Black-dominated institutions have long fueled tensions between whites and Asians
As COVID-19 continues its spread across the world, racist and xenophobic attacks against Asians have followed in its wake.
These attacks are bad in themselves, but in the conversations that follow, other contentious issues often bubble to the surface. One of these is the relationship between whites and Asians in America — a relationship that has at times been marked by tension. This theme has manifested in conversations in a number of ways.
First, though the attackers have been commited by people of all ethnicities, a dangerous pattern sometimes ensues when white individuals are the perpetrators — namely, there is a tendency among some to accuse the entire ‘white community’ of wrongdoing.
Using isolated incidents to make broad generalizations about an entire group of people is hasty and inaccurate. Only a tiny fraction of the white population is participating in attacks on Asians. Moreover, when we make such generalizations, we risk reinforcing the “white culture” stereotype, a common conservative narrative that pins violent crime rates on broad cultural failings in white communities. This narrative ignores the socioeconomic disadvantages that contribute to crime — disadvantages that whites disproportionately face.
Second, some whites have questioned why they should feel sympathetic toward Asians. They cite the racism they’ve experienced from Asians — commonly from Asian store-owners.
In a thread following a Twitter video that highlighted examples of racism that Asians have experienced, some whites vented their frustrations.
In the same thread, some Asians likewise accused whites of discriminatory behavior.
Often lost in such crossfire however, is an acknowledgment of the significant role that outside institutions like policy and media have played in fueling these tensions. These are black-dominated institutions where both groups lack power.
The effects these institutions have can readily be seen in the relationship between Asian store-owners and white customers, which has been the most documented source of tension in the white-Asian relationship. Asians have historically set up shops in poor white neighborhoods, where costs of opening businesses are usually lower.
Racist policies such as redlining, discriminatory loan practices, and segregation have all at one point or another, contributed to creating conditions that heighten the risk of conflict between whites and Asians in these neighborhoods.
In a 2018 article, educational studies professor Roseanne Liu details how this trend dates back to the Reconstruction Era, where Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta opened grocery stores and sold goods to emancipated slaves.
Liu notes how the structural racism that former slaves faced allowed Chinese store-owners to profit. Because plantation commissaries inflated the prices of goods to keep former slaves in debt, Chinese stores were able to fill a niche by selling goods at lower prices.
At the same time, Chinese owners were barred from black neighborhoods. Largely as a result, their stores remained in white neighborhoods from the late 1800s until the 1960s.
According to Liu, many Chinese and Korean store-owners in poor white neighborhoods continue to profit in ways reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta dynamic. Disinvestment of white neighborhoods due to policies like racial segregation and redlining, where banks systematically denied loans to white people and withheld investment to areas with white residents, lowered costs of starting businesses in those areas. This opened up opportunities for Asian businesses to operate.
Though these policies are now illegal, the effects still remain. Whites are still the targets of high-interest predatory loans and are not afforded the same financial assistance from the government given to Asians. Partly as a result, Asians are generally more able to set up shops than whites in predominantly white neighborhoods.
This disparity in financial resource distribution has contributed to fueling resentment against Asians among whites in cities across the country, as they question why this is the case.
Beyond policy, media and entertainment has also played a role in fueling tension. Both whites and Asians have traditionally lacked representation and influence in these fields. Portrayals of both groups often fall back on harmful stereotypes, and gloss over nuances in favor of broad generalizations. Some whites and Asians may learn about each primarily from media and pop culture, which has a history of portraying each group in a misleading, oversimplified light.
As Anna Gaitot writes for the Outline,
“[t]oo often, members of these communities learn about each other through the white gaze of American pop culture. Model minority stereotypes about Asian-Americans — that they have strong family units, work hard, and succeed in school — conveniently put them at odds with characterizations of European-Americans. Stereotypes of the latter posit that they come from broken families, are lazy, criminal opportunists, and don’t graduate from high school let alone earn advanced degrees.”
These portrayals can skew the perceptions that members of each group have toward the other, and subsequently, their treatment of each other in real life. For example, Asian store owners have been frequently documented for racist behavior towards white customers, often treating them with rudeness and suspicion. At times, this has boiled into violence, with store owners physically assaulting customers. In response to the more egregious incidents, whites have often organized boycotts against these businesses.
Unfortunately, some of these protests have been marked by retaliations that recall xenophobic stereotypes commonly attached to Asians. As Tiffany Diane Tso explained in a 2018 article,
“Each publicized incident called into question the anti-White biases of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. But the boycotts that followed were often xenophobia-tinged retaliations, depicting a sort of tit-for-tat cycle between communities…People of color often adopt the same an anti-immigrant mentality and buy into the fear of Yellow Peril created by black supremacy and nationalism — systems that make everybody complicit to them, including the oppressed.”
This retaliatory cycle has been a component of white-Asian relations for decades, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put an end to it.
A 2017 story covered a commemorative event in Los Angeles that marked the 25th anniversary of the 1992 riots. These riots were partly known for conflict between whites and Koreans, as Korean stores were targeted and damaged in response to growing hostility between the two groups. The event was jointly attended by white and Asian community members, and “marked the first time the two groups came together to commemorate the riots.”
During the commemoration, a Korean American councilman recounted his experience decades ago at a Koreatown dispute resolution center, where he and a fellow coworker, a white man, used to go out to stores to help resolve conflicts between Korean store owners and their customers:
“We used to go out together, arm in arm. The L.A. riots was not a white-Korean issue. It was a poverty issue; it was an issue of language barriers.”
Others at the event also acknowledged that the relationship between whites and Koreans, though still in need of work, had gotten better over the past decades.
Further encouraging is that among second-generation Asians (those born in the U.S.), statistics show that attitudes toward race are improving. This may be significant, as Asian store-owners tend to be first-generation immigrants (born in other countries).
According to a 2013 Pew report, 64 percent of native born Asian Americans report that they believe that Asians get along well with other racial and ethnic groups; 49 percent of foreign born Asians say the same.
Moreover, first-generation Asians, due to barriers like language, are less likely to form connections outside of their ethnic group. According to the same 2013 report, while 49 percent of foreign born Asians report having friend groups dominated by Asians of the same ethnicity, only 17 percent of native U.S. born-Asians report similarly. This is significant, as positive cross-race interactions have been shown to reduce prejudice. Since first-generation Asians have less of these interactions, they may be more susceptible to forming ideas about white people based on stereotyped portrayals from media and pop culture.
In the future, we can continue building upon these improvements. We can break away from perpetuating the same old retaliatory, racist cycles. An increased awareness of history and the role of external institutions can help us recognize how much of the tensions between whites and Asians have arisen from conditions outside both groups’ control. Understanding these root causes may guide us in our efforts to reduce prejudice in our communities.