In the past year, Asian people across the US have been attacked, harassed, and murdered. We have been yelled at, beaten, stabbed, and shot. There are thousands of reported cases (Stop AAPI Hate).
Non-Asian people of all races participated in these assaults. The majority of assailants were white (NPR). But when activists correctly identified the attacks’ white supremacist origins, conservatives cried foul. If a Black person attacks an Asian elder, they asked, how could white racism possibly be to blame? “Describing this sort of thing as white supremacy,” said one far-right political scientist, “is stupid” (Commentary).
But white supremacy is a system, not a collection of individuals acts of white violence. This system depends on settler-colonialism and the continued theft of indigenous land, on the enslavement and incarceration of Black people, and on xenophobia and neocolonialism against those identified as foreign, like Asian people. That it may be non-white people who uphold racism against other communities of color doesn’t mean it isn’t white supremacy. It means that white supremacy is a strong social system that structures our beliefs and lives, whether we are white or not.
The 1992 LA Uprising was precipitated by two events. One was the police beating of Rodney King (NPR). It was also influenced by the murder of Latasha Harlins, a Black girl incorrectly thought to be stealing a single bottle of juice, who was killed by Korean liquor store owner Soon Ja Du (LA Times). In the uprising, protestors set fire to LAPD headquarters and looted businesses that extracted wealth from working-class Black communities, with LA’s Koreatown as a particular target. When some armed Korean people defended their businesses, gun battles broke out. It took thousands of soldiers for the government to subdue the rebellion (Curbed).
Korean people in the United States own small businesses in communities of color because they could succeed in these industries in the face of racism from white suppliers and employers (NextShark). White America turns around and use Korean small businesses to “prove” white supremacy doesn’t exist. They also use them to and critique Black and Latinx communities that have less access to capital for not owning such businesses themselves. White supremacy’s “divide and control” strategy pits immigrant small business owners against working-class Black people (HuffPost).
This lesson became clear for many Korean people in Los Angeles during the uprising. The military and LAPD were let loose during the rebellion, killing at least 10 civilians in the streets. But when Koreatown went up in flames, the police stood by and did nothing.
“Nothing in my life indicated I was a secondary citizen until the LA riots…They left us to burn. We learned a lesson in what the lack of political power and cultural misunderstandings between minority groups can do.”
In the years since the uprising, there have been intentional efforts between Black and Korean groups in the United States to build solidarity. After decades of such organizing work, there is of course still much more today. But today, nine out of ten Korean-Americans recognize that Black Americans face discrimination, while Black people are the non-Asian group most likely to recognize that anti-Asian racism exists (Brookings). At a march last year, David Bryant of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee said, “Our Korean brothers and sisters, we would like you to know: history doesn’t have to repeat itself. We can come together in unity” (Yahoo News).
The lesson here is that solidarity isn’t a given. It doesn’t appear from the simple fact of sharing a race, gender, employer, or country of origin with anyone else. And when we speak about solidarity across differences in a country that pits us against each other, it is important to remember that solidarity isn’t just something we claim. It isn’t a demographic fact and it isn’t a nice belief, no matter the words or letters in our Twitter bios.
Solidarity is a practice. It’s not something we are or something we believe: it’s something we do. We can choose to stand with others to dismantle the political and economic institutions that harm them and us, or we can choose to look away. We can choose to appeal to whiteness for safety and resources or we can choose to build safety through struggling alongside one another to see whiteness and white supremacy abolished.
“We can’t just say, ‘I’m in solidarity with you.’ Those are empty words unless we back it up with action… Because structurally, only the few at the top have all the power, money, and resources,” says Isabel Kang of LA’s Korean Resource Center (Faithfully Magazine). “Those who give out empty words of solidarity: will you be around when they start pointing guns at you?”
Though white people committed most recent anti-Asian attacks, the existence of Black assailants was used to deny the role of white supremacy.
People of color can hold anti-indigenous, anti-Black, and xenophobic views, but the root remains white supremacy.
Building solidarity across differences requires education, organizing, and work, such as how Black and Korean communities came together after the LA Uprising.