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Lee, Park, and Schiffgens | 1

Young Bin Lee, Ethan Park, Sarah Schiffgens

Ms. Fillman


8 May 2018

The Minority Divide: Addressing the Tension between African-American and East Asian-

American Communities

The minority experience is diverse in America, with each group going through their own

respective struggles with discrimination and prejudice. Asian Americans and African Americans

have shared common historical ground through their struggles for racial equality in America;

both groups were considered unworthy of American citizenship, had their identities stigmatized

by mainstream American culture, and were generalized into single entities with little

consideration for the diversity of their respective experiences. Despite similarities in hardship,

tensions between communities have built due to racial prejudices in both East Asian and

American culture, leading to animosity and a lack of cultural understanding between the two

minority groups. As interminority conflict builds through the stereotypes of black people,

tensions between the two communities throughout American history, and the racial mascoting

of Asians in America, it is critical that the African-American and Asian American communities

reach mutual understanding and respect in order to address the racism and animosity that

exists between the two groups today.

1 The Root of Racism in East Asia

Africans have been a part of East Asia’s history for quite a while, although still a rare

sight in East Asian countries. One of the earliest instances of contact between Africans and East

Asians was during the Tang Dynasty in China. Documented evidences of trade show a

relationship between China and the city-states of East Africa, which evolved and led to a

migration of Africans to China to study, trade, and act as diplomats. Later during the Tang

Dynasty, African slaves were brought over to China-Arab traders. This changed the perception
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the Chinese had of African people. African slaves were depicted in society as lower class,

ignorant, scary, and dangerous people known as Kunlun (Loftin). The reason China’s perception

of Africans was skewed so easily was because of the fact the whole country was insulated from

the outside world. China thrived economically and culturally earlier in history compared to

many other countries with “relatively little outside influence”, which made possible the

prospering and cultivation of the Chinese culture (Chan et al). Although their views of African

slaves did not change as the slavery of Africans soon spiked in China, their view of free Africans

did. They were treated with respect and honor (Loftin).

1.1 Racism in Modern East Asia

Slavery is now rare in modern East Asian countries, but racist views of African

Americans in East-Asian countries have increased throughout post-slavery history. Many East

Asian countries are openly discriminatory, a prime example being numerous Japanese stores

putting “Japanese Only” signs at their doors since there is no law against discrimination based

on race in the country (Ryall). Stereotypes are further propagated in the media of many Asian

countries, and an example of which is a detergent advertisement released by China in 2016. In

the advertisement, a woman puts an African American man into a laundry machine with the

advertised detergent and comes out as the “ideal” Chinese man, who has fair-toned, perfect skin

and good hair. The company received many criticisms over the ad, has since removed it and

issued an apology (Fan). Although this extremely racist ad was removed and apologized for, it is

still a representation of how most East Asians feel about African Americans. In South Korea,

more than one in three people stated that they would not want foreign neighbors (Fisher). The

East Asian’s fear of foreigners only continue to grow as they allow their unfounded aversion to

foreigners distance themselves from people of other races.

There are many reasons for why East Asian countries tend to dislike foreigners. For

example, China, in its history, has been largely insulated from the world. This has led to China

having a nearly homogeneous population. Consequently, racial discrimination is widespread

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throughout the country. However, many Chinese citizens do not want to confront the prejudice,

and some do not even realize that there is a presence of racism and discrimination in their

country (Fan). According to Ryall, a writer for South China Morning Post, discrimination and

racism is ¨a sad fact of life¨ that is becoming more blatant in Japanese communities. Some

Japanese individuals consider African Americans as a threat to their country, saying that they

would bring drugs and crime into Japan and wreak havoc in the aftermath of natural disasters.

They have a firm belief that foreigners should be kept apart from Japanese people. Japan also

doesn’t have laws that forbid discrimination based on nationality or race. This can lead to

landlords refusing to lease their property to African Americans, the government refusing to hire

people based on their nationality and/or race, and schools refusing to teach foreign students

(Ryall). According to another article by South China Morning Post, South Korea has “a history of

repeated invasions by powerful neighbors which has amplified the sense of victimhood and

rampant ethnic nationalisms”. The “sense of victimhood and rampant ethnic nationalisms”

allows for the lack of anti-discriminatory laws in Korea, which leads to the gap between

foreigners and South Koreans to increase, leading to more blind fear and discrimination. Until

recently, public schools in South Korea have taught their students to be proud that their country

has maintained one superior race and language for centuries. However, there is an exception to

their discrimination toward foreigners. Caucasian foreigners from first-world countries are

welcomed and loved by Koreans, but African Americans are treated a completely different way.

