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Opinion | The Oakland attacks and the model minority myth

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Dr. Beverly Tatum’s watershed psychological analysis on race offers words that ring as saliently today as they did in 1997: “In terms of intergroup relations, the myth of the model minority has served to pit Asian Americans against other groups targeted by racism. The accusing message of the dominant society to Blacks, Latinxs, and Native Americans is, ‘They overcame discrimination — why can’t you?’” 

Asians have been described by sociologists as a racial wedge used to depict non-White groups as having cultural flaws that have led to their societal ills. Indeed, the model minority myth, while addressed more explicitly in recent movements, still has yet to be interrogated in its more insidious manifestations. 

A week ago, the Asian-American community was rocked by footage from Oakland’s historic Chinatown, which showed an elderly Chinese man pushed to the ground by an attacker in a mask. Amidst a wave of racial attacks directed towards Asian-Americans coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, prominent Asian community leaders responded to the video. Asians on social media rose up to defend the elderly members of their communities, in Oakland and elsewhere. 

However, despite some well-intentioned calls for justice, some reactions sparked concerns for longtime prison abolitionists. Notably, actors Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim offered a hefty $25,000 reward for the capture of the suspect. A GoFundMe was started to fund armed patrol security guards to be stationed in Chinatown. Some called for a higher police presence in Oakland to protect Asian elders. 

The Bay Area is no stranger to police violence: 110 people have been murdered by law enforcement since 2015. As such, community activists raised concerns over the potential increased policing in Oakland as a result of the Chinatown assaults. 

But the Asian-American community has historically seen large contingencies align itself with movements to support police. Chinese-American NYPD officer Peter Liang experienced widespread support from the Chinese community after being convicted of the murder of Akai Gurley in 2016. One study demonstrated that half of Asian-Americans failed to recognize racial inequalities in policing across the country. Asian communities from across ethnic lines saw deep divides over the Black Lives Matters movement to combat police brutality this summer. 

Despite this history, reminders about the shared struggle between the two communities abounded on Twitter after the Oakland attacks: Black and Asian activists reminded their followers that liberation is a shared project against white supremacy and that institutions, like the carceral state, that enforce white supremacy should not serve to alleviate the struggles of one community over another. 

Solidarity remains a rich tradition in the histories of both communities. The fervent calls for racial justice of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were brought forth by and for Black and Asian organizers alike. Grace Lee Boggs and her husband James Boggs famously worked together to bring about the National Organization for an American Revolution, an anti-capitalist organization built on solidarity between people of color. Yuri Kochiyama befriended and admired Malcolm X, exchanging postcards with him, then later cradling him after he was shot. 

African-American organizers have demonstrated strong support against manifestations of anti-Asian racism. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed with large support from Black Civil Rights leaders. Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale met with members of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, giving them the Black Panther’s recognition. Jesse Jackson expressed solidarity with Asian-Americans after the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. For many, the common threat of structures of oppression brought together different communities of people who all sought justice. In this struggle, they found that justice could be wrested from the hands of their mutual oppressors if they were able to synthesize their energy, strategy and strength. 

It is difficult to reconcile the radical acts of solidarity from a not-so-distant past with blind calls for increased policing in a historically Black community today. Despite that, Asian community organizers in Oakland are looking for ways to build community-based safety measures that reject institutions that have historically been home to racist, and specifically anti-Black hatred. The Asian Health Services is sponsoring the Oakland Chinatown Ambassador Program and Victims Fund to support families of victims and foster community-based public safety. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network hosted an event titled “Love Our People: Heal Our Communities” to unite the Black and Asian communities. Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, even faced appropriate backlash from both Black and Asian activists after scapegoating the calls to reduce police funding, which many see as an effort to devalue the efforts of Black abolitionists. 

What does this have to do with the model minority myth? The allure of avoiding derision from white peers by playing into the myth leads Asian Americans to align with institutions that uphold white supremacy. From anti affirmative action lawsuits to voting for Donald Trump to advocating for increased policing, significant numbers of Asian-Americans have settled into a position of proximity to whiteness. 

As an Asian-American, I have witnessed subtle and overt anti-Blackness from my fellow Asians. They question the Black community’s obsession with a supposed “victim mentality.” They implicitly show bias against Black people in public, warning their children to stay away from their Black peers. They view the Black community as intentionally muddling themselves in the oppression of the past, which they see as a hurdle that has already been overcome, generously giving way to an unimpeded path towards success in America. To them, Asian socioeconomic and educational success are proof that Asians have “gotten ahead”, while the Black community is “behind.” 

But is it? Despite continuing to face systemic oppression, the Black community has been organizing highly successful community-based mutual aid for decades. Black community education programs are working to rectify white supremacist history in public education systems. The Black Panthers were able to sustain free breakfast programs for their children to feed thousands of children. Growing up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, those examples bear stark contrast to the tendency I saw for Asians to assimilate to whiteness, leaving behind aspects of our cultural heritage and community care. 

In the end, my counter to those that forfeit solidarity with the Black community in pursuit of embodying the model minority is this — if Asian activists from half a century ago knew how important it was to ally themselves with the Black community, why can’t you?

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Keoni Rodriguez is a senior studying history from San Diego, CA. They are working with The Daily for the first time as a columnist, writing about history, activism and culture.