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Baltimore Riot Shines Media Spotlight on African American and Asian Tensions

By May 7, 2015No Comments

By P.C. Staff

More than 480 people have been arrested since April 23 in Baltimore, M.D., after rioting and protests erupted following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after sustaining unexplained spinal injuries while under police custody.

According to a report by NPR’s “Morning Edition” broadcast on April 30, the unrest in Baltimore revealed tensions between African-Americans and Asians. The report suggested that while the rioting was the result of frustrations against police misconduct, it was also the conflict of African-Americans “targeting Asian-owned businesses for destruction.”

NPR interviewed a Chinese immigrant storeowner who was sweeping glass in her destroyed business. In her interview, the reporter said “she thought she got along with their customers. She had no idea tensions ran this deep.” In another interview in the same story, a black community member expressed his mistrust and frustrations toward the Asian-owned businesses. “I feel like its payback,” he said. “I don’t think it was the most reasonable thing to do, but it was justified.”

Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online and contributor for PRI’s “The Takeaway,” wrote in CNN’s Op-Ed that NPR’s report was “a misleading, hyperbolic and dangerous distraction, one that shifts blame away from the real issues.”

Yang wrote that the Asian-owned stores were “collateral damage,” as they make up a portion of businesses operating in economically troubled neighborhoods. The column went on to note that reports like these are “reinforcing the tired narrative of black-Asian interracial tension generates heat, but not light.”

“There’s a far more complex and nuanced relationship between these two urban populations,” wrote Yang. “One that is in an ongoing state of evolution and it deserves to be told not buried under clichés and clickbait.”

For Jennifer Lee, sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews and Koreans in Urban American,” such media coverage “continues to put minority groups against one another.”

Lee notes that attention is drawn away from larger problems in poor and disadvantaged communities. Structural problems are not identified and bringing heat to an already volatile community “directs blame away from the structures that perpetuate gross inequality and toward individual problems.”

Efforts to bridge the differences between black and Asian communities have been ongoing for years. For example, Japanese American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama was a member of Malcolm X’s “Organization of Afro-American Unity,” working with the group on oppression and injustice during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. More recently, the JACL was in Alabama in March to support the 50th anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing. For decades now, advocacy groups have been looking to discuss and relieve long-standing issues between many different cultural and racial communities.

“It’s easier to focus on attention-grabbing anecdotes,” wrote Yang, “rather than the long, hard work of adjustment and accommodation going on within and around communities.”