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As social justice movement grows, Chinatown takes stock

Police blocked off a street near Chinatown with a sign for George Floyd above them.
Police blocked off a street near Chinatown with a sign for George Floyd above them.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In the aftermath of a peaceful protest that ended in sporadic violence and looting a couple of weeks ago, Angie Liou sat down and wrote her community a letter.

Liou runs the Asian Community Development Corporation, a Chinatown-based nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing. The protests that Sunday night seeped into Chinatown, though the property damage was minimal: a few broken windows and some graffiti.

But it struck a nerve in a community that was already reeling from the effects of COVID-19, which forced the closing of many of the neighborhood’s restaurants — its economic and cultural lifeblood — and spawned harassment of Asians.

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So Liou worried about the impact, and wrote this:

“This country has long pitted communities of color against one another, including Asian and Black communities,” her statement read. “Asian Americans have often been used as a wedge to split apart people of color, such as the “Model Minority” myth, which puts us on an insidious pedestal while blaming Black and Brown people for their own sufferings. Divisiveness keeps the white supremacy system intact.

“But we in the Asian American community must stand together with the Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. How can we ask others to stand in solidarity against anti-Asian xenophobia, if we cannot join the call now for justice for George Floyd and others like him?”

Liou told me that was just the beginning of some soul-searching about building bonds between communities of color that have often felt disconnected.

“What I’m really hoping is that communities of color can come together in his time,’’ Liou said. “Just a month ago we were talking about xenophobia and trying to call attention to it. But our experiences are different, and the last thing I would want people to say is ‘we suffer too’ and use that to invalidate Black experience.”

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Liou’s concerns may have been well-considered. Over the weekend, a controversy broke out over a similar statement issued by the state’s Asian-American Commission. The statement strongly condemned anti-Blackness and stated bluntly that Asians had benefited from “our historic proximity to White privilege.”

But some members of the committee itself have publicly disavowed the commission’s statement, calling it inflammatory. The dispute has been characterized as generational, with older members calling for greater restraint. But the battle reflects the challenge that Asian-American activists like Liou will face in pushing some members of their community to look inward in confronting racism.

“People who came here as adults didn’t necessarily learn the context of slavery and the civil rights movement,” Liou said. “That context can be missing. But whether people know it or not, the hard fact is that Asians benefited from the Civil Rights Movement. So there is a debt there.”

The Chinatown CDC manages hundreds of units of diverse housing in which residents of many ethnicities peacefully coexist. But she said she sees racism in subtle ways, like when residents ask why lotteries for its affordable-housing units can’t be preserved specifically for Asians, which is a non-starter under federal housing laws. She has had to explain more times than she can count that preserving Chinatown’s cultural and ethnic roots doesn’t mean shutting everyone else out.

So as Liou sees it, her community has work to do.

“It’s not enough to express loudly and unequivocally our solidarity with the Black community,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do internally confronting our own racism. It’s not enough to put out a statement and think I've done my job. The hard work has just begun.”

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This moment of pushing for social justice is forcing many people — not just white people — to think about what justice means, and how to bring their neighbors and colleagues along. That will mean changes in policy. It will mean changing some hearts and minds too. The magnitude of that work is just becoming clear.

“We’re not versed in this,” Liou said. “And the last thing I want is to pretend I have the answers, or know what I’m doing. But I don’t want to shirk this. I don’t want to move on to something else.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.