When fifty-year-old insurance agent Lê Hoàng Nguyên donated some of his personal savings to put up an anti-racism billboard in southwest Houston in July, he never expected that it would lead to fellow members of the city’s Vietnamese American community calling for his lynching and boycotts of his business. “Treo cổ Lê Hoàng Nguyên (hang the neck of Lê Hoàng Nguyên),” wrote one commenter on Facebook, as dozens of others denounced him as a communist and left negative reviews on his Facebook business page.
To Lê’s surprise, his simple yellow billboard had instantly become a flashpoint within the community of nearly 120,000 Vietnamese Americans who reside in one of America’s most diverse cities. Admittedly, the sign is hard to miss: a bold-font headline reading “Black Lives Matter,” with “Stop Racism” displayed in both Vietnamese and English underneath, can be spotted down the length of Bellaire Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of the city’s sprawling Chinatown and Little Saigon. Lê’s office sits on this road, sandwiched among Vietnamese noodle houses, bubble tea shops, and Houston’s largest Asian radio station.
Lê, who has long been active in the city’s Vietnamese community as a youth mentor, says the vitriolic backlash was jarring. The morning after the sign went up, he woke up to an online smear campaign that had been started by a small but vocal group of Vietnamese American supporters of President Donald Trump. “It blew me away,” he recalls. “I knew there would be some pushback, but I didn’t account for the Trumpers. This group saw the billboard as an affront to the president. This was my blind spot.”
The Vietnamese American community now finds itself at a crossroads, weighing whether to confront racism head-on or remain quiet and complicit in a system that perpetuates it. Yet the issue of racism—and anti-Blackness in particular—raises questions unique to the refugee experience. As Vietnamese Americans, how can our conversations about race be framed in terms of Black and white when we ourselves—our histories, our bodies, and our struggles—don’t exist within this binary?
History class curriculums in Texas public schools mandate a cursory mention of the Vietnam War—but as a student, I wasn’t told much about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who landed in the United States in the years after the massacres, bombs, and chemical warfare decimated their country. Arriving with no home, money, or grasp of English, my parents’ generation worked hard to build close-knit Vietnamese enclaves in places such as Garden Grove, California; the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans East; and the Alief area of southwest Houston. They often faced animosity from Americans of other races while establishing their communities.
“The American public’s opposition to letting in Vietnamese refugees was even higher than today’s opposition to Syrian asylum-seekers, both in the U.S. and in much of Europe,” writes Quartz’s Thu-Huong Ha, citing a 1975 poll showing that only 37 percent of Americans supported accepting Indochinese refugees. In the seventies, many Vietnamese immigrants, fishermen by trade, settled and worked along the Gulf Coast. In places like Seadrift, Texas, they clashed violently with the Ku Klux Klan. The reception was not much better in big cities: a series of shootings targeting Asian store clerks in Houston prompted Vietnamese residents to arm themselves—echoing the plight of Korean shopkeepers in Black neighborhoods during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Rather than foster solidarity, the proximity between Vietnamese Americans and African Americans often engendered mutual distrust. At just thirteen years old, Lê was armed and enlisted by his uncle to help guard the family’s grocery store in Galena Park—a predominantly Black part of Houston—from looters in the wake of Hurricane Alicia, which hit the city in August 1983.
“My father was killed fourteen months after my parents came to the country, so my mother bought a grocery store and that’s how she raised us,” Lê explains. “Before the hurricane hit, some burglars broke into the building and busted our door. After the hurricane devastated Houston, we couldn’t get anyone to come out and fix it. So we slept there—my uncle gave me a handgun that I didn’t know how to operate. That’s how I grew up, so I understand crime. I know how it feels to be a victim of Black crime on Vietnamese businesses. But you can’t—and I refuse to—blame an entire population [for the acts of] a small fraction of people who victimized my family.”
In recent years, these painful memories—many of them familiar to many Vietnamese American immigrants—have resurfaced as Houston’s Chinatown–Little Saigon neighborhood experienced a surge in crime. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, a group of Vietnamese business owners took to Facebook to circulate videos of looting and other crimes committed by African Americans, using these isolated incidents to justify overt racism.
Such attitudes are most prevalent among the older generation of Vietnamese Americans, says Bao Huong Hoang, who serves on the board of the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association, a community organization offering educational opportunities and promoting civic engagement in the Vietnamese American community. She mentions her own father, a former South Vietnamese air force pilot who escaped to America as a refugee, as an example.
“I love my dad, but I recognize he is racist,” Hoang says. “When the Vietnam War ended, he struggled with undiagnosed PTSD and coping with the loss of everything he had known. He moved into low-income housing in a densely populated and high-crime area. Several times, he was robbed at gunpoint of what little possessions he had by other people of color living in the area. Many older-generation Vietnamese Americans have similar negative experiences … which have laid a foundation of hate and misunderstanding.”
Hoang adds that lack of formal education, sustained self-segregation, and a reliance on biased political media have compounded the trauma borne by this group. A 2010 Brown University report found that Vietnamese Americans live in communities that are just as segregated from non-Hispanic whites as Black communities are.
That meant, as Hoang notes, that Vietnamese refugees “found comfort in and became dependent on local Vietnamese media outlets, newspapers, radio, television programming, and segregated themselves to live in the Little Saigon area of town.”
Today, Vietnamese Americans are an upwardly mobile group. Our population quadrupled between 1980 and 2000, growing another 26 percent during the 2000s to reach 1.3 million today. By 2015, our median household income had inched slightly higher than that of the U.S.-born. There are Vietnamese American politicians, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelists, celebrity chefs, and Hollywood entertainers. But among Asian American groups, we are the most politically conservative. Thirty-two percent of Vietnamese Americans voted for Trump, compared with 18 percent of Asian Americans as a whole.
