Additional research by Manal Ahmed

Edited by James Hamilton

Asians have been opening businesses in Black communities in the United States since Chinese-owned stores sold groceries to newly emancipated Black Americans in the South during Reconstruction. It’s a dynamic that has often pitted the two groups against each other, and, at worst, erupted into violence and tragedy. But this dynamic didn’t just come about – it has been manufactured for over a century with policies, laws, and conditioning. Understanding what caused this tension might be the first step to undoing it.

Asian immigrants’ experiences once they arrive in the US are as diverse as the reasons they left, but almost all are forced into the country’s complex racial dynamics. Starting in the 1960s, Asians looking to start businesses in America found themselves blocked from opening in white neighborhoods, mostly by banks that refused to give them loans anywhere near the wealth of those communities. Instead, banks offered loans for new businesses in Black communities, which most Asians, driven by a need to build a new life in a new country, accepted. Banks had deemed these neighborhoods ‘high risk’ for loans as part of redlining, the discriminatory banking practice of classifying neighborhoods worthy of investment based on the racial makeup of the people who lived there. While banks were open to working with Asian business owners as long as it was in the right place, they usually refused to even consider giving loans to Black people in these same neighborhoods hoping to start businesses of their own. So the division began.

An excerpt from May 17, 1990, Section B, Page 1 issue of The New York Times (via TimesMachine)

Redlining is now illegal, but the legacy of those policies remains, and racism in loans hasn’t gone away. In 2020, one survey found that Black people owned just over 2% of businesses with more than one employee, despite being over 14% of the population. That makes building wealth extremely challenging, and informs people’s ability to attain or maintain education, find health care, or provide food and safety for their families. It also means Black people’s money is often spent in businesses owned by non-Black people, meaning dollars go to someone else and are not reinvested back into the community. This is true for rent, which often goes to someone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood and who will spend that money somewhere else. It’s also true for businesses that accept a Black person’s dollar but don’t have Black suppliers, Black employees, or even Black maintenance. Black dollars spent rarely make it back to the person spending it. A classic story of gentrification.

Left: Latasha Harlins, Right: Soon Ja Du (via TIME archives)

This is often why resentment can build between Black people and the Asian business owners in their neighborhoods. The most well known of which is the LA Riots. Though the story of the disproportionate damage Korea-town sustained is regularly cited (often in Asian communities–, fewer are aware or vocal about the killing of Latasha Harlins, a Black ninth-grader, by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. Though tensions had simmered for years between Korean and Black communities, the judge’s decision against jail time for Soon Ja Du, a week before the riots, was said to be an inception point for escalated violence. 

Though the tragedy of Miss Harlin’s death was a clear boiling over, there had been many signs on the tensions between communities that are well documented. For example, this 1990 article from the New York Times describes the insults from Korean grocers towards Trinidadian immigrants, and this famous scene from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing foreshadowed what would become a reality for Los Angeles. 

These tensions, though real, were inflamed, usually by people belonging to neither community. First, white policy makers drove a shaft of rivalry and forced leftovers between two marginalized groups who were set up from the beginning. Then, there was the media's portrayal: just a few lines from this LA Times article misrepresents Black people – particularly men – as hostile, aggressive and dangerous, while Asians are helpless, victims and hopelessly unaware: 

“A black youth with a freshly cut fade hairstyle unleashed a slur at an elderly Puerto Rican woman as she passed through the boycott line in front of a Korean-owned grocery store in Flatbush.” 


“Many of the Korean grocers, who ventured into racially-mixed neighborhoods to pursue a long-cherished dream of economic ascent, have found that they have bought their way into a caldron of local rivalries and tensions.”

It’s so subtle that you could miss it.  

While many publicized interactions between Asian store owners and Black customers are negative and conflict-ridden,  there is a relationship beyond the tension: moments of partnership, community, and communion that are cultivated each day and that people in both communities work to maintain.

The Asian American Advocacy Fund has compiled a list of readings, book clubs, mutual aid funds, petitions, and organizations for non-Black community members to learn how to become effective allies, as well as uplift Black organizers and voices

Like Jonathan Gibbs, who created an online Black and Asian alliance network, a safe place for conversations around racism. Amy Chen is an online creator who highlights factual history and breaks down myths about Asian stereotypes and narratives. Then there’s Paula Madison, an author, former executive at NBCUniversal, and Chinese-Blasian woman who wrote about reuniting with her long lost family in China and realizes how many of these stereotypes are exclusively American. 

In an interview with TIME sociologist and writer Tamara K. Nopper, who for over 20 years has investigated Black-Asian solidarity and conflict, says there's a pattern to the way the communities discuss relations that inaccurately gestures at solidarity: “People will say, there’s a ‘hidden history,’ and then they’ll bring up some examples of that ‘hidden history,’” whether that's referencing the Asians who supported the Black Panther Party, or Yuri Kochiyama (the longtime political activist who was famously photographed cradling Malcolm X's head at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom the night he was assassinated in February 1965). “The reality is, that is a very limited history. It is not the norm,” Nopper tells TIME, suggesting that in reality, "advocates who focused on building cross-racial unity were minorities within their own groups."

Nopper, who is Korean-American, explains “Asian Americans, we just get treated better than Black people. Asian Americans—we experienced racial violence and we’re seeing upticks of COVID-related harassment." Nopper reiterates: “It’s not to say that we can’t experience racial violence. We do. It’s not to say that there aren’t specific ways that we get targeted. There are. But we’re not the basis of how people organize punishment through society in general.” It is the power dynamics that the Asian American community has to acknowledge, that white supremacy may have started it, but it is maintained by our communities.

The history of Asian businesses in Black neighborhoods begs us to consider the source of where and who these tensions came from, and our ability to respond. We must question, “Am I responding to facts, to conditioning, or to policies that force certain people to take advantage of their situation, thus compromising the rights of others?” And as the next generation, who often has more access to wealth, community, funding and education, can we be part of healing these broken relationships? 

Ps. Here’s a resource to fund your dreams and needs. And if you find it helpful, maybe share it with someone else who may not know about the opportunities that do exist. (Screenshot of this:

#Asians4BlackLives at a Seattle protest in support of Black Lives Matter (Photo: Jama Abdirahman / The Seattle Globalist)