In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced this week that the city’s police would patrol predominantly Asian neighborhoods more frequently, following the killings of eight people at spas in Atlanta. Tuesday’s events in Georgia have ratcheted up anxieties in the Asian American communities in the Bay Area, following a full year of crimes against community members, including a string of assaults of Asian American elders—most recently, septuagenarian Pak Ho, who was robbed and killed near Lake Merritt last week.
Some (not all) of the video evidence of anti-Asian attacks in the Bay Area has featured Black perpetrators. I spoke with Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, who has previously written a book about Black-Korean community relations in New York City and is finishing up a new one: Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World. I asked Kim to give some historical context for the Bay Area attacks and to critique how the media has been doing in covering the racial dimensions of these crimes.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: When it comes to understanding the history of the overlap or interplay between Black and Asian American communities in the Bay Area, what are the important events people should know about?
Claire Jean Kim: Well, of course, it’s good to remember that both communities are diverse—especially Asian American communities in San Francisco, that consist of a lot of national origin groups, some people who’ve been there for generations and some who are recent immigrants.
If we go back to the late 1800s, we see large numbers of Chinese immigrants coming to San Francisco. That was the original Chinatown. Then, following the exclusion of the Chinese in 1882, there were large numbers of Japanese immigrants coming into San Francisco. Both groups are really so concentrated in San Francisco, and in California, that the origins of the Asian American story are in San Francisco.
Asian American immigrants were subjected to various kinds of persecution, a lot of which are recorded in the constitutional law books you read in law school, because some things that white San Franciscans did to persecute the Chinese—and the Japanese immigrants after them—were very creative! The groups were often segregated—the Chinese kept in Chinatown, Japanese immigrants in what became Little Tokyo—and kept out of white neighborhoods, often by racial covenants that also kept out Black people.
A turning point was during World War II. Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent to internment camps. And for the first time, San Francisco acquired a larger Black population—until World War II, the Black population in San Francisco was small, but during the war, because of the defense industries and the shipyards, there was enough work to draw Black workers from across other areas of the country, so the Black population really swelled.
At that point something important happened, which is that they started doing public housing in San Francisco, and they segregated Black people in particular public housing projects, away from others. At the same time, Asian Americans—I’ll focus on Chinese and Japanese Americans—started to see the barriers they used to face in moving into white neighborhoods start to fall. Part of this was the Cold War, since the United States was trying to present itself on the world stage, in its competition with the Soviet Union, as having “solved” its race problem, and one way to do that was to say, Oh, we’re letting Asian Americans into white neighborhoods. In San Francisco, examples might be the Richmond District and the Sunset District, which used to be all white and now have a plurality or maybe even a majority Asian American population.
So there was a differentiation in treatment, in terms of residential segregation, which of course leads to differentiation in housing value and intergenerational wealth and educational equality. And Asian Americans began to see better occupational mobility. They were let into more jobs that used to be closed off to them, and remained closed to Black people.
The Bay Area was a hot spot for student activism and Black Power activism in the ’60s and ’70s. How did the area’s Asian American populations react, or participate, in those movements?
There was an Asian American movement that emerged in the late ’60s, and that was the first time people started using the term Asian American. A whole pan-ethnic racial identity emerged as a result of this movement.
The activists were very inspired by two things: the Vietnam War—they understood imperialism in Asia in a different way than other Americans who were talking about it. And they were inspired by the Black Power movement. A lot of Americans don’t know it, but many Asian American activist groups at the time were actually revolutionary socialist groups; some of them modeled themselves directly after the Black Panthers. The Red Guard, which started out in San Francisco’s Chinatown, were sort of directly nurtured or mentored into being by the Black Panther Party, and had a 10-point platform that was almost the same as the Black Panthers’. Some things were different, but if you look at the two documents side by side, you really start to see how much influence the Black Panthers had on the Asian American movement.
An event to remember is the Third World Liberation Front strike, at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. At both places, activists of different communities of color pushed for the foundation of ethnic studies at the schools, and there were really intense protests with the police using tear gas and violence and the students risking a lot, but they did eventually win!
There were always tensions when Asian Americans worked in solidarity, in coalitions with other groups of color, because there was a sort of an elephant in the room, which was this recognized fact that Asian Americans were sort of doing better in American society than the other groups. More occupational mobility, more people in the middle class.
What were the legacies of that activism, in the Bay Area?
One aftereffect of that activism is the founding of the field of Asian American studies. I think it also created a lot of race consciousness in a lot of Asian Americans who went on to other fields like law and politics and took some of the movement ideals along with them. If you look at Asian American advocacy groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice or Asian Law Caucus, which is in the Bay Area, these groups were founded by people who came out of the movement.
