Finnie Phung runs the Green Fish Seafood Market, just blocks from the Fortune Cookie Factory. When a drive-by car rally for Black Lives Matter passed her store this summer, Mrs. Phung stood on the sidewalk and cheered. Her employees, many of them older or recent immigrants, did not understand what was happening, or her enthusiastic support. “They think, ‘They’re Black, they’re Americans, they speak English. What’s the difference?’” Mrs. Phung explained.
She added: “They don’t understand the skin color is what causes the difference.”
For Ener Chiu, associate director of real estate at the Oakland-based East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, the epiphany came when he watched the video of George Floyd being suffocated while an Asian-American police officer stood by. “I used to shave my head like that,” he said, referring to the Asian-American officer. “I looked at the image and thought that was me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re just sitting here doing nothing.’” At a time when Asian-Americans are also being subjected to hatred, he added, “we need to be more vocal and more together with the African-American struggle.”
Throughout Oakland, Asian-American and Black leaders are reaching across generational and racial divides in new ways. In the wake of California’s pandemic shutdown, the African American, Chinatown, Vietnamese and Latino Chambers of Commerce in Oakland submitted their first joint proposal to the city to coordinate assistance across neighborhood lines as businesses try to survive and rebuild. In June, the Oakland City Council approved $500,000 to fund the effort.
“I’d always been saying there will be a time where we need to come together to advocate for each other, to support each other,” said Shonda Scott, chairwoman of the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce. “Who knew it’d be Covid-19 and some pandemic that we would be fighting against? And the other pandemic is racism.”
Jennifer K. Tran, executive director of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, has also noticed how the pandemic is prompting changes in the relationship between Asian and Black residents. “We need to rise above this Asians-against-Black, Black-against-Asians, this interracial tension, but rather look at how the systems have been designed for certain people to succeed and other people to flounder,” she said. “Second-generation immigrants are beginning to see that.”
Trinh Banh and Tommy Wong, two Chinatown community leaders, have been working since the start of the pandemic to help local businesses stay afloat. The pair are now using crowdsourced funding to supply free lunches to medical workers, homeless encampments and predominantly Black neighborhoods in East Oakland.
The inspiration for the free lunches, Mr. Wong said, came from the Black Panthers, who ran a free breakfast program that served tens of thousands of mostly Black children in the 1970s. Tarika Lewis, a veteran of the Panthers’ food program and a local Black activist, joined Mr. Wong and Ms. Banh at their first free food pickup in Chinatown, and continues to work with them.
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