Some of the allegations leveled against Lê shed light on this phenomenon. During an emotional appearance by Lê on a local Vietnamese-language TV network, a host led with questions that forced Lê to defend himself against accusations that he is a communist. Like Cuban Americans, Vietnamese Americans are often defined and triggered by their painful experiences with communism in their home country. Some vow to never again set foot in Vietnam so long as the red flag of the Communist party flies over the country. All over Houston, Vietnamese businesses continue to fly the yellow flag of the former South Vietnam.
The Trump presidency has exacerbated the generational, educational, and political differences among Vietnamese Americans. On Facebook, many Vietnamese Americans share the president’s hatred of China—Vietnam’s thousand-year oppressor—and approve of his attacks on political rivals as “socialists.” Some Vietnamese Americans believe the Black Lives Matter movement to be a Marxist group and denounce anyone who might show solidarity with even some of its goals. In one recent incident, a well-known Vietnamese Catholic priest who attended Houston’s George Floyd memorial (alongside police chief Art Acevedo, no less) was slandered and forced to issue a statement clarifying his appearance as spiritual rather than political.
Members of right-leaning Vietnamese American organizations, such as the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinities (VNCH), believe they are fighting the same threat of communism they fled 45 years ago. Some of the organization’s activism is public spirited, as when it hands out face masks and backpacks full of supplies to elders at the Vietnamese Community Center. And over the years, the group has organized annual demonstrations calling for democracy and accountability for the notorious human rights abuses of the Vietnamese government.
But after Lê’s billboard went up, VNCH planned (and subsequently canceled) a different kind of event: a town hall meant to “solve the sensitive issue” of the offending sign. This planned event was quickly called out by internet commenters as a protest against Black Lives Matter. The organization’s interim president, Quoc-Anh Tran, insists the purpose of the event was to facilitate a dialogue between proponents of “both sides” of the story and find a peaceful solution, adding that it was canceled out of fear of violence, after state representatives Gene Wu and Hubert Vo organized a counterprotest.
“Many older Vietnamese Americans believe that the Black Lives Matter organization is a communist organization; and because of a few bad actors creating chaos and looting, many businesses fear the protests—they want law and order,” Tran writes via email, adding that Vietnamese Americans, above all, understand the value of freedom after having lost it once. “The older generation risked their lives to find freedom here in the United States. Where do we go if the United States falls into the hands of communists?”
Whether one agrees with Tran or not, it’s important to understand the struggles his generation has overcome and the systems that have failed all of us—starting with education. There is a reason I never learned about Juneteenth as a student in Texas private and public schools. There is a reason I wasn’t told about the eighty Black civil rights leaders who took out an ad in the New York Times in 1978 to demand entry to the U.S. for Vietnamese refugees—at a time when many white Democrats, including Joe Biden, opposed it.
When Lê came across an image of the letter, which started going viral among Asian Americans in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, something clicked. “In 1978, I was an eight-year-old kid in a refugee camp,” he says. “After seeing the video of George Floyd, I knew that to remain silent meant being complicit.”
Asian Americans often are used as a wedge against other people of color. White supremacists champion Asian Americans to bolster their case against affirmative action; meanwhile, they cheer on a president who has called COVID-19 the “kung flu” and has attempted to deport thousands of Vietnamese immigrants who’ve lived here for decades. As we were pawns in white America’s game in Southeast Asia, so are we used to legitimize the institution of white power.
It’s hard to deny that many of the freedoms our elders risked their lives for are under assault in America. But an increasingly diverse coalition of young people—one that now includes first-generation children of refugees and immigrants—is standing up against injustice and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In Vietnamese American immigrant communities, that coalition includes millennials and zoomers who possess both the digital literacy and cultural context to reach their parents and relatives.
For this new generation, Lê’s billboard is a rare sign of support from an older generation removed from the world of memes and viral videos. News of the billboard on Vietnamese radio prompted Hoang’s parents to ask her about the Black Lives Matter issue unexpectedly over lunch. Typically, she says, she avoids any political discussion and omits mention of her years of volunteering and community organizing, for fear of upsetting her parents.
“My mom shared that the more she reflected, the more she believed the message is a good message,” Hoang says. “She said, ‘If Black people know that Vietnamese people support them … maybe then they will support us and not rob us anymore.’ Of course, this selfish reasoning isn’t exactly the kind of enlightened realization I was hoping for. But heck, this is a really big step for my mom.” Hoang says her father didn’t respond, and instead ate beside them in silence. But that was a step, too, “as compared to his usual getting up, yelling, and storming out.”
These difficult conversations are part of a necessary discourse in the Vietnamese American community. “I believe the ‘Black Lives Matter—stop racism’ message on the billboard provides us all a chance to reflect on what is in our own hearts,” says state representative Hubert Vo, the first and only Vietnamese American in the Texas Legislature. “The billboard was intended to show support for the fight against racism. Another goal was to start conversations about racism and injustice. It seems to have done just that.”
When I met with Lê for coffee in Houston recently, he sported his usual ensemble: cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a baseball cap with an American flag. The national spotlight has been stressful for him and his family—friends started a GoFundMe to help him make up for lost business—as are the threats and gossip, but he says he doesn’t regret posting the billboard.
“Because we love [America] and because we want her to be better, we call things out. That doesn’t make us unpatriotic,” he says. “It’s the most patriotic thing to do.”