Spike Lee himself might be surprised — saddened, perhaps — that the Black American-Asian American dilemma of ‘90s-era Brooklyn he portrayed in “Do the Right Thing” could be a scene playing out in Baltimore over a quarter of a century later. Recall that in the movie, after mostly black and brown Brooklynites burn down an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in response to the cops killing Radio Raheem, rioters approach a Korean green grocery and its owner, Sonny. He swings a broom to hold the crowd back, shouting in broken parlance, “I no White! I Black! You. Me. Same!”—upon which the rioters decide to spare his store.
But the iconic sixty-second scene does not show what the black and Latino rioters had been taught about Asian Americans like Sonny to make them target his store in the first place. Sadly, media portrayals have not come very far. Recent news reports about West Baltimore mute the same black-Asian history, and, unlike Spike Lee, paint the protestors as mostly hostile – and worse – racist. It’s no wonder that people, from bloggers to Duke professors, recycle the same tired stereotypes of earnest Asian American innocents and “thuggish” black American rioters — the former often the victim of the latter. When the race relations stakes in our country couldn’t be any higher, should the media be so retrograde?
Take NPR’s story that black-Asian American tension was the real race story in West Baltimore. Although the report notes in passing that some Blacks stood in harm’s way to protect Asian-owned stores, the only black voices we hear are from possibly two-faced patrons, from those who heartlessly taunt the Chinese American owner Tina Chen in her hollowed-out store—prompting her tears to fall, her voice to break –and those who feel that the anti-Asian arson was justifiable “payback” (even if not “reasonable”). Besides the fact that the overlay is too convenient and lopsided, these reports say nothing of the broader context – the racial history, the workings of elite power — that dangled in front of Blacks a “foreign model minority” myth about Asian Americans; that “they” aren’t really Americans but their success all the same made a mockery of “your” black failure. That is, they owned farms and homes, had good jobs and kept them, stormed Harvard and Stanford, and could skate or play violin at a world-class level – what have you done lately? — you want to cry racism when even the foreigners can “out-American” you?
Of course, the white elites don’t mention that this divide and conquer tactic was made possible by their own machinations of power: starting in the 1960s they drained the central cities of industry’s unionized, high-paying jobs; put nothing in their place; gutted strong civil rights and anti-poverty programs that would’ve helped; then demonized the black and Latino residents for being jobless, working the “illegal” economy, or simply speaking truth to power. Hello, under-served and over-policed West Baltimore. To add insult to injury, elite institutions made sure to pit the black and brown poor against selective cohorts of college-educated Asian immigrants, many of whom began showing up in central cities as new business owners when US institutions wouldn’t recognize their Asian credentials. To the black and brown residents, here was the “nemesis” filling in the nice shoes of the Italians and Jews before.
It’s no wonder that Spike Lee’s Brooklynites first thought of destroying Sonny’s lifeline, and it’s no wonder today that some of Baltimore’s protestors actually lit the match.
To be sure, Jeff Yang’s rebuke of the NPR report convincingly dispels the existence of widespread Asian-black tensions or the insinuation that they’re central to the rioting. Alliances between black and Asian ethnics certainly exist. Korean-American grocer associations donate hundreds of thousands in college scholarships to black students; Korean church leaders organize and sponsor African American ministers’ visits to heavily Christian Seoul; black Baltimoreans link arms and stop rioters from pillaging Asian-owned stores.
Yet, Yang’s CNN piece also seems to paint too rosy a picture of black-Asian rapport. He could’ve excoriated an American economic, political, and cultural system that makes Asian model minorities the foil for the blame placed on Blacks for West Baltimore. He could’ve devoted more lines to the fact that even if black and Asian Americans did not create these racial messages, they at the same time cannot escape them. And such racial frames do prompt some Blacks to burn and loot Asian-owned establishments; they do raise Asian American merchants’ suspicion and fear, and up goes the bullet-proof partition between them and their customers.
Make no mistake. Blacks and Asian ethnics do stereotype and mistreat one another. Yes, the two don’t always do the right thing. But Blacks didn’t write the laws that excluded Asian groups from the country or denied them citizenship because of how they looked – just as Asian Americans didn’t start the housing segregation that’s connected to today’s urban black poverty, like in Sandtown.And they most certainly didn’t make themselves into the caricatures we see in the news. Rather than turning black protestors into one-dimensional racists and Asian immigrants into hard-working victims, the news could start with the racial system that made both groups its victims. As Sonny would say, “You. Me. Same!”