Asian American Fans in a ‘Sports-Driven Apartheid’

In his regular column with The Nation, Dave Zirin describes the ongoing protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore as fueled by a “sports-driven apartheid.” He notes specifically the ways in which sports stadiums like Camden Yards are being planted in industrially-gutted inner cities across the rust belt in the name of so-called “urban revival,” but are really targeting cheap real estate, cheap labor, geographic centrality, and tax credits.

This geographical rezoning has, across the U.S., resulted in temporary entertainment areas where suburban middle-classers able to afford the rising cost of tickets make their way into the city every once in a while to catch a game, whereas the people actually living in and around these neighborhoods often can’t afford to attend games, and work the low-wage stadiums job instead.

The centrality of professional sports to the Baltimore uprisings was highlighted when media outlets reported scuffles between baseball fans (“innocent bystanders”) and protesters (“thugs,” always “thugs“). For several days while public protests continued, Camden Yards warned its attendees to either not leave the stadium or use caution when doing so, eventually leading to postponed games and, for the first time in MLB history, a regular-season game closed to the public.

The Baltimore uprising highlights the white-black racial divides of all these issues—suburban fans versus neighborhood locals, stadium owners versus workers, team owners versus players—not to mention the obvious and long history of anti-black police violence in Baltimore that lies at the core of it all.

Amidst all this, I wonder about the position of Asian American sports fans like myself within these discussions. Surely, I do not see myself as an “innocent bystander” like the media carved out those clueless Orioles fans to be. I follow politics, I experience racism, I have learned about the comparative histories of people of color in the U.S.

Politically, I stand squarely on the side of the protesters, and identify as an ally. Using the Orioles’ closed game and the gentrification promoted by Camden Yards as entry points, I’ve engaged in discussions with friends and strangers, to bring up issues of structural racism, white privilege, and police militarization and mass incarceration. I thought I was being slick, showing how professional sports is an important site where all these issues converge. Mostly, my energies as an ally have been directed at white folks, both in face-to-face conversations and soul-crushing social media debates.

Yet, at some point along the way, I realized I was speaking less from a position of ally, and more from the position of an outsider. I was not claiming a black or white space, but I was also not claiming an Asian space. In my zealousness for white folks to understand anti-black racism and their social positions within in, I had erased myself out of the equation, as neither the privileged/dominant nor the oppressed/resistant.

I had positioned myself as the dreaded “innocent bystander.”

As #Asians4blacklives out of the Bay Area insist, it’s the revelation of Asian American history and politics that makes us allies with African American struggles, not an erasure of them. It’s about connecting the dots between U.S. military and colonial violence throughout Asia and the militarization of the police domestically, while at the same time understanding the ways in which Asian Americans often benefit from anti-black racism. It’s about how Asian Americans have strategically and deliberately been placed “between” black and white populations, economically, politically, and geographically. (Remember in 1992, Koreatown was the literal buffer between South Central and Hollywood Hills, and the political tactic was to let Koreatown burn.) It’s about how cosmopolitan middle-class Asian Americans have come to stand in for the whole, a myriad population that also includes refugees and lower-class manual laborers across the entire country, including its rural areas.

I see now that my energies should also be targeted toward my own community. Instead of only getting caught up in the white-black divide and aligning myself with African Americans against a hostile white majority, I should also be paying attention to my own social position, and my own community. My friends in Korea who see the news of “looting” that affirm anti-black stereotypes, my Asian immigrant community around me who are grateful to not be at the bottom of the racial ladder yet don’t see this as privilege, my alarmingly conservative Asian American students; my own racist parents; these are the people I should be engaging with and talking to. These relationships are also sites of anti-racist struggle.

In a U.S. racial landscape defined by a black-white binary, Asian Americans often see ourselves positioned somewhere “in the middle.” This, I realize, is not all that different from claiming the ignorant space of the “innocent bystander.”

My thanks to Oogie Zoo for his insight on this piece.

Cover photo from The Nation (AP Photo/Gail Burton)


Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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