Black attacks on Asians: racism or opportunity?
Black attacks on Asians: racism or opportunity?
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Rongshi Chen, 64, says he was violently robbed by two young black men in his Visitacion Valley neighborhood last fall.
Walking to a convenience store in San Francisco's Visitacion Valley last fall, Rongshi Chen eyed a pair of young black men coming his way. With no warning, the men grabbed the 64-year-old, lifted him and threw him onto the concrete. They kicked his ribs, broke his collarbone and made off with $200, credit cards and Chen's identification.
No one caught the attackers. Seven months later, Chen still suffers effects of the attack.
He's not alone. At least four high-profile attacks involving blacks and Asians have occurred since January in San Francisco and Oakland, including the beating death of Tian Sheng Yu, 59, last month. Two 18-year-old men have been charged with murder.
Now Chen and his family have joined a chorus of voices in the Bay Area saying that the increasingly visible and deadly incidents of black-on-Asian violence are racially motivated.
"I don't like to say this is race discrimination, but I have to say it!!!" Rongshi Chen's daughter-in-law, Si Chen, wrote in an e-mail.
Others - including the police chiefs of San Francisco and Oakland - are just as emphatic that the problem is not hatred of Asian Americans, but a hazardous collision between angry young men and a vulnerable population with cash in their pockets.
Those groups often live side by side in low-income neighborhoods, yet know little about each other, rarely talk, and almost never mix, say members of both communities.
"We live in one of the most liberal areas of the country, but this is one of the most segregated cities I've ever seen," said Chris Jackson, a San Francisco City College trustee who is African American.
It's a story of mutual suspicion and competition - and periods of cooperation - that dates to the Civil War.
Signs of unity
Examples of harmony between the two communities certainly exist. Last Sunday, Chinese American mourners accompanied Yu's widow, Zhi Rui Wang, to the African American Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland in a show of unity.
When the pastor called for all crime victims to stand, dozens of worshipers rose in poignant testimony to the idea that violence is colorblind.
Though her husband was slain, and her son, Jin Cheng Yu, was beaten by black youths in Oakland, "Mrs. Yu has made the effort to reach out, and African Americans have been reaching out," said Oakland Councilwoman Jean Quan, who was at the church.
History also reveals parallels between the two historically oppressed groups.
"The civil rights movement was led by African Americans, and we have benefited a tremendous amount from that," said Yvonne Lee, who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the 1990s and on the San Francisco Police Commission.
Yet a deep cultural rift between Asian Americans and African Americans also has led to violence, most infamously in Los Angeles on March 16, 1991.
A 15-year-old black student named Latasha Harlins walked into a Korean grocery store that day and dropped some orange juice into her backpack. She turned to pay for the juice, $2 in hand. But store owner Soon Ja Du assumed Latasha was stealing and grabbed her. They scuffled, and Du threw a stool at her. Latasha tossed the juice onto the counter and turned to leave. Du shot her in the back of the head, killing her.
Civil War alliances
"Racism is central to (black and Asian) history and to our understanding of racial conflict and violence, whether an incident is Chinese against blacks or vice versa," said Ling-Chi Wang, retired professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.
As far back as the Civil War, he said, white plantation owners pit blacks and Chinese Americans against each other. Fearing that newly freed blacks would abandon the fields, whites recruited Chinese immigrants to take their place.
"The whole purpose was to break the back of the emancipated slaves," Wang said.
It nearly worked. But the Chinese didn't like Southern working conditions any more than black people did. So they opened grocery stores instead and catered to blacks.
But history is rarely that neat.
During World War II, when the United States and China were allied against the Japanese, "Chinese became honorary whites," Wang said, even as Japanese Americans were herded into camps and blacks remained segregated in the military.
San Francisco became the stage for anger between blacks and Chinese Americans during the 1970s, as the NAACP pushed to desegregate schools.
In one violent example at Galileo High near Fisherman's Wharf, tensions were so high between the majority Chinese Americans and black students bused in from southeast neighborhoods that each group came and went by different doors.
Then, on Oct. 8, 1974, almost two dozen Chinese American students attacked a black student with clubs. Someone shot a Chinese American boy. Long butcher knifes littered the courtyard.
Whites fled for the suburbs. But that wasn't an option for many Chinese Americans, who couldn't afford - or didn't want - to leave Chinatown. Many of those families actually seceded from the school district to form "Freedom Schools" limited to their own children.
Court-ordered desegregation governed San Francisco school enrollment for almost two decades, until a lawsuit by Chinese Americans ended the practice in 1999.
Today, schools across the Bay Area are largely resegregated, as enrollment mimics housing patterns. But in pockets of Oakland, and in San Francisco's relatively affordable Bayview and Visitacion Valley, black and Chinese American families live side by side.
"They are two disadvantaged groups in a very fragile situation," said Lee, the former civil rights commissioner.
And there is violence.
Crimes of opportunity
Police are offering a $100,000 reward for the capture of the youths who punched and kicked 83-year-old Huan Chen on Jan. 24 at a bus stop on Third Street and Oakdale Avenue. He died on March 19.
Three days after his death, at the same corner, a 15-year-old boy allegedly threw a 52-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Cheng off a Muni platform. She survived.
Other tragic stories abound. But it's not clear that race is the reason.
"I live in a community where young African American men shoot other African Americans," said Angelo King of San Francisco, director of the Bayview's Neighborhood Jobs Initiative. "These young men are thugs. The same kinds of people who would attack an old person would probably attack one of their own. They aren't simply targeting Asian folks. They're looking for easy victims."
Like Huan Chen, who died, and Rongshi Chen, who was beaten and robbed, many Asian Americans are just that: "Really vulnerable," said Marlene Tran, spokeswoman for the Visitacion Valley Asian Alliance.
They speak little English. They work in restaurant or hotel jobs that require them to be out late at night. And they often travel by public transportation.
Police downplay race
San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón also downplayed race as the motive.
"Statistically speaking ... the information doesn't necessarily support that," he said. "We have incidents of victimization within the Chinese community that are proportional to the size of the population."
San Francisco police could provide no assault statistics to back up the assertion.
Oakland police say they've heard no hate speech from the two black teenagers arrested in the Yu case.
"It's very rare for hate crimes to take place in Oakland," Deputy Chief Jeffrey Israel told a standing-room-only crowd of Asian Americans who gathered Wednesday night at a Chinatown restaurant in Oakland.
Oakland police said Asian Americans - 15.6 percent of the population, according to recent census data - were victims in only a small percentage of aggravated assaults last year (5.3 percent) and robberies (18 percent) as a proportion of their population in the city.
In addition, Asian Americans acknowledge that many victims fail to report crimes because they are ashamed or afraid.
Worried about racism
But anecdotally, hate crimes are exactly what the attacks appear to be.
"Of course this is against Asian Americans! Statistics can be manipulated. People are afraid to talk about race," Young Kong shouted into the microphone at the Peony Restaurant.
He was among dozens of residents who told Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts and a panel of officers how they had been mugged or beaten by black youths, and that they were afraid. Most testified in Chinese with translators. Many spoke through tears.
A similar scene played out Tuesday in San Francisco, as hundreds of Asian Americans showed up to tell the Board of Supervisors their stories of being attacked, and to rally against violence.
Si Chen talked about Rongshi Chen's beating and objected, for the record, that police put her father-in-law's case on inactive status.
In an interview by e-mail, which she said was easier than speaking English, Si Chen acknowledged that she did not actually know any black people.
Asked what the solution to the violence might be, Chen was certain:
"To be good parents. Family responsibility!!! School responsibility!!!"