Black children are made fun of in school, and many Korean parents try to keep their children

away from African Americans with some even asking “What are you doing in someone else’s

country?” (¨South Korea’s First Black Model¨). They are hostile towards

Because of the rarity of African Americans in East Asia, some Asians even have a

tendency to take pictures of or touch black citizens or tourists as they pass by, gaping at their

hair and skin (Davis). The lack of communication and understanding between African

Americans and East Asians has allowed for prejudice to grow and thrive in East Asian countries,
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many of which already have low tolerance for outsiders, without actual contact between the

different races.

1.2 The Effect of American Media on Pre-Existing East Asian Racism

Before arriving in America, the majority of knowledge that East Asians have of African-

Americans are based off of racial bias they draw from their own culture, movies, and news

originating from America. According to Warren, a professor of pedagogy who focuses mainly on

teaching African American literature, and Cosby, an American television producer, author, and

philanthropist, “African Americans have been frequently portrayed in stereotypical occupational

roles, with negative personality characteristics, [and] as low achievers” (ref. in Punyanunt-

Carter 242). Some examples of stereotypical occupational roles are servants, crooks, or corrupt

individuals. Not only are their occupational roles of lower socioeconomic status compared to

Caucasians, their personalities are also portrayed negatively.

Jannette Dates, the current dean emerita of the School of Communications at Howard

University, notes that the prominent characteristics of African Americans in media are inferior,

immoral, dishonest, disrespectful, violent, greedy, ignorant, untidy, and uneducated, to name a

few. With this information, Cosby concluded that a majority of the roles played by African

Americans portrayed a negative and stereotypical view of African Americans (ref. in Punyanunt-

Carter 243). Since these negative views of African Americans in media are what the East Asians

see when they watch American films or read American books, their discriminatory views against

Africans Americans grow without actual contact with them. Further research has shown that

portrayals of African Americans on television affects viewers of all ages and of all races. It was

even argued that images of African Americans on television could cause the audience to develop,

change, or even reinforce their beliefs and opinions about African Americans (Dates). A study by

Yuki Fujioka, an associate professor at Georgia State University, stated that when firsthand

knowledge is not present, as is in most East Asians about African Americans, television images

have a large effect on viewers’ perceptions.

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Many East Asians never meet an African American in their life before they come to

America (Davis). Their fear of African Americans combined with hurtful stereotypes

communicated through American media perpetuates feelings of fear and mistrust of African


2 Historical Conflict between Asian-American and African-American Communities

Black-Asian animosity has propagated through decades-long tensions around the

development of small, East-Asian owned businesses in predominantly black communities in the

United States. For nearly half a century, the East Asian-American community has dominated the

black beauty supply market by buying out smaller black-owned businesses, further contributing

to the African American community’s struggle to have ownership of the same industry that

profits off of them. Because of this trend, Asian shop owners in African American communities

are often perceived by many African Americans to be profiting off of black people while denying

their black customers basic respect and courtesy (Gaillot). In contrast, Asian shop owners tend

to have a general mistrust of their African American consumers due to harmful, stereotypical

notions as well as a history of burglaries and shoplifting incidents being conducted by members

of the African-American community (Nevius). The historical and recent precedents of hostility

between these two groups have allowed tensions to cultivate, leading to dastardly effects.

2.1 East Asians in Predominantly African American Communities

East Asian and African American tensions have existed for centuries. This interminority

conflict was first brought to the forefront in 1991, when a Korean-American liquor store owner

fatally shot a 15-year-old black girl under the suspicion that she was shoplifting orange juice.

The perpetrator never served jail time (Gaillot). Twenty-six years later, this violence still

permeates the relationship between East-Asians and African Americans as seen in the case of a

Chinese-American Police Officer, Peter Liang, shooting and killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed

black man. Liang never faced a prison sentence either , allowing feelings of mistrust and anger

over the lack of progressive action and the failure to achieve justice to sweep over the African-
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American community (Gaillot). This contentious relationship is reflected through the way both

groups choose to treat each other.

The ire of the African-American community in their general debasement was put to

action when riots broke in the streets of Los Angeles in protest to the acquittal of four white

police officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King. These protests are known as the

1992 Los Angeles Riots, which resulted in 50 fatalities and thousands of injuries (“Riots Erupt in

Los Angeles”). During these riots, Korean-owned stores were primary targets of looting and

arson, prompted largely as retaliation for the trend of Asian American owners’ alleged

mistreating their black customers. This history of conflict characterizes existing Black-Asian

tensions and anti-Asian sentiment in the Los Angeles area to a global scale to this day.