But when you look at the ’70s and ’80s, you start seeing the growth of mass incarceration, which of course disproportionately affects Black Americans. It’s not that it doesn’t affect Asian Americans or white people, but to a lesser degree. So that’s another factor here.
And in California, specifically, I’ve been looking in my work at the way affirmative action debates in the 1990s affected these relationships. I’ve been writing about a lawsuit called Brian Ho v. San Francisco Unified School District, from 1994, brought by a number of Chinese American plaintiffs. This case was a precursor to the Harvard affirmative action case being reviewed by the Supreme Court now [Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College].
The Brian Ho case involved Lowell High School, which is a public magnet high school—extremely prestigious and hard to get into, sent a lot of students to Ivy League schools. The argument was that Lowell High was discriminating against Asian Americans, because they had a formula they applied to try to have a certain number of students from different race or ethnic groups, and it ended up meaning that Chinese American students had to have higher admissions scores because so many applied. And Chinese American parents brought the lawsuit and settled with the school district. They removed that differential admission score system, and Black and Latinx enrollment in Lowell plummeted.
I want to point out, because this is important, that actually the differential score system to get into Lowell was benefiting other groups of Asian Americans that weren’t that well represented. But the Chinese Americans who brought the suit called their group “the Asian American Legal Foundation,” because they wanted to make it look like they were fighting for all Asian Americans. Chinese American groups could be politically conservative; they might lean Republican, and they generally were not superrich, but middle-class, upper-middle-class, lawyers, accountants, people like that. The same kinds of groups now backing the suit against Harvard.
Your first book was about Black-Korean conflict in New York City. If you were to make a comparison between the history of Asian American and Black community relations in the Bay Area versus other cities in the United States, what would that comparison look like?
One obvious difference is that the Asian American demographic is so much larger in the Bay Area. In San Francisco it’s 30 percent, or maybe even higher; a very large number of those people are Chinese American. So there’s a greater consciousness, greater political power, and a history of persecution. That history really shapes the viewpoint, not just of Chinese Americans in the Bay Area, but of Asian Americans everywhere. What happened in San Francisco to the Chinese, and in California to the Chinese and Japanese, is imprinted on people’s brains.
I wanted to ask, when you look at the media coverage of violence against Asian Americans, especially maybe when it looks like the perpetrator was Black, how do you think the media is doing, handling it? Especially with a string of violent events like these, where the perpetrators have been both white and Black, it seems like the media is fairly unequipped to analyze the racial dynamics involved.
I’ve talked to many reporters in recent weeks about the attacks on Asian Americans since COVID began. And it’s hard, because it’s not like there aren’t good journalists who mean well and are high-quality. But a lot of times, producing stories on quick news cycles, the media relies on accepted frameworks of thought, settled interpretations of things, to analyze events, and that’s true when it comes to race as much as anything else.
In this case, one of those settled ideas has to do with playing up Asian-Black conflicts. One of the perpetrators in these Bay Area attacks was caught on video, and was Black, and reporter after reporter was asking me—are Black people going after Asians? These were Asian American reporters I was talking with. And I kept asking them, What’s the evidence? Are there other videos? There was a rush to judgment about these cases all being about Black people going after Asians, and when you think about the tendency in American society to criminalize Black people, it’s a problem to reach for that frame and apply it before the evidence warrants it.
And if you use that frame, you make it an Asian-Black thing, you’re focusing on the two groups and taking attention away from the larger structures of power in which they’re embedded—not just racial structures, but also capitalism. Think about the relationship between Korean merchants buying a liquor store in Compton, and their Black customers. This is about capitalism, the way it creates divisions between groups and deems certain people disposable.
What we see in the United States are these periodic attacks on Asian Americans, always related to something else going on in the world. In this case it’s COVID. In the 1980s, it was U.S.-Japan trade relations. In the 1870s, it was a regional depression in the West and Southwest, and white workers turned against Chinese American workers. So there’s always been some kind of larger economic, political cause for these upsurges in anti-Asian violence. I think that’s different from what we see with anti-Black violence. Violence against Black people in this country is continuous, structural; violence against Asians is more periodic, contingent on events.
This is not to minimize what happens to Asian Americans! When you are harmed by an assailant because of anti-Asian racism, it doesn’t matter to you whether the violence was contingent or continuous or whatever. I’m not minimizing it. Clearly during COVID-19 something really alarming and troubling is happening.
But I think it’s important, when looking at violence against Asian Americans, not to lose that context. When Asian Americans understandably feel fear and anger and sorrow about these attacks on our own communities, I think we also have to ask ourselves, Are we fighting for Black lives as hard as we’re fighting for our own? It’s in moments like this that it’s really difficult to remember, because we’re afraid and upset. But to remember that we are advantaged, compared to Black people, is what it takes to be a good ally—even though it can be very hard, at times like these. But I think these are the moments when it’s the most important to do it.