Sandy Benavides felt as if she understood what the Asian community was going through after eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed this week in Georgia. Benavides, national chief executive officer of the League of United Latin American Citizens, had felt the same trauma, and then rush of solidarity, after a gunman killed 23 people in El Paso in a mass shooting seen as an attack on the Latino community.
The manner in which so many have rallied around the Asian American community in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, she said, “reminded me of how our community allies were calling and texting us, asking how they could support us.
In the wake of this week’s killings, many have rallied in support of the Asian American community, producing a palpable sense of unity in the fight against anti-Asian violence. And some say the heightened solidarity also presents a chance for communities of color to effectively address the common enemy of white supremacy.
“We’re thinking about how we can work together on the issue of hate crimes and make sure our communities stop being targets,” she said. “This issue is not going to disappear overnight, and it’s going to take collaboration.”
Killed in Atlanta Tuesday were Soon C. Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong A. Yue, 63, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office, while 30 miles north in Georgia’s Cherokee County, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44, were also all fatally shot. A 30-year-old Hispanic man, Elcias Ortiz, was injured.
While police said they haven’t yet determined whether the 21-year-old suspect “specifically targeted” his victims, many have pointed out that it’s hard to separate race from the equation – particularly after a recent spike in anti-Asian violence that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and which many believe was fomented by the rhetoric of the Donald Trump administration.
‘We all stand to lose’
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, called the attacks “horrific” and said civil rights groups across the country were working together to address the issue.
“We all stand to lose,” said Bass, one-time chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Just because it’s happening to Asians does not mean that I don’t care about it at the same level as though it’s happening to African Americans. All of us need to be concerned.”
Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute in Los Angeles, said hate crimes are not the issue of one community.
“People understand they are something that could happen to other groups, too,” he said. “If you let it run loose for one group, it’s going to come back and haunt you.”
In New York, lawyer and civil rights activist Maya Wiley was among eight mayoral candidates who joined the Rev. Al Sharpton for a press conference Thursday to denounce the attacks.
“It’s on all of us, not only on the Asian American community, to call attention to the fact that despicable hate has no home here,” she said in a later Twitter post.
Caroline Yang, an associate English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has written about race issues, said she’s seen real evidence of unity, especially between the Black and Asian American communities, both duringlast year’s Black Lives Matter protests and now.
“The first friends and colleagues who have reached out to me in solidarity have been Black,” she said, “Especially Black women.”
Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, called the Atlanta killings a potentially galvanizing wake-up call.
“They are likely to be looked back on as a turning point,” he said.
Chin compared the moment to the vicious 1982 slaying of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was fatally attacked by two white autoworkers in metropolitan Detroit who, angry over the Japanese auto industry’s success as U.S. operations declined, apparently mistook Chin for Japanese descent.
Outrage over the killing – and a plea bargain that resulted in no jail time – inspired widespread Asian American activism and steps toward stronger hate crime legislation.
Chin said while many Asian Americans who’ve immigrated to the United States have been slow to embrace the fight for civil rights because they didn’t grow up with it, “there’s increasing appreciation for the reality that Asian Americans are in the same boat as Latinx people, as African Americans, as people of color. We have no choice.”
“America was founded as a white country,” he said. “It isn’t anymore, but people of color still have to fight to get a fair shot. And we are more likely to make progress if we work together.”
Black civil rights movement has long inspired Asian leaders
While a renewed sense of unity between communities of color could prove fruitful in terms of future cross-racial organizing, such coalitions and cooperative efforts have existed since the civil rights era.
Jakobi Williams, an associate professor of African American and African diaspora studies at Indiana University, noted that members of the Asian and Black communities have cooperated on social justice efforts since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
There was Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American woman from New York City who became one of Malcolm X’s closest friends and allies after meeting him at a protest in New York City, while civil rights leader Richard Aoki in Berkley, California, was among the Black Panther Party’s earliest members and the only Asian American to hold a leadership position with the group. And activist Grace Lee Boggs, of Chinese ancestry, devoted her life to bettering life for Black Americans.
Asian American activist groups like Yellow Brotherhood and East Wind took organizational cues from the Black Power movement, as well, Williams said.
Mai-Linh Hong, an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, Merced, said the Asian American community’s work with the Black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped develop the framework for today’s field of Asian American studies.
While organizations and activists regularly work across racial and ethnic lines at the grassroots level, Hong said, she’s hopeful that the moment can advance “more opportunity for allied groups to connect nationally and strengthen their reach and influence. We are, of course, stronger together than apart or pitted against each other.”
Among the factors driving the unified effort is a growing awareness of the concept of anti-Blackness, a term transcending academic circles and moving into activist ones that emphasizes the Black American experience in a nation founded on slavery.
“Racism can be applied to any non-white group,” said political science professor Claire Jean Kim of the University of California, Irvine. “But anti-Blackness is a structural feature of society that keeps Black people at the bottom. It’s a force that pushes anyone up who is not Black and pushes down anyone who is not white. For Asians and Hispanics, it’s a force that lifts them above Blacks.”
The dynamic privileges those in the middle but never allows them the full benefits of whiteness, creating conflict within the hierarchy.
“It’s about the lack of humanity and dignity given to Black people, and it’s baked into our society,” said Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland, California.
The concept took on greater salience last year as people grappled with the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, Price said, and people are recognizing that each community’s ability to thrive is related to the others.
“I’ve heard a lot of that from Latinx and Asian American people – that our fates are bound, that there’s a lot of interdependency, that we have to build more collective power,” she said. “And that takes us to a much different place of possibility.”
United against a common foe
But building such alliances is difficult, said Robert Greene II, an assistant history professor at South Carolina’s Claflin University, and at the moment, the focus should be on confronting the anti-Asian sentiment that has been allowed to build up for so long.
“The true test of anti-racist solidarity will be in the weeks to come,” Greene said. “A coalition like the one being built will need to stay together for a considerable length of time, especially as we continue to see white supremacist groups harness the energy and momentum they built up during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.”
Ruben Martinez, a sociology professor at Michigan State University, said that while stronger alliances have been building, he sees the groups still largely focused on their own concerns.
“It has to go beyond that and focus on the system of racism as a whole,” he said.
That means that while he did not see much broad-based solidarity on Latinos’ behalf during the anti-Mexican rhetoric of the early Trump administration, the recognition that people of color are now engaged against a common cause is starting to move to the fore, he said.
“We cannot dismantle this for one group at a time,” Martinez said. “We have to benefit everyone.”