The Black Power Movement and The Asian American Movement

By Evelyn Chen '01

Many of the fundamental ideas that drove the genesis of the Asian American Movement came from the Black Power Movement. Likewise, much of the legislation that has come to have the most profound effect on the history of Asians in America occurred during the Civil Movement, a time that is often associated with the struggle for black equality. But the struggle was not limited to that of African Americans. In a time where minorities often find themselves in competition for similar resources, it behooves us to look back at history and the way that minorities have been linked not only by common experiences of oppression and racism, but also by striving for goals that idealize freedom and equality for all individuals. In a time where we enjoy unprecedented freedom and opportunities lie thick before us, it is often too easy to ignore those times in which we lacked simple rights or to forget the shared struggles fought to forge present circumstances.

The earliest linkage between Asians and Africans in America can be traced back to the early history of the nation, in the manner by which many of the earliest peoples were brought here: after the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the black slaves, Americans attempted to replace the black slave with a yellow one. Sailing over to China and luring Asians with false promises, slave traders placed Asians on the exact same ships that were previously used in carrying black slaves from Africa. The history of oppression goes back centuries farther than many people realize, and it is an important aspect of American history often left out of textbooks. Contrary to what we are taught, America has not always been a land of the free.

During the 1960s, some of the most prominent advocates for Civil Rights were members of the African American community. However, what is perhaps lesser known are the Asian Americans that aided them and took inspiration from their struggles. One such individual is Yuri Kochiyama, who describes the impact that Malcolm X had on the Asian American Movement, in his views of self-determination and of knowing one’s history and how it relates to politics of the present (Kochiyama 131). One of the greatest aims of the Asian American Movement has been to reclaim a sense of the history of Asians in America and determine a culture that is neither Asian nor specifically American. Many of the early ideals of self-determination and rejection of assimilation came from ideologies espoused by the Black Power Movement and its participants. Another often-overlooked fact is in the effect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: in declaring discrimination by the government, small businesses, and public facilities a federal law, legislators did not distinguish between ethnicity. Many of the laws which are commonly taught in secondary school history classes highlight the effect that these laws had in black history, but in a time where the Asian American community is seeking its own roots, it is important to remember that many of the battles fought for equality and fair treatment are the same battles.

In a time where Asians still find themselves looking down upon blacks, and are often pitted against one another in stereotypes like the “model minority,” it is crucial to remember that it is not always as easy as it looks to determine what is the truth. So many histories are shared between peoples who often feel that they lack anything in common, and it is ignorance to these differences that will drive us apart. In determining Asian American identity, one must have a sense of history. Only by knowing where we have been will we be able to understand where we are and where we are going. It is impossible to look upon history as an isolated set of circumstances that apply to one ethnic or racial group: oppression is multifaceted and affects many people, and only by working together can racial and cultural oppression be overcome. When we come to understand that fact, we will realize that despite skin color, language, or culture, a shared history makes us all more alike than we think.

Works Consulted

~ Kochiyama, Yuri. “The Impact of Malcolm X on Asian-American Politics and Activism.” in Blacks, Latinos and Asians in Urban America: Status and Prospects for Politics and Activism. ed. James Jennings. London: Praeger, 1994. 129-141.

~ Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.