematic. And some of it is really, really beautiful, because Black folks and Asian, specifically Chinese, folks occupy the same space.

My Oakland elementary school was 50/50, Black and Chinese. … And two houses over from where we lived, there was a very old Chinese woman who I loved and called grandma. I would spend at least once a week with her, we’d sit and drink tea and eat cookies, and she would tell me stories. So there were these beautiful interactions.

And then growing up in the ’80s, there were all of the martial arts movies. So the neighborhood kids would have little fake fights. [laughs] Which were problematic. But that’s what kids did, you know?

Tajima-Peña: My grandfather actually used to live here in Crenshaw. It was a Black and Japanese neighborhood because of red-lining. ... And during the 1965 Watts uprising, Japanese American businesses were protected by African Americans because they were neighbors. So the community had a different kind of relationship.

I think it’s because the Japanese Americans were actually living there too. It’s not like they just had businesses there. They were living there.

Now sometimes conflicts are elevated because you have folks, particularly Asian folks, after the lifting of things like restrictive covenants, who can do business in neighborhoods where Black folks provide a customer base of financial support. But then they leave, so it’s not the same investment in the neighborhood in which they live.

So I think that’s the difference between the 1965 Watts uprising and the 1992 Los Angeles uprising after the beating of Rodney King, right? It’s a different relationship. So it’s important to recognize what it means to occupy space as co-residents, as neighbors, as opposed to occupying space where one group owns businesses and the other group is only seen as a customer base.

On Asian and Black communities being pitted against each other

Abdullah: It’s complicated. But I think it’s a narrative that’s mediated by white mainstream media that deliberately pits us against each other.

Tajima-Peña: That’s one reason Jeff Chang and I did this whole solidarity video series, because we started seeing all these viral videos of Black and brown assailants attacking Asians, particularly elders. ... And then we thought, what’s really going on? People were even trying to figure out who’s posting all of this.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Times

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