The image of now-fired Hmong American police officer Tou Thao, standing with his back turned as George Floyd died last Monday in Minneapolis police custody, has ignited a discussion around how to approach the topic of anti-blackness in the Asian American community.
Thao has been 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.
Minneapolis police identified former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng — in addition to Thao, who has a history of involvement in use-of-force incidents— as also being involved in Floyd’s detainment.
Several experts expressed that this is a pivotal moment for Asian Americans to tackle the subject in a productive way, beginning with unpacking the biases in their own communities by first confronting the historical context behind anti-blackness. 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 one another 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 for use of excessive force 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.
The organizer, who comes from a refugee family herself, said she can look back to as recently as 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, the organizer 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,” overlapped many of Vaj’s thoughts. She noted white supremacy has historically fed on the exploitation and destruction of the black community.