Saturday, July 4, 2015

Anti-Asian Pogrom?

The Looting of Asian Businesses In Baltimore. 

The high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by the police in recent months has brought the state of black/Asian relations to the fore of progressives' discourse - at least for Asian-Americans. Although much has been written over the past several months by Asian-American commentators - often with titles like "Why Asians should care about such and such a black issue" - attempting to forge a narrative of a common black/Asian political and social agenda, it has been noticeable that pretty much all of the commentary to forge this partnership of visible minorities has been done by Asians, with apparently little being said by the other half of the alliance.

Perhaps there does exist an extensive body of work and conceptual analyses that envision a mutual black/Asian power block from an African-American perspective, but so it seems not to be a high priority for them. It seems as though Asians are more invested in the alliance than their black counterparts. The one area where Asian advocates and their black cohorts seem to be in perfect alignment is in their response to reports of anti-Asian sentiment that seemed to creep into the Baltimore riots following the killing of Freddie Gray. In short, the reports of alleged targeting of Asian businesses and the subsequent destruction of many of them have largely been ignored by both Asian-Americans and African-American commentators alike.

The first report that hinted that Asians were being targeted came from the respected news source, NPR, whose piece, although brief, offered a clear picture of the tensions that seem to exist between Asian merchants and the black community in some parts of Baltimore hit by riots. The NPR article notes that although there are those in the black community who have positive and even close relationships with Asian shopkeepers, there are others who harbor resentments and view Asians as interlopers who "give nothing back" to the community.

At least forty-two Korean-owned stores were looted and/or destroyed in the area whilst reports suggest that black-owned businesses were protected and spared. It could certainly be argued that evidence for racially driven looting is inconclusive, although the  main reason for that could be that there seems to be little interest or motivation to actually thoroughly investigate either the experiences of Asian merchants, or claims of racially motivated targeting of their stores. But most noticeable of all is that Asian-American advocacy seems to have no stance, opinion, or point of view regarding this apparent targeting of Asian stores by some black locals.

The best that we seem to have come up with is the effort of progressive CNN writer, Jeff Yang, whose piece seems more concerned that America will get the wrong impression about the character of the riots whilst completely avoiding any hint of empathy for the Asian-American victims of a brutal and terrifying pogrom. It is this disconnect between those who act as spokespeople for Asian-Americans, and those Asian-Americans who have the least political and social clout but who find themselves in the no-man's land of America's racial dialogue that I find troubling.

This disconnect allows Asian merchants - who are most often immigrants with poor English language skills, and who are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable group within Asian-America - to be repeatedly excluded from the dialogue on their own experience. Instead, their experience is lost and diminished (and even "gaslighted")  in narratives put forward by progressives such as Yang who exhort us to accept the big picture that effectively leaves targeted Asian merchants as necessary collateral damage in the fight against anti-blackness. Yang quotes Jennifer Lee  thusly....
..the mainstream media continues to pit minority groups against one another to draw attention from larger structural problems that plague poor, disadvantaged communities. By directing our attention to interminority conflict, it directs blame away from the structures that perpetuate gross inequality and toward individual problems.
As you can see, there is no mention of the human tragedy experienced by Asian merchants nor of their looted and destroyed livelihoods - it seems to be forgotten that Asian immigrants often count as poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable. It is probably true that the media promotes this narrative of inter-ethnic conflict - most probably because it makes for exciting viewing as much as for the purpose of deflecting attention away from real social issues - yet, that does not mean that we should ignore the very real possibility that there are elements in black America who harbor racial bias and hostility towards Asians.

The problem is that there is no reason to believe that any anti-Asian sentiment would be assuaged by an improved economic situation, or even that such sentiments are the result of dire economic circumstances. Adhering to this belief ignores the larger picture of xenophobic anti-Asian sentiment in American society that blames Asian economies for taking jobs, resources, and prestige away from Americans who are more deserving of it. The parallels with sentiments expressed by African-Americans are striking - the idea that Asians are taking an economic slice of the pie that rightfully belongs to African-Americans by operating in black neighbourhoods, Asians are taking jobs from locals by unfairly self-employing, and Asians are flaunting their prosperity by looking down their noses at locals, all speak of an entitlement complex that is too similar to mainstream America's negative attitudes towards Asia to be so easily dismissed.

