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Officer who stood by as George Floyd died highlights complex Asian American, black relations

“People don't have a baseline of an understanding of what anti-blackness even is,” a Hmong American organizer told NBC Asian America.

The image of then-Minneapolis police Officer Tou Thao, a Hmong American, standing with his back turned as a white officer knelt on George Floyd's neck has ignited a discussion about how to approach the topic of anti-blackness in the Asian American community.

Thao, who has a history of being involved in use-of-force incidents, is being described by activists as a symbol of Asian American complicity in anti-blackness following the death of Floyd, a black man who begged for his life while then-Officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into his neck for more than eight minutes.

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

Minneapolis police identified the other two officers involved in Floyd's arrest last Monday as Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng. All four officers were fired the day after Floyd's death, and Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Investigations into the actions of the other three former officers are ongoing.

Several experts expressed that this is a pivotal moment for Asian Americans to tackle the subject of anti-blackness in a productive way, beginning with unpacking the biases in their own communities by first confronting the historical context behind it.

Kabzuag Vaj, founder of Freedom Inc., a nonprofit that aims to end violence toward minorities, women and the LGBTQ community, underscored the importance of acknowledging that while Asian Americans deal with their own forms of oppression, it is incomparable to what the black community confronts.

“People don't have a baseline of an understanding of what anti-blackness even is,” Vaj, who’s Hmong American, said. “Yes, we [Asian Americans] have pain and we suffer from oppression and discrimination and racism. Black people are in a different boat. On top of that, their struggle with the police, at least in this country, has a long history of 400 years of control and occupation. I think that that's really important for us to acknowledge that.”

Tensions between the black and the Asian communities have long existed. The strained relations stem, in part, from being set in opposition to each other throughout American history, Vaj said. One of the most glaring examples is the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black construction worker. Businesses sustained roughly $1 billion in damage, with roughly half being Korean-owned. Divisions between immigrant Korean business owners and their black customers widened.

Vaj, who comes from a refugee family herself, said she can look back to her own people’s journey in the U.S. as evidence. When America resettled Southeast Asian refugees following the Vietnam War, many were placed in poorly funded urban areas with little infrastructure, such as Long Beach and Stockton, California, or the Bronx, New York, where black and brown communities had already existed.

“When you are put into this situation, and you live amongst other poor black and brown folks with very little resources, there is that piece of strain between communities that must fight for the same resources,” Vaj said. “There isn't enough for all of you.”

Moreover, resettlement efforts did not include sufficient introductions between refugees and the communities they now inhabited, Vaj said. The information that was fed to the new immigrants often did not humanize communities of color, she added.

“Everything you've learned, you've learned through the lens of white supremacy. And this is what this country is built on,” Vaj explained. Even now, she said she’s received abusive comments and criticisms from some members of her community for standing with the black community.

Ellen Wu, a historian and the author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” echeod Vaj, noting that white supremacy has historically fed on the exploitation and destruction of the black community.

As Asian Americans began to arrive in the United States, white supremacy targeted them as well. The government passed racist legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and fueled movements like the anti-Japanese movement of the early 1900s.

But Wu explained that as time went on, white supremacy took on other forms. Fearing that anti-Asian racism could jeopardize the country's place as a leader on the world stage and impede imperial expansion abroad, white liberals sought to dismantle Asian exclusion legislation and practices during and after World War II.

“In other words, they expected a geopolitical payoff to recognizing Asian Americans as ‘model citizens,’” Wu said.

In the 1960s, white liberals wielded the model minority stereotype to stifle black social movements, using Asian Americans as “proof” of meritocracy and equal opportunity for people of color. As Wu mentions in her book, politicians weaponized Japanese American “success stories” after World War II as a tactic in reframing Japanese American incarceration and weakening the civil rights movement. Compliance with, rather than opposition to, the state would bring rewards, the politicians hoped to show.

“The insinuation was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship,” Wu wrote.

The evolving forms of white supremacy, Wu said, gave Asians more space for social mobility.

“These gains, however, have come at a cost: complicity with white supremacy.”

Wu noted that Asian Americans have had a complicated history of both mobilizing for and against the interests of black and other communities of color. Many Chinese Americans advocated on the behalf of Peter Liang, an NYPD officer who fatally shot Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black father, in 2014. They rallied around Liang, describing him as a scapegoat by prosecutors instead of demanding justice for Gurley and others who faced police brutality, Wu said. Conversely, the #Asians4BlackLives movement from the Bay Area stood in solidarity with Black lives that same year. Other historic movements, including the farmworkers movement in the 1960s, led in part by Filipino farmworkers like Larry Itliong who, with Latinx workers, organized the historic Delano Grape Strike.

