Black-Asian Tensions Spike In Bay Area

Several violent crimes by African Americans against Asian Americans have recently taken place in California’s Bay Area. Residents worry racial tensions are on the rise. Guest host Allison Keyes explores why this is happening with Chuck Nevius, metro reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle.

ALLISON KEYES, host:

Next to a story developing on the left coast. California's Bay Area has seen a spade of violent crimes against Asians perpetrated by African-Americans. Just last month, two black teenagers in Oakland allegedly punched 59-year-old Tian Sheng Yu. He later died from hitting his head on the pavement.

Earlier this year, 83-year-old Huan Chen died after he was reportedly beaten by black teens in San Francisco. Chuck Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle has been following all of this and joins us now on the line. Thanks, Chuck, for joining us.

Mr. CHUCK NEVIUS (San Francisco Chronicle): Thanks for having me.

KEYES: So can you give us a few more details? What kind of things are going on there? And is there a series of them?

Mr. NEVIUS: Well, there are a series and it's been a very troubling discussion, but I think it's been a very worthwhile discussion if we can move beyond sort of the back and forth. You mentioned the two incidents, and there was a third incident. As it happens, there's been about one a month. Huan Chen was January and then in March there was a woman named Mrs. Chen. We're only identifying her as Mrs. Chen.

Video cameras picked up footage of an African-American boy, he turns out to be 15 years old, she was waiting on the bus stop, it was a raised platform. He came up from behind, grabbed her and threw her up in the air and off the platform. She hurt her hip and knocked out some of her teeth and so forth. And of course the fact that there was a video of it and it was played on a lot of the local TV stations just raised the level of tension.

KEYES: How are people responding? And I mean in both communities.

Mr. NEVIUS: Well, and both communities is critical. I think that's very important to say. The impetus for all of this came at a board meeting. There's a board of supervisors. We have a board of supervisors like a city council because San Francisco is a city and a county - board of supervisors.

Back on April 27th, they had a period of time called public comment when technically anyone can get up and express themselves. And to the surprise of just about everyone, an enormous number of people from the Asian-American community showed up - hundreds, literally. And there was five hours of testimony, much of it extremely emotional - people in tears and we've been targeted and, you know, we've had this happen to us.

It was - it kind of took the whole city by surprise. We - obviously the area that we're talking about is an area of crime and the police have been working very hard to do something about that. But the idea that they've been targeted was an entirely new concept, I think, for San Francisco. And that's what has kind of raised the level of dialogue and, frankly, the temperature of the dialogue.

KEYES: I think we have some sound from a recent town meeting in which residents both Asian and African-American presidents met with the chief of police. And some of the black residents were complaining, saying that no one cares when black people are victims of crime. Let's hear a little bit of that.

Unidentified Man: You have to understand the frustration of our people to see you all get so concerned over one incident that you bring the whole police department out here to talk to us.

KEYES: But hasn't there been those in the Asian community that say that the police in the city are kind of downplaying the role of race in these attacks?

Mr. NEVIUS: Well, that's a really good question. I think that it's being hashed out. I think obviously it's a very volatile issue. And anytime you bring race into something like this, it becomes even more volatile. There is a lot of crime in this area. And the black community has a good case because there's been crime in the Bay View Area for years and their complaint that, hey, now all of a sudden you're paying attention to this I think has to be heard.

But I also think that the police department doesn't want to get involved in the racial discussion. And because of it, I think they're downplaying a little bit what's happening. One of the things that they said was that the Asian community only makes up 30 percent of San Francisco. Frankly, they're only involved in 30 percent of the crime.

But what I found in later research was that there was actually sort of a private study done by some of the police districts in which they found the specific kinds of crimes. For example, strong-arm robberies - and your listeners will know what we're talking about in terms of iPods and iPhones and those kinds of things - in those cases, they did a series of 300 cases, looked at those, 85 percent involved an African-American who came up and strong-armed somebody for his iPod or something like that.

KEYES: Meaning, basically, he just snatched it or...

Mr. NEVIUS: Yeah.

KEYES: Okay.

Mr. NEVIUS: Yeah, grabbed it away. These are low-level crimes. They're not anything like the killing that we saw when an 83-year-old man was beaten. But it's the kind of thing that I think sets the community on edge. And I think the other thing that's happened we should make sure to mention is that a lot of the Chinese-Americans, Asian-Americans are moving into this neighborhood. So there is an inevitable clash of cultures that we see often when something like this happens.

So, a lot of factors at play. Again, we're just hoping that the dialogue stays productive and doesn't turn into finger pointing at the police, at different cultures, these kinds of things.

KEYES: Chuck, briefly, is there proof that Asian-Americans are being targeted by blacks? And I mean really briefly. Thanks.

Mr. NEVIUS: Yes. Well, that's the excellent question. And I think they're certainly looking into it. The best thing that I'm hearing is that both -leaders in both groups are getting together to get exactly that kind of information out and then talk about what they can do with it.

KEYES: And the police are doing something to make it easier for Asian victims to report the crimes, right?

Mr. NEVIUS: They are. And that's one of the other factors we should've mentioned is one of the things we heard was they didn't report because, A, they don't speak a lot of English, and, B, culturally, the idea was to keep your head down, stay out of the way.

KEYES: Chuck, I've got to jump in here. Sorry, we are out of time. But I would love to talk more about this later, 'cause it seems like a pretty serious problem. Chuck Nevius is a columnist and blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined us on the line. Thank you so much for the insight. We will check back with you.

Mr. NEVIUS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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