2.2 Perceptions and Cultural Stereotypes of East Asians in Dominant American Culture

East Asian-American and African American communities often learn and develop

understandings of each other through white-washed American pop culture. African Americans

are portrayed through film and media as uneducated, lazy criminals, while the modern Asian

American is portrayed as hardworking, successful, and acquiescent members of society (“The

Black, Asian and White Racial Triangulation”). These model minority stereotypes associated

with Asian Americans and degrading stereotypes surrounding African Americans drive a

massive wedge between the two groups (Chow). What they fail to do is take into account the

current cultural and economic circumstances in America and also turn a blind eye to the

diversity of Asian American and African American experiences.

Additionally, Asian-Americans are commonly stereotyped as being obedient and dutiful

members of society which has in turn contributed to the Asian-American community’s

vulnerability to black crime (Fuchs). As seen in the cases of Asian-American shop owners

profiling and assaulting their black customers, Asian-American shop owners often have

underlying prejudice towards African Americans. However, it is important to note that this fear

of African American crime is not completely baseless, for Asian-Americans have long been
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victims of African American crime, especially in San Francisco. As seen in a 2008 survey by the

San Francisco Police Department in which about 300 strong-arm robberies were analyzed, "in

85 percent of the physical assault crimes, the victims were Asian and the perpetrators were

African American" (Nevius). Asian-American shop owners are often more vulnerable to cases of

robbery and assault which has lead their community to be more wary of African-American

customers. This fear however, has been escalated to a violent level which has lead to further

increased tensions between the African American and Asian American communities.

3 The Modern Use of the Asian American Community as the “Wedge” Minority on an

Economic and Educational Level

The historical strain between the Asian-American and African-American communities

has prefaced the modern tension between the two groups today, as the image of the “model

minority” and the debate over affirmative action continue to build upon existing interminority

mistrust. On both an economic and educational level, disparities between the two minority

communities have become increasingly noticeable in recent years. The use of the Asian-

American community as an example of a high-achieving minority, known as “racial mascoting,”

is used to create tension between Asian Americans and African Americans in today’s modern

society, driving them apart along lines of misunderstanding and ignorance.

3.1 The Image of the Model Minority and the Misuse of Asian Success

America’s history of discrimination and prejudice against Asian immigrants stemming

from baseless stereotypes has been evident through actions taken to consciously exclude Asians

from American society, such as Chinese Exclusion and Japanese Internment. However, the

modern wave of East Asian immigrants coming from countries such as Korea, China, and Japan

are more educated, capable, and accepted than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, the

median annual household income of Asian American households is $73,060, compared with

$53,600 among all American households (Lopez et al.). Although the flourishing of the Asian-

American community in recent years may be seen by most as something to be celebrated by all
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minorities, the creation of the “model minority” image for the educated East Asian immigrant

has driven a wedge between the Asian-American and African-American communities.

Despite the socioeconomic disparities within the Asian-American community itself, the

economic success of this minority group has been used by dominant culture to perpetuate the

stereotype of the “model minority.” Many white Americans have utilized an image of a well-

educated and successful East Asian immigrant to discourage and blame other historically

disenfranchised communities, specifically African Americans. In an NPR article, Director of

Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, Janelle Wong, states that the use of the

“model minority” image involves “making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and

other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two

centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values” (ref. in

Chow). The usage of the “model minority” image fails to take into account the diversity of

experiences between both the Asian-American and African-American communities, additionally

disregarding the historical and modern institutionalized racism used to oppress the black


By using Asian Americans as an example of minorities that achieved the “American

Dream,” many white Americans ask why African Americans have not experienced the same

success. They often attribute the success of Asian Americans to heavy investment in education of

children, which is then in turn used to point out the present disparities in economic growth

between the two groups. However, according to research done by Brown University economist

Nathaniel Hilger, the historical increase of educational investment in the 20th century was too

modest to be the reason for the recent growth in Asian-American earnings. Hilger instead points

to the notion that American prejudice against Asians had decreased in society. During the 19th

century and early 20th century, “asians were paid like blacks,” explains Hilger. It was not until

the mid-to-late 20th century that the Asian-American community started being “paid like

whites” (ref. in Guo). As modern American society has gradually decreased in prejudice against
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Asian Americans on an economic level, the African-American community continues to

experience the same burden of marginalization and lack of economic opportunity that has

oppressed them since this country’s slave-owning roots. By attributing Asian-American success

to education and family values while ignoring the increase in economic opportunities due to a

decrease in anti-Asian racism during the 20th century, the use of the “model minority”

stereotype has become a frequently used label to argue that Asian Americans simply “worked

harder” than African Americans to be in the position that they are in today. Not only is this

stereotype hurtful to interminority relationships, but it is completely ignorant of the increased

amount of adversity faced by the African-American community compared to Asian Americans in

this country.