Wu also clarified that Asian Americans are a diverse group with subgroups that have a range of power and privilege. Since their initial resettlement roughly 45 years ago, Southeast Asians, including Hmong, have dealt with the pain of impoverished neighborhoods and inadequate support under the backdrop of existing racial injustice, Quyen Dinh, the executive director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said.

Inequities linger to this day. A report published by the center showed that Hmong Americans have public health insurance enrollment rates similar to black Americans, at 39 percent and 38 percent, respectively. When looking at education, nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asian Americans haven’t completed high school or passed the GED. That’s more than double the national average at 13 percent.

“When aggregated data lump our unique stories into the false myth of one thriving model minority, the lived experiences of entire communities are rendered invisible,” Dinh said. “This perception dilutes and dismisses the urgent need for more resources and support for Southeast Asian American refugee communities, and it hides the systemic barriers our families have been forced to overcome for the last 45 years.”

Other advocates admitted that anti-blackness is a necessary but uncomfortable topic for many in the community to crack open. Deepa Iyer, author of “We Too Sing America; South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future” and racial justice advocate, said Asian Americans should interrogate the affect of policing and incarceration on communities of color and black communities in particular.

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. The same odds among the general population is 1 in 2,000 for men and roughly 1 in 33,000 for women.

“Let’s not forget that state violence in the United States has affected Asian Americans, too,” Iyer said.

She pointed out that in 2006, a Minneapolis police officer, Jason Andersen, shot and killed a 19-year-old Hmong American, Fong Lee, who had been riding a bike with friends. An all-white jury ruled that Andersen, who claimed he saw Lee with a gun, did not use excessive force and exonerated him. And in 2015, a 57-year-old Indian grandfather, Sureshbhai Patel, was slammed to the ground and left partially paralyzed by a police officer in Alabama, Eric Parker, during a visit to his son’s family.

“While incidences of police brutality against Asian Americans do not occur with the frequency they do against black people, we cannot deny that police brutality and discriminatory policing targets black and brown bodies at disproportionate and alarming rates,” Iyer said.

In addition to providing some historical perspective, Wu said Asian Americans can remind their own communities that many privileges they take part in came as a result of black civil rights movements.

From education to employment, the black community has worked to widen access for racial minorities, including Asian Americans. Wu brought up that black Americans mobilized during World War II to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee. After the war, there was a nationwide push for fair employment practices legislation, which eventually paved the way for the rise of affirmative action in the 1960s, Wu said.

“By the 1970s, the federal government widened the scope of affirmative action and related minority rights efforts to include Asian Americans, leading to greater employment opportunities for them across different sectors,” she said.

There has been marked support from many Asian Americans for the black community during this time, many experts noted, particularly after tragedies such as Floyd’s death. Iyer noted that organizations, students and activists have created toolkits, campaigns and town halls to further solidarity practices between black and Asian communities. She also mentioned she’s seen examples of youth engaging in conversations between Asian small-business owners who operate convenience stores in black neighborhoods and black residents.

However, change requires continuous commitment, putting time and patience into these communities, Vaj said. She mentioned that her organization provides services to those who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence, including many elders. She knows from experience that though many stereotype older Asian American generations as resistant to change or as being not receptive to uncomfortable truths, she knows differently.

“The Hmong, Cambodian elders that did not grow up here that are survivors of word genocide — if I can get a 76-year-old grandmother to understand love and accept a gender-nonconforming black, queer teen as family and understand and accept them as who they are, I know that change can happen,” Vaj said. “It takes time. And it takes love and it takes organizing and political education.”

For Asian Americans to avoid the discussion on race would bring dangerous results, Lakshmi Sridaran, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, explained. Particularly as the community observes the rise in anti-Asian hate violence and racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they must interrogate their own reliance and trust in law enforcement. She noted that some communities look to the criminal justice system to mitigate hate.

“These complex relationships of distinct and shared struggles are informed both by interpersonal and state violence,” she explained. “If we recuse ourselves from these discussions, then we further entrench ourselves in white supremacy and continue to endanger other communities of color.”