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The Hmong American community, power, privilege and a place in Asian America

Former policeman Tou Thao's role in George Floyd's death raises a discussion about how the refugee community is harmed by the Asian model minority myth.
The Hmong Village Market in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2013.
The Hmong Village Market in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2013.Marlin Levison / Star Tribune via Getty Images

Former Minneapolis officer Tou Thao’s role in the death of George Floyd has thrust the city's Hmong refugee population into the national discourse around race.

The actions of Thao, who is Hmong American, have propelled the community into the contentious discussion involving the relationship between the Asian American and the black communities. The national public spotlight and the feverish intercommunity dialogue follow the release of footage showing Thao standing aside as then-officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, dug his knee for eight minutes into the neck of Floyd, a black man. And it also highlights, specifically, where some Hmong Americans see themselves in the larger context of Asian America.

Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao.
Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao.Darnella Frazier / via Facebook

Thao, along with former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, was charged with aiding and abetting murder Wednesday. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder after being elevated from third-degree. Some activists note that as the community grapples with Floyd’s death and the demand for justice nationwide, the renewed spotlight on the group has also exposed a need for a more nuanced discussion about privilege among Asian Americans.

Many acknowledge there’s a complicated space that Hmong Americans, who have themselves been historically confronted with trauma and provided little support, occupy in the race discussion.

Fue Lee, a Hmong American state representative in Minnesota’s House, told NBC Asian America that, as protests continue around the country, he’s largely witnessed an outpouring of solidarity with black Americans from his community, himself being one of them. However he’s also seen a reluctance from some individuals to speak out. And he feels it’s likely tied to their turbulent beginnings in the United States and a lack of access to adequate resources.

“Some of our community members who may not have the experience of attaining higher education or [stepping] away from the place we grew up in, it's a little bit difficult to understand and see some of the privilege that we have,” Lee said. Regardless, he’s adamant that “we need to come to an understanding that we cannot support these anti-black narrative or ideas and thoughts in society if we really want to move forward as a community.”

The Twin Cities region in Minnesota, spanning both Minneapolis and St. Paul, remains home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the U.S. with an estimated 66,000 in the state. G. Thao, who was born in a refugee camp and grew up in North Minneapolis, explained that she, along with many other Hmong Americans, live and work alongside black communities. And it’s been that way for decades. For the community member, conflict in the area was never about Hmong versus African Americans, but rather the northside versus “the rest of the world.”

“I graduated from a North Minneapolis high school where the student makeup was almost entirely half black and half Hmong American,” she said. “For so many young people from the northside, we push to try to make it to school every day and graduate so we can have a better life for our families. We share the collective struggle as young people trying to fight the odds stacked up against us because of where we come from.”

Lee himself is familiar with such struggle. He also came to the U.S. as a refugee with his family, spending his early years on the northside of the city on welfare assistance and in public housing. His parents, who have no formal education, weren’t fluent in English and oftentimes he would find himself translating these complex social services to them as a 10-year-old.

“I think that that opened my eyes up at an early age to some of the disparities and some of the barriers to why communities of color, especially black and brown communities, are facing poverty,” the state representative said.

While images of wealthy, Ivy League graduates remain as the prevailing Asian trope, the Hmong American story proves the inaccuracies in the stereotype, demonstrating that the privileges that are enjoyed by some Asian American groups cannot be applied to all, Quyen Dinh, the executive director of the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, explained.

According to a report released by the organization, almost 60 percent of Hmong Americans are considered low-income, and more than 1 in 4 live in poverty. The statistics make them the demographic that fares the worst, in comparison to all racial groups, across multiple measures of income, the report said. When looking at the general population, the official poverty rate in 2018 was 11.8 percent.

Hmong Americans have public health insurance enrollment rates similar to African Americans at 39 percent and 38 percent respectively. As for educational attainment, nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asian Americans haven’t completed high school or passed the GED. It's a stark contrast from the national average at 13 percent.