3.2 The Conflict over Affirmative Action

As the Asian-American community has continued to prosper economically in recent

years, the issues of affirmative action, educational inequality, and race-conscious policy

continue to deepen the rift between Asian Americans and African Americans today. This conflict

between the two communities can be seen on an educational level, as many modern colleges

have instituted affirmative action programs in order to promote diversity and increase

opportunity in schools. Although these programs are often supported by the members of many

different minority communities, many Asian-American students have voiced their concern over

the disadvantages Asians face due to their overrepresentation in the higher educational system.

According to a Pew Research Center study, 51% of all Asian-Americans ages 25 and older hold a

bachelor’s degree or more, compared with 30% of all Americans of the same age range (Lopez et

al.). Due to lack of diversity in colleges and the influx of Asian-American students applying to

top schools in the country, many Asian-American students have been turned away despite

having comparable or better academic credentials than their non-Asian peers.

Affirmative action is but another example of a “wedge” issue, used to drive the Asian-

American community apart from the African-American community and other races benefiting
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from race-conscious policy. Many disenfranchised minority communities often blame the Asian

community for a lack of non-white and non-Asian diversity in schools. Although the enrollment

of Asians in colleges is the highest in American history, their increased share is cutting into

enrollment of white students rather than black and hispanic applicants (Suk Gersen). The

Trump administration has recently taken up an initiative to crack down on affirmative action,

using complaints and court cases from Asian-American students to support their argument. This

initiative is nothing new, however, as modern conservatives have repeatedly used the Asian-

American community as the figurehead to attack race-conscious policy. According to Colorado

State University education professor OiYan Poon, this movement against affirmative action has

garnered support from “a wealthier, very small, and extremely vocal group of Asians” (ref. in

Chang). Groups such as the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) have recently

voiced their objection to affirmative action, saying that “it is imperative for [the Coalition] to

continue [its] endeavor in order to totally eliminate racial discrimination in college

admissions and other education arena for [Asian] children and children of all

Americans” (“Asian American”). Although AACE’s initiative seems to be well-intentioned and

directed towards a goal of a “colorblind” America, the majority-Chinese interest group is another

example of white conservatives using Asians as minority figureheads of their movement. Their

“endeavor” for the elimination of “racial discrimination” in education seems to completely

ignore the history of discrimination against African Americans that makes race-conscious policy

to necessary in America today. The movement against race-conscious admission practices

creates a dangerous hostility between the two communities, as many vocal Asian-American

groups have begun blaming African-American communities for perpetuating anti-Asian

discrimination while not taking into account the history of educational disparity between

African-Americans and the rest of America.

4 Implications and Addressing the Issue

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Although the prejudices between the Asian-American community and the African-

American community may not seem as overt as white prejudice against blacks, the issue still

drives the two groups apart in a dangerous manner. The lack of interaction between the two

communities has been seen in both East Asia and America, in modern times, and throughout

history. Through misunderstandings and ignorance of the struggles of each community, conflict

has arisen on cultural, economic, and educational levels. Despite the glaring issues addressed in

this essay, there is hope for unity through solidarity and increased cultural and social awareness.

In order for increased understanding of the two groups’ histories and cultures, solidarity

must exist between the Black and Asian communities. Through some of the Asian-American

community’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement after the case of Chinese-

American NYPD Officer Peter Liang’s shooting of an unarmed Black man, progress towards

mutual cultural understanding has been made. According to Erika Lee, a history professor from

the University of Minnesota, Peter Liang’s case has mobilized an increased level of Asian-

American activism (ref. in Lo Wang). However, the Asian-American community has split over

which side of the debate their activism is fighting for. Before Liang’s court ruling, many Asian-

Americans lined the streets of Brooklyn. Some of them held signs reading “Peter Liang Deserves

Justice Too!”, while others stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (Lo Wang). Although

there is still debate among the Asian community, the support for movements like Black Lives

Matter from Asian-American citizens have shown a level of understanding critical for the

healing of interminority tensions. Until a mutual understanding of history and struggle is

reached, the racial mascoting of Asians through the “model minority” stereotype is abandoned,

and all parties understand the solidarity needed to overcome the oppression of dominant

culture, the rifts and tensions between the Asian-American and African-American communities

will continue to grow.

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