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In Fight Against Violence, Asian and Black Activists Struggle to Agree

OAKLAND, Calif. — This spring, Black political leaders and civil rights activists delivered a message to Asian Americans: We stand with you.

Asian American activists and political leaders responded in kind, publicly acknowledging the daily reality of racism faced by Black people.

The two groups were reacting to violence aimed at their communities. That included the police killing of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, which led to a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement. In March, a gunman killed eight people at Atlanta spas, six of whom were Asian women, amid a spree of anti-Asian attacks.

In the aftermath, protesters wore “Black-Asian Unity” T-shirts and held #StopAsianHate rallies in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago. The two groups, which historically have been divided by racial tensions and socioeconomic inequality, promised to cooperate to reduce violence and discrimination against people of color.

Yet nine months later, the results of that pledge are hard to find. In interviews, nearly two dozen activists, historians and community leaders around the country said that for the most part, no major efforts have been made to build bridges between the Black and Asian communities, and talks of solidarity have petered out.

In the spring, there was a “lot of support” for Black and Asian people to achieve change together, said JaMae Rooks, 29, a co-director of Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter chapter. “But when things died down, support, in essence, died down.”

The reasons for the lack of unity were varied, activists said, including that the Black and Asian communities often view each other with suspicion. But the tensions boiled down to one main disagreement: policing. While Black Lives Matter activists have called for reducing police budgets and decreasing cities’ reliance on law enforcement officers, Asian leaders say that police are crucial to preventing attacks.

The contrasting attitudes underline how drastically the relationship with law enforcement can differ depending on race. Black Americans have been disproportionately killed by the police, while Asian Americans are among the least likely to be harmed in police encounters, according to multiple studies.

Hate crimes against Asian people rose 73 percent in 2020, according to the F.B.I. The police killed 192 Black people in the United States this year, compared with 249 last year, according to data from the Mapping Police Violence research and advocacy project.

“There’s more criticism and more skepticism about the police among Black people than Asian Americans,” said Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine. Often, she said, Asian Americans see the police “as protectors of private property rather than instruments of social control.”

In Atlanta, Ms. Rooks said her group had not spoken recently about anti-Asian hate, nor did she have connections with local Asian groups. In May, President Biden signed a bill aimed at combating hate crimes against Asian Americans, which may have caused some Asians to feel that they had achieved their goal, she said.

“We all come together for something major, and then we go off and do our own separate things, unfortunately,” Ms. Rooks said.

“Our problems are unique,” said Paul Mak, a community organizer in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park district, where reports of harassment against Asians peaked this spring. Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

In New York City, some Asian American activists said they could not even agree among themselves on ways to address hate crimes, so working with Black people was less of a priority.

“Our problems are unique,” said Paul Mak, a community organizer who supports heavier policing in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park district, where reports of harassment against Asians peaked this spring. In June, when hordes of patrol cars camped out in the area for a week, no new reports came in, though the hate crimes re-emerged when the police left, he added.

The debate has played out across generational lines as well as racial ones, with younger activists of both races often viewing more policing as ineffective.

In New York, younger Black and Asian progressive activists argued in May that strategies like self-defense training and driving services that take Asian elders to the grocery store were more successful at countering violence than bringing in more police officers.

Lateefah Simon, the founder of the Akonadi Foundation, a racial justice group in Oakland, Calif., said she had seen younger Black and Asian activists in California working to form bonds, especially through social media. But she acknowledged that progress was difficult.

“We don’t know each other in our communities, and we need to do a better job of humanizing each other and not pointing fingers,” said Ms. Simon, 44.

The divisions have been particularly striking in California, where reports of hate crimes against Asians jumped 107 percent this year from 2020, according to Rob Bonta, the state’s attorney general. More than 200 Black people have been killed by police officers in California since 2013, according to Mapping Police Violence data, including 16 this year.

“We need to do a better job of humanizing each other and not pointing fingers,” said Lateefah Simon, the founder of the Akonadi Foundation, a racial justice group in Oakland, Calif.Credit…Marissa Leshnov for The New York Times

In August, Carl Chan, the president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce in Oakland, urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to deploy California Highway Patrol members on city streets so that local officers could spend more time patrolling neighborhoods like Chinatown.

“Our seniors are afraid to walk on the streets,” said Mr. Chan, 63, who was assaulted while walking in Chinatown in April. When additional C.H.P. officers arrived in September, some Asian business owners said they felt safer, he said, and some Black business owners and religious leaders also wanted more policing.

But Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, a Black-led group, said adding more officers created a “totally oppressive environment” that was dangerous for people of color.

“For Carl Chan to be able to call in the wrath of agencies that have historically brutalized Black and brown communities is terrifying,” she said, adding that many Asian progressive groups agreed with her.

Ms. Brooks and Mr. Chan said they had not spoken.

Ms. Brooks said people of color have been pitted against one another by America’s political and legal systems. “If me and you are starving and someone, after two weeks of us starving, puts a piece of bread down on the table between the two of us, what’s going to happen?” she said. “We’re going to fight to the death for that bread.”

Black and Asian Americans have joined forces in the past. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers teamed up with the Red Guard Party to push for better living conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 2014, the Asians for Black Lives movement sprang up to support Black Lives Matter.

Asians for Black Lives rallied in Manhattan in June last year.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Sometimes, though, there have been clashes. In the 1990s, Korean business owners in South Central Los Angeles wrangled with the poorer Black residents in the area. Tensions there peaked in 1992, after four police officers who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted, leading to riots. More than 2,300 Korean-owned business were looted and burned.

Dr. Kim said the uneasy relations stemmed from an inherent inequality. Because Asian people don’t trace their roots in America to slavery, she said, they are often compared with white people in socioeconomic status.

In 2016, the median yearly income for Asian adults was $51,000, similar to the $48,000 for whites and above the $31,000 for Black adults, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Yet Asian people, who are not a homogeneous group, were also the nation’s most economically divided group, the same study found; over the last four decades, the poorest Asians saw the least amount of income growth compared with their counterparts in other races.

As a result, Dr. Kim said, it was difficult to find common ground. “What kind of forum would have conservative, affluent Chinese immigrants talking to Black activists from a poor urban area, saying, ‘We need to defund the police?’” she said.

Activists said there were advantages to getting Black and Asian communities on the same page. City leaders are often reluctant to make policing changes unless minorities present a unified front, they said.

“We’ve heard, ‘If your community can’t agree on this thing, then I’m not going to make a decision on it,’” said Alvina Wong, 33, the campaign and organizing director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a progressive Oakland group.

On the front lines of this debate, even friends have sometimes disagreed.

When Mr. Chan pleaded for more C.H.P. officers in Oakland this summer, he summoned the local media to a plaza in the heart of Chinatown. Flanking him were members of a volunteer patrol team aimed at tackling crime and Loren Taylor, an Oakland City Council member who is a friend.

But when a local reporter asked Mr. Taylor, who is Black, if he had signed onto Mr. Chan’s letter requesting more policing, Mr. Taylor said he had not. He was there to denounceAsian hatred, Mr. Taylor said, but was concerned about bringing in officers unfamiliar with Oakland’s standards for law enforcement.

“We want to have the argument within ourselves, before we bring in others,” he said in an interview.

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