....there's little evidence to suggest a pattern in which Asian businesses have been actively targeted out of racial animus.......Instead, it seems as if Asian-owned stores have experienced damage partly because they make up a portion of establishments operating in the most economically vulnerable and socially volatile of neighborhoods. In other words, they were collateral damage, along with other stores in the vicinity of riots.
This is extremely insulting to those Korean-Americans whose stores were destroyed in Baltimore. Does there have to be a pattern of racial animus for racist hate-crimes to be considered as such? The NPR piece that Yang is responding to explicitly reported eyewitness accounts where Asian stores were the only ones targeted.....
But on this particular stretch - picture three treeless blocks of row houses, a lot of them boarded up - the only shops that were targeted were ones owned by Asian immigrants - mostly Koreans.
Speaking of racial animus, one local had this to say......
It's almost like payback, I guess you could say.......For all of the unspoken things that has happened between those businesses and our people, I feel like it was payback.
So, yes, the NPR piece does provide us with sufficient reason to believe that (at least in some cases) Asian stores were specifically targeted and that it was the result of racial animus. Whether or not this constitutes a "pattern" of any kind is completely irrelevant and I think Yang is intelligent enough to know that just because not all looters were targeting Asians stores does not remove the possibility that some were. The absence of a pattern of racial animus in no way precludes incidents of racial animus.

What I find most appalling about the Yang quote above is that he seems perfectly happy to hand-wave away these possible incidents of racial animus (that destroyed people's lives) in order to refocus our attention on what he terms the "real issues". In case he hasn't noticed, racism in America is a real issue and for those Koreans whose stores do seem to have been targeted, it was a very real issue, but Yang has presumed the moral authority to school us on what should really matter to us and whose suffering we should prioritize. That's easy for him to say and it seems his conscience permits him to view the livelihoods of targeted Korean merchants as a price he is willing to pay - all, I suspect from the comfort of a safe neighbourhood that is patrolled by a racist police force. The Koreans on the other hand might not be so thrilled and I don't find this sanctimonious posturing to be particularly ethical either.

Yang's piece gives absolutely no indication that he knows enough about the circumstances of the people or circumstances of that community whose experiences he, remarkably, presumes to be knowledgeable enough of to frame for us. He simply does not seem to have sufficient information to dismiss any reports of racial animus or what seem to be reports of clear incidents of targeting of Asian stores.

Yet, he has presented his piece (and himself) as authoritative on what was happening in a community which he seems to have no first-hand experience of nor does he seem to have actually gone to Baltimore to investigate whether the claims made by NPR are true or not. Thus, I fail to see on what grounds he was able to so thoroughly dismiss the NPR report. His only argument seems to be that we should dismiss claims of racial tension in Baltimore since the media has in the past - and does still - stoke the flames of urban violence with hyperbolic reporting on inter-ethnic tensions, 

It should go without saying that hyperbole does not mean untrue and that just because tensions are melodramatically reported, does not mean they should be dismissed outright.

Interestingly, the NPR piece is actually far from being hyperbolic - if anything it seems balanced and presents several different perspectives. What the NPR report showed was that there are African-Americans in the community who view Asian merchants with great fondness, while others are hateful. No hyperbole there.

I genuinely believe that most African-Americans - even in poor neighbourhoods that are subject to oppressive policing - do not harbour anti-Asian hostility. And I would even suggest that for many (hopefully most) African-Americans, these Asian-owned stores provide an important and convenient service to the local community. If this was not the case, then it is hard to explain how some of these Asian stores could remain in business for the years and decades that they have if they were such terrible racists as some locals suggested. But Yang's approach to frantically dismiss any and all suggestions of racially motivated looting merely plays into the hands of the hyperbolic mainstream media.

It could be that be that one reason the media is even able to stoke racial tensions between blacks and Asians is because prominent Asian-American journalists like Yang marginalize the racial experiences of Asian merchants in black neighbourhoods. The vacuum is naturally filled by the mainstream media. As far as I know, no prominent Asian-American journalist has even bothered to report on what these 42 Korean merchants went through. So don't complain and freak out when the mainstream media does the work of giving these marginalized, invisible, and neglected members of Asian-America a voice and then shape what they say to suit their own racial agenda (although the NPR piece didn't actually do that). Maybe, if Asians themselves were to include these merchants in the narrative of vulnerable communities then the mainstream media would not have the opportunity to take advantage of their invisibility?

I don't agree that Yang's proclaimed "real issues" should exclude the suffering or hardships experienced by Asian merchants in depressed areas. If people are looking to these merchants to be part of the solution to urban dysfunction then it is logical to include them as part of the "real issues" - particularly when their stores are targeted by resentful looting mobs. Losing your livelihood is a real issue and, by its silence or casual dismissals, the Asian media is complicit in protecting, defending, and excusing those who perpetrate these kinds of crimes against Asian merchants. 


  1. Doesn't traditional Chinese culture demand to choose only Chinese as partner for marriage?

    1. Euro

      Your point isn't clear. I think traditions in all cultures demand we choose only in-group partners for marriage.

    2. My point is that Dylann Roof might have gotten his idea about Northeast Asians being "very racist by nature" from this. Prescription of endogamy was common among many, but not all cultures.