The ‘Black-Asian Conflict’ Is a Problematic Trope — and It’s Time to End It
Efforts to direct Asian American anger at the Black community are rooted in White establishment anxiety
There’s a familiar sequence on social media every time a new incident of anti-Asian violence occurs. A viral video is shared on our timelines. We don’t want to click. We can’t help but click. And we watch. And once again we see it: a brutal assault on one of our most vulnerable. Screams, tears, blood. And onlookers walking quickly past, turning their heads to avoid what they don’t have the time or interest to intervene in.
And then, inevitably, the identity of the perpetrator is exposed. Sometimes a freeze-frame is all it takes. Sometimes the disclosure comes later, from a second video taken at another angle, or a security camera, or a police mug shot. When the face we see revealed is Black or Brown, it serves as support for a narrative that some seem highly motivated to advance: that the primary threat Asians face is from other people of color.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the same screen-grab of Department of Justice crime statistics posted on my feed, alongside the same ominous claims about the menace of “Black on Asian crime.” It’s a table comparing the races of offender and victim in violent crimes, ostensibly using the data point that Black people commit 27.5% of attacks on Asians — while White people commit only 24.1% of attacks against Asians — to “prove” that “woke” Asians are misguided for blaming “White supremacy” for the surge in assaults on our community, that Black people are what Asians should fear.
Never mind that the data doesn’t normalize for geographic circumstances — how much of this is because Asians and Black people are more likely to intersect due to Asian immigrant enclaves existing adjacent to or interspersed with Black communities?
Never mind that it doesn’t account for Asians operating late-night businesses in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Never mind that it isn’t even hate crime data at all — the statistics are included in the DOJ’s reports as part of a demographic reference, and the crimes in question were neither framed as being racially motivated nor were they investigated as such.
Never mind that the data is from 2018, two years before Covid.
It would be easy to dismiss these as merely individual online trolls. But they consistently pop up in every thread discussing anti-Asian violence. They use the same data, the same language, the same tone, mirroring arguments from articles on high-profile conservative sources like Quillette (“Race and False Hate Crime Narratives”), the Washington Examiner (“MSNBC Blames Anti-Asian Crimes on White supremacy, But the Data Show There’s More to the Story”), and newsletter writer Andrew Sullivan (“When the Narrative Replaces the News”).
This “Black threat” agenda isn’t just being pushed in English: My parents have shown me translations of similar posts that have been making the rounds on WeChat and in Chinese-language Facebook Groups. They’ve pointed me to a long-form pamphlet version of the post that’s being shared on a prominent resource website for the “NY/NJ Asian American Christian Community.”
It’s clear that this isn’t a coincidence. There’s an active effort being made to direct Asian American anger at the Black community, and it’s rooted in White establishment anxiety over emerging coalitions among the rising Black and Brown majority of the United States.
The concern is merited. There’s a long and deep history of mutualism between the Black and Asian communities that extends into the early years of America’s history, through the civil rights era and into our present day, and it’s a compelling counterweight to the recurring trope of Black-Asian conflict — one that directly threatens White supremacy.
That history is the subject of an educational campaign launching on May 19 — the shared birthday of two legendary icons of Black-Asian solidarity, Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X — being created by a coalition of groups, including the artist collective For Freedoms and the Asian American documentary collaborative A-Doc. Its primary organizers, cultural historian Jeff Chang and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, saw this moment as a critical one to reinforce some of the pivotal acts of past and present collaboration, support, and shared struggle among Asians and other communities of color, particularly the Black community. On May 19 and through each of the following 14 days, the Solidarity Project will share a different original mini-documentary that highlights one of these iconic moments, inviting others to comment, share, and amplify.
The May 19 documentary centers on Kochiyama and Malcolm X, of course, and their unique relationship and mutual influence. It was Kochiyama who cradled Malcolm X’s head in her lap at the Audubon Ballroom the day he was assassinated — and she continued the fight for social justice for all people for another half-century after his passing. It will be followed by pieces on Frederick Douglass and his denouncement of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; on Bruce Lee, his friendship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the ties that martial arts created between young Black and Asian people in the inner cities; on Filipino American labor pioneers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz and their fight alongside Mexican American unionists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to achieve fairness and safety for immigrant agricultural workers; on Laotian American Youa Vang Lee’s outspoken activism on behalf of George Floyd, with compassion anchored in her own experience of losing her teenage son, Fong, to gunfire by Minneapolis police in 2006.
“The perception that African Americans and Asian Americans were at odds was set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, hitting an inflection point in 1992 with the Los Angeles uprising,” says Chang. “Since that time, it’s been very, very difficult to undo that media frame, which was always a distorted one from the beginning, and which doesn’t speak to the reality of what’s actually happening in terms of the anti-Asian violence happening today. But we’re going to try.”
Solidarity isn’t just shared respect. It isn’t even just cooperation. It’s making the choice to actively fight for the good of the other, recognizing that injustice to any is injustice to all. And it cuts at the trembling legs of an infrastructure that’s desperate to maintain its hold on power and privilege, despite, or because of, the relentless demographic transformation that will make non-White Americans the majority of this nation’s population within the next two decades.
“Toni Morrison talks about the ‘master narrative, not written by us,’ and that master narrative has been a narrative of conflict,” Tajima-Peña says. “So that makes solidarity one of the most dangerous ideas in this country today. Because it’s the way we can fight back against systemic racism, against entrenched power. Either we stand together with other people of color, as we have throughout history, or we let ourselves be wedged away from those coalitions.”
Being isolated from other groups as the “good minority” doesn’t make us safer. In fact, as found in a recent study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, animosity sparked by model minority stereotypes is a major driver of impulsive violence and abuse toward Asians. Especially when the target has been painted on our backs by years of demonizing China and racializing the pandemic.
“It’s almost like people have forgotten that Trump spent the last two years fueling Sinophobia,” says Melissa May Borja, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan who has been engaged in extensive research on news coverage of race, gender, and Covid-related violence. “When you look at these attacks that have happened, you need to ask yourself: What kind of environment enabled them? And who’s driving the narrative today? The racial rhetoric used against Chinese [people] is what’s made it okay to turn Asians into scapegoats. And when we looked at what leaders are using that rhetoric, out of 127 incidents of stigmatizing language and rhetoric, 95% of them were made or shared by White politicians, almost all of them Republican.”
In a recent poll by Morning Consult, Asian Americans were far more likely to hold Donald Trump (69%) and Republicans in Congress (61%) responsible for anti-Asian discrimination than Black Americans (43%) . Meanwhile, half of Asian Americans across all ethnic groups believe that they and Black Americans share common cause — politically, socially, and economically.
“Solidarity is something that’s at the core of Asian America,” says Chang. “When we came together in the 1960s under the banner of the Asian American movement, it was an act of solidarity. Before then, if Japanese Americans were being harmed, Chinese Americans wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘We’re going to go stand with you.’ But being Asian American means you do. And what led us to first make this choice, to claim this new identity, was our desire to support a Black struggle for empowerment that ultimately led to the civil rights that all of us share. There are hurts and harms and grievances that we’ve all done to one another in the past. What we’re saying is that we don’t want to perpetuate that cycle; we want to end it.”