U of C students say the killing of a Chinese alum has sparked anti-Black sentiment

UChicago anti-Blackness presser
Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, speaks at a press conference addressing the Nov. 9 robbery and killing of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, near the University of Chicago campus, and the university's plans to increase police presence and surveillance in Hyde Park. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
UChicago anti-Blackness presser
Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, speaks at a press conference addressing the Nov. 9 robbery and killing of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, near the University of Chicago campus, and the university's plans to increase police presence and surveillance in Hyde Park. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

U of C students say the killing of a Chinese alum has sparked anti-Black sentiment

Some University of Chicago students and community groups gathered on campus Monday to decry the university’s immediate plans to improve safety in the aftermath of the killing of a Chinese alum earlier this month. The groups also denounced an increase of anti-Black sentiment on campus in the wake of the killing.

Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a 24-year-old international student from China, was shot and killed near campus during a robbery on Nov. 9. Three days later, the Chicago Police Department announced that Alton Spann, an 18-year-old Black man, had been apprehended and charged with Zheng’s killing. Spann is charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon, according to police.

U of C administrators responded with calls for action — including a rally and a letter signed by more than 300 faculty members, many of them Asian — by announcing a joint effort with Chicago police. The plan would increase police presence and install more surveillance throughout the Hyde Park campus on Chicago’s South Side.

On Monday, some students and local groups said adding more police and surveillance in Hyde Park is not the answer to a long-standing problem. Instead, they called for long-term solutions to gun violence on campus and in surrounding areas.

“Hyde Park is already one of the most policed neighborhoods in Chicago,” said Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago. “Increasing policing and surveillance will not deter future gun violence because policing and surveillance do not address the root causes of violence such as decades of disinvestment, structural racism, poverty, trauma and lack of opportunity.”

Those who gathered Monday, including Asian and Black UChicago students, also said there has been a rise in anti-Black sentiment on campus, particularly over social media, that paints Black students and Black residents of neighboring communities with a broad brush.

Keegan Ballantyne, a second-year undergraduate and member of the Organization of Black Students, said comments have ranged from calling for U of C’s campus to gentrify and become more like that of Northwestern University in north suburban Evanston, to asking “if it’s OK … to just fear all Black men walking around in the Hyde Park community.”

Jasmine Lu, a graduate computer science student, said the international student community was shaken up by the killing. However, she said mourning the death of a fellow student cannot be at the expense of other communities.

“I very much understand the fears and concerns of international students in the community, but also denounce the very racist and co-opting of Black Lives Matter language,” Lu said, referring to anti-Black comments on social media and some signs displayed at a rally last week attended by hundreds of students and community members.

She added that the perspective of many international students “comes from [having experienced] policing in a different country, and it’s very different the way that policing is racialized in the United States.”

She also said many Chinese students, including some organizers of last week’s rally, expressed dismay that the event — intended to express grief and fear — was co-opted by some attendees to “pit Asians against Black people in the community.”

Pai, with Advancing Justice, said, “We all want to live, work and study in communities that feel safe.” She said public safety needs to be addressed, “but that that is public safety for all communities. Black communities have borne the brunt of gun violence and disinvestment for decades. We can learn from what those communities are telling us about what would make them feel safe.”

Pai and others called for more resources to address the decades of disinvestment in communities surrounding Hyde Park.

On Chicago’s South Side, which includes large populations of Black and Asian residents, violent deaths of Asians have often been met with calls for more policing. In February 2020, the arrest of a Black man for the killings of two Chinese men in Chinatown was followed by an increase in anti-Black sentiment in the community and demands for increased police patrols.

Grace Chan McKibben, a longtime Hyde Park resident and self-proclaimed “loyal alum” of UChicago, said she sees parallels between the aftermath of the Chinatown killings and Zheng’s killing: Asian residents banding together in grief and calling for immediate measures to address long-term problems — often to the detriment of Black community members.

“Safety is part of a much larger issue,” she said. “There’s economics, poverty, disenfranchisement — it’s all tied to systemic racism — and until we address those issues, addressing crime in and of itself is not enough.”

She also recalled the July murder of Keith Cooper, a Black Hyde Park resident, who died after an attempted carjacking. “There was a vigil, but there wasn’t the same outcry even though it was also a senseless murder for economic reasons in the same way,” said McKibben, who leads the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.

“Every group certainly can identify with people that look and sound like them a lot more,” McKibben continued, “but compassion and overall strategies need to include everyone.”

The University of Chicago did not immediately respond to WBEZ’s request for comment.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.