Solidarity Matters: Black History Month Through An Asian American Lens

Fri, 2020-02-21

"The fate of each minority depends upon the extent of justice given all other groups." – Ina Sugihara, 1945

It is Black History Month, a wonderful moment as a country to celebrate the unique contributions of individual African Americans like George Washington Carver, Katherine Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, or Maya Angelou, not just in the month of February, but year round. It is also important for philanthropy to remember the darker history of how this country built its wealth on the backs of slaves and cemented its legacy of anti-Blackness to justify the institution of slavery on lands brutally cleared through the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples. 

The politically and socially-constructed concept of race categorized people along a one dimensional continuum from Black to White; giving rise to the multi-dimensional and institutional system of racial oppression. In honor of Black History Month, AAPIP searched for, but found very little on the web that brings together the historical connections across African American and Asian American experiences. And so, we offer this piece as a beginning way of connecting the dots between a sample of moments in U.S. history. 

The Racial Terrorism of Lynching 

Lynching was designed as the ultimate form of racial terrorism targeted at slaves and brazenly conducted outside the rule of law (however, note that lynching was never a federal offense). And while Black men were overwhelmingly the target of lynchings, this tactic was not confined to them or to southern states; the practice radiated outward targeting Black women, Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and even other Whites who dared speak up. Racial lynching spread to states across the country. At a time when resentment was rising against Chinese immigrants, the 1871 Chinese Massacre involved the lynching and hanging of at least 17 Chinese men by a mob of 500 in Los Angeles, CA over a period of 18 hours. This was followed by the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 in which White residents massacred as many as 300 Black residents in one of the most economically thriving concentrations of Black owned businesses at the time, destroying what was known as Black Wall St. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice which opened in 2018 chronicles the lynching of African Americans, not to “punish” America, as the Memorial’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, says, but to “liberate” it. 

African Americans: The Truest Patriots

Yet, despite this history of violence, the cause of freedom and the promise of democracy was a call heard and answered by African Americans. Last August, The New York Times Magazine initiated the 1619 Project to mark the beginning of slavery 400 years ago. Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award winning correspondent for the magazine is the curator for the project and wrote a brilliant piece, “America Wasn't A Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One” outlining how she has come to understand the meaning behind her father flying an American flag in their front yard. “He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”

This was expressed in many ways. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying  more than 15,000 individual sorties during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was the only all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps overseas during World War II, processing and delivering mail to troops in Europe, a critical link to home and an important morale booster. Right alongside them was the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a fighting unit composed of second generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) who fought in World War II while their families were incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps. The unit's motto was "Go for Broke", fighting the war against the Germans in Europe as well as the war against racial discrimination at home.

Then Came Vietnam

The Vietnam War was a gruesome war claiming the lives of over 58,000 American soldiers and more than 3 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao soldiers and civilians. White soldiers, many of whom were poor Southerners, exercised their sense of racial superiority over nonwhite soldiers in Vietnam by donning Ku Klux Klan robes and the Confederate flag to kill “Orientals” who, in the words of Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam in the mid 1960s, “(don’t) put the same high price on life….”  A majority of Black Americans opposed the war into which they were disproportionately drafted, particularly as the civil rights and Black Power movements took root. While AAPI communities have always struggled and fought against racial discrimination, the political convergence of these moments and movements inspired and activated the modern Asian American movement which saw itself as part of the larger struggles of all people of color.

The Model Minority Is Not About Asians

As racial tensions mounted in this country during the ‘60s, the “model minority” narrative was constructed by mainstream (read: White) media to de-legitimize claims of racism, particularly from African Americans. African Americans and Asian Americans have often been pitted against one another to deflect a fuller examination of systemic racism. The most recent example that has garnered much public attention is embedded in the affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard University which claimed that the university discriminated against Asian Americans for their academic prowess. While the claim is being made “on behalf of” Asian Americans, the case is less about Asians and more about dismantling race-conscious policies that support African Americans as well as people of color more broadly. In Fall 2019, the judge ruled in favor of Harvard, but the decision is currently being appealed. 

Why Does This Matter to Philanthropy?

As the nation pays special attention to African American history this month, we implore the field of philanthropy to ponder, not just this month but on a continual basis, how we are disrupting deeply entrenched, institutionalized systems of oppression. How are we learning about and processing the rich histories of solidarity that connect rather than divide us as a nation? Simultaneously, how are we in philanthropy working to unlearn racism and white supremacy while supporting racial solidarity toward this nation’s multi-racial future? 

As a sector, we know firsthand that giving away money is not as easy as it looks, and grappling with the roots of slavery and the many colors of racism alongside genderism is even harder. We have an imperative to make the money count, not just count the money, for philanthropy is the love of humanity, not the love of money. We encourage the sector not to think about history as a static past but a dynamic present, interconnected across communities, shaping the future. And as we’ve seen across the history of this country, only through active resistance and solidarity can we set into motion an anti-racist future.

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