Black and Asian Solidarity in American History: The Power of Unity Exemplified by 5 Major Events
By Anika Raju
2020 was a major year in the fight for racial justice. Following former President Donald Trump’s scapegoating of China and Asian individuals for the COVID-19 pandemic, hate incidents against Asian Americans increased considerably. At the same time, there were several unjust murders of African Americans by law enforcement, one of which included an Asian American police officer at the scene of the killing. Most recently, there have been attacks against elderly Asians in California, New York, and Illinois. As Asian Americans have called for the perpetrators to be held accountable — some of whom are from communities that are already heavily policed, individuals have become concerned that tensions may rise between the Asian and Black communities, whom for decades have been wedged apart by the model minority myth. The model minority myth originates in White supremacists’ attempts to quell the Black Power Movement and other racial justice movements of the 1960s and ’70s. By creating a wedge between communities of color, White supremacists have been able to maintain their power in society.
Asian and Black communities’ histories have always been intertwined, their struggles connected, and their collective liberation dependent on their unity. Asian and Black communities have been strongest when they’ve sought to dismantle White supremacy together. In fact, there have been countless examples of powerful and moving coalitions between Asian and Black communities in the last 200 years that have led to major leaps forward in racial justice. The following are notable examples of Black and Asian solidarity throughout American history — a testament to the power of communities of color when unified.
1. Frederick Douglass’s opposition to restrictions on Chinese immigration
Chinese immigration to the United States became a salient political issue in the 1800s. In his 1869 “Composite Nation” speech, abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued on behalf of Chinese immigration to America, urging Americans not to fear Asian languages or cultures. He advocated for free migration and emphasized equality and human rights:
“It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”
Recognizing the common humanity of Asian immigrants, Douglass maintained that the arguments made for restricting Chinese immigration would have also justified banning immigration from Europe. Despite the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Douglass’s hope for a “composite nation” did not waver, and he called for an end to prejudice in the last speech of his life, “Lessons of the Hour” (1894).
2. Black support for the Filipino community during the Philippine-American War (1899–1913)
The Philippine-American War began in 1899 after the United States gained colonial rule of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War (1898). Black leaders such as Ida B. Wells and Bishop Henry M. Turner supported Philippine independence and characterized American colonialism as “an unholy war of conquest.” Additionally, the experiences of Filipino people resonated with the Black community because they shared similar histories of imperialism, racism, and economic exploitation.
As the war progressed, many Black soldiers who initially fought on the American side became disillusioned with the war and deserted their U.S. military positions to join the Filipino freedom fighters. Back in the U.S., Black leaders called for solidarity with Filipinos, arguing that they were used as instruments by White leaders to oppress another people of color.
3. Black opposition to the Vietnam War (1955–75)
The Black community was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War for two main reasons, the first being that Black men were disproportionately drafted for the war. In 1967, 64% of all eligible African Americans were drafted, but only 31% of eligible White Americans were. Black men also had a casualty rate twice that of White men from 1965 to 1966.
Second, the Vietnam War was emblematic of the racist ideology that permeated every aspect of American society in the 1950s through the ’70s. While race was not explicitly stated as a reason for starting the war, racist ideology shaped the justifications for escalating the conflict. This racist ideology was reflected on the ground; White soldiers in Vietnam wore Ku Klux Klan robes and carried the Confederate flag to express their self-perceived superiority over the native Vietnamese people.
Recognizing the unjust nature of the war, African American leaders such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. openly denounced it. In the 1967 Harlem Peace March, African Americans underscored the contradictory nature of their involvement in the war by carrying signs that read, “Black men should fight White racism, not Vietnamese freedom fighters.” The marchers understood the experiences of the Vietnamese freedom fighters because of their own oppressive histories shaped by White supremacy, and consequently, they chose to stand in solidarity with them.
4. Asian American women activists’ work in abolition and Black liberation
Two Asian American women activists, Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) and Yuri Kochiyama (1921–2014), were heavily involved in activism surrounding abolition and liberation.
Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist who focused on labor and tenants’ rights. She was a member of the Workers Party and stressed the importance of community building, with a focus on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. Her writing emphasized the value of working alongside unions and the Black Power Movement to achieve the collective liberation of all marginalized groups. She embodied this by organizing alongside Black autoworkers in Detroit to denounce World War II. She also joined the Great Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was headlined by Martin Luther King, Jr., and contributed to Black-led Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), which organized marches against violence and advocated for conflict-resolution curriculum in Detroit’s public schools. Furthermore, she worked with Malcolm X and even provided him a place to stay when he delivered his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech in Detroit.
Yuri Kochiyama was a Japanese American civil rights activist. Following Pearl Harbor, she and her family were incarcerated, during which she first gained exposure to the racism of the Jim Crow South. When World War II ended, she married Bill Kochiyama, whom she had met in the incarceration camps, and moved to New York City. She and her husband lived in housing projects with large Black and Puerto Rican populations, which motivated her to join the Civil Rights Movement. Kochiyama became a close friend of Malcolm X, who inspired her to incorporate Black nationalism into her work. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Kochiyama and her husband opened up their home to activists in need of a place to stay. In the years following, Kochiyama helped organize campaigns to free activists whom she believed had been imprisoned unjustly such as former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The work of Boggs and Kochiyama demonstrates the intersectional nature of civil rights activism and the need for continued solidarity in the years to come.
5. The Third World Liberation Front
The Third World Liberation Front began at San Francisco State University in 1968. Its inception is owed to Black student activists who created the first Black Student Union (BSU) in the country and successfully gained additional slots for Black students in the university’s admissions process. Seeing that Asian American and Latinx students were also limited in entry to the university, BSU leaders urged students of color to form their own coalition, i.e., the Third World Liberation Front. Together, BSU and the Third World Liberation Front battled the administration, demanding reforms such as the hiring of minority faculty members.
Black student activists at UC Berkeley, who were inspired by their counterparts at San Francisco State University, joined forces with the Mexican American Student Confederation (MASC), the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), and the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) to advocate for their own ethnic-focused programs. Pulling from the students at San Francisco State University, they called themselves the Third World Liberation Front, with the ultimate goal of starting a Third World College that would incorporate conversations on identity and oppression into historically Eurocentric academia.
As xenophobia and White nationalism increase in the U.S., it’s more pressing than ever that communities of color are unified and continue to educate themselves on their shared histories. Some concrete steps communities of color can take to show solidarity and be better allies to each other include consuming anti-racist literature, educating their non-Black family members on anti-Blackness, and recognizing their own racial biases.
For more resources and further reading, check out Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC’s resources on anti-racism and combating anti-Blackness here.
Anika Raju is the Programs Associate for Census and Civic Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.