Lee added that, especially since Hmong families and businesses are also confronting the ongoing racism aimed at Asian Americans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many feel that their long-standing issues have gone unnoticed. They feel unheard, he said, contributing to their resistance to joining the chorus of voices demanding racial justice.

“It’s more of ... ‘we’re getting harassed, we’re getting attacked but you’re not saying anything. There’s no public outcry for that,’” Lee, who released a statement of support for the black community along with the other members of the Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus, explained.

But the model minority myth has distracted from the challenges Hmong and other disenfranchised Asian American groups regularly encounter, Dinh said. Because of the stereotype, the need for more funding and resources to mend systemic issues that chip away at the community has been obscured.

“Every day, this stereotype has led to the real struggles that AAPI subgroups face to go unaddressed and unsupported particularly for Southeast Asian American communities who arrived as refugees and were resettled in low-income, struggling neighborhoods, and who today continue to experience challenges with poverty, education and health,” she explained.

There has been significant support for the black community from many Hmong Americans, with coalitions like Hmong for Black Lives standing with their neighbors. However there is, admittedly, some anti-blackness in the community that can also be traced back to this very history of resettlement as well, experts point out.

The Hmong community, which hails primarily from Southeast Asia and parts of China, were largely recruited to fight on behalf of the U.S. in the “Secret War” in Laos in the 1960s. The move was part of the CIA’s attempt to stave off communist control in the country. When Laos fell to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975 and U.S. troops pulled out, many Hmong became refugees, fleeing for Thailand and various refugee camps before eventually making it stateside.

“Hmong people did not come to the U.S. seeking the American dream that other immigrants talk about,” Annie Moua, a rising college freshman who also grew up in the area, said. “My parents came here because they were fleeing war and genocide. As a matter of fact, Hmong folks have been fleeing continuous genocides throughout centuries of our history.”

Moua, who serves as her family’s translator, explained that while many in America are promised freedom, many others like her own loved ones feel limited in their movement and speech in the country. “I’m still a kid in many ways and the burden is so great already,” she said. “This shows a great lack of resources within our community because knowing English is essential to access important resources in this country.”

Kabzuag Vaj, founder of Freedom Inc., a nonprofit that aims to end violence toward minorities, women and the LGBTQ community, noted that because refugees moved into poorly funded neighborhoods that had already been inhabited by other black and brown communities, different groups were left to vie for resources, creating a strain among communities.

“There isn't enough for all of you,” Vaj, who’s Hmong American, previously said.

While data on criminalization of Hmong Americans is scarce, Dinh explained that because refugees were resettled in these areas that dealt with histories of overpolicing, they also dealt with the impacts of police force, mass incarceration, and, eventually deportations, Dinh said. Research shows that the Asian American and Pacific Islander population saw a 250 percent growth during the 1990s.

What's more, those from Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions, compared to other immigrant communities due to a pair of Clinton-era immigration legislation that further married the criminal legal and immigration systems together.

“In communities with large Hmong populations, Hmong youth are often also criminalized and discriminated by law enforcement for alleged gang affiliation,” she said.

However, Dinh underscored that while the Hmong community is dealing with their own battles with institutionalized racism and scarcity of resources, it doesn’t negate the very real issue that’s consuming national discussion: police brutality. Research shows that for black men, there is a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over the course of their lifetimes. However, when looking at the general population, the odds of being killed by cops is 1 in 2,000 for men and roughly 1 in 33,000 for women.

“Anti-blackness is a systemic issue that is not unique to the Hmong community or the AAPI community,” she said. “ It is difficult for any community or individual living in a structurally inequitable society, inherited from a long history of entrenched racism and anti-Blackness, to do the work of confronting their own anti-blackness, separated from the everyday conditioning that is normalized for everyone.

G. Thao added that for Hmong Americans who have left their homelands for a chance at safety, it’s imperative they demand justice for black communities.

“At this moment, America still has a lot of work to do,” she said. “My family and I did not flee a country to survive genocide, only to watch this country do the same thing to our Black neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Our community has more in common with the black community than we share.”