Consuela Hendricks vividly remembers the day when, as a teenager, she volunteered at a Chinatown youth event six years ago.
A Chinese police officer spoke with a group of kids about public safety in the neighborhood. He warned the female students about kidnapping attempts in Chinatown.
“And he turns to me,” recalled Hendricks, who is black. “And he's like, ‘Only Asian girls get kidnapped. You don't have nothing to worry about. People don't want black girls.’ ”
“And I remember it was really hard to process,” Hendricks said. “I was just like, 'Why is he cool saying this to me? I'm this 17-, 16-year-old kid.' ”
The experience was one of Hendricks’ early brushes with anti-black prejudice in Chinatown, where the Englewood-born activist spent much of her teen years. Her Chinese friends would often tell her she couldn’t be seen with them in the neighborhood. At restaurants, she would be the last to be served unless she was with an Asian friend. In stores, shopkeepers would watch her and follow her through the aisles.
Those encounters left her feeling rejected. “It was just really traumatic as a kid,” Hendricks said.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t recognize the racism,” she said. “But then, as I got older, I recognized it.”
What Hendricks described is something black community members have experienced in Chinatown for many years. Unlike its counterparts in other cities, Chicago’s Chinatown developed outside of downtown and, for years, has been nestled among other segregated neighborhoods — Bronzeville, where African Americans have resided for over a century; Pilsen, a longtime entry point for Mexican immigrants; and Bridgeport, a historic white ethnic enclave that has become racially diverse. Over the years, Chinese and black residents in particular have had an uneasy relationship.
In 2017, Hendricks was studying urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago and volunteering with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) when she met Angela Lin.
Lin, who is Chinese American, was a newly minted University of Chicago grad working as a community organizer for CBCAC. She and Hendricks noticed a lack of services for certain populations — especially low-income black residents, the homeless and people suffering from mental illness — in Chinatown and the rest of the city. Both Hendricks and Lin also recognized anti-black sentiment in Chinatown. The two joined together to start a nonprofit called People Matter.
In January at the Chinatown branch library the group held its first event, “Highlighting Black Heroes in Chinatown.”
“A lot of anti-blackness events are very heavy,” Hendricks said, explaining why they chose to throw a party-slash-award ceremony for black community members who have contributed to the neighborhood. “Why can’t we have a celebration and like, just celebrate the people who are in the community?”
The group doled out certificates and portraits painted by Lin, a visual arts major, to teachers, custodial staff, social service workers and other black heroes. People Matter even made posters introducing these honorees to the community, in both Chinese and English, which Hendricks and Lin planned to plaster all over Chinatown.
The co-founders were buoyed by the event, at which the turnout was double what they had expected. They wanted to keep the momentum going with meetings to discuss anti-blackness in Chinatown.
But mere weeks after the “Black Heroes” event, any hopes to improve the relationship between Chinese and black community members were diminished.
In early February, two Chinese men were shot and killed during a robbery attempt at a parking lot in Chinatown. When authorities charged Alvin Thomas, a 20-year-old black man, with the killings of Huayi Bian, 36, and Weizhong Xiong, 38, racial tensions in the community reached a fever pitch.
In the weeks after the homicides, People Matter’s Hendricks said she noticed a marked change in Chinese-black relations.
“After the two murders, it was like an explosion,” she said. “It gave a lot of people who are racist an outlet to express their racism.”
On Facebook neighborhood watch groups and over the Chinese messaging platform WeChat, the anti-black comments rolled in.
Screenshots obtained by WBEZ show comments like: “All the people killing and stealing in Chinatown are black.” “These animals have no sense of limits.” “Black people’s lives are cheaper than dirt.”
Hendricks said that one Chinatown organization even gathered its black employees to tell them to be careful of anti-black retaliation.
Hundreds of residents showed up at snowy vigils for the victims and at community meetings focused on public safety, wearing T-shirts and holding signs that read, “Asian Lives Matter.” More than 90 people even attended a bond hearing for Thomas, a rare sight in criminal court.
Business owners in Chinatown were on edge, watching black customers carefully and texting one another over WeChat.
“With the double homicide that we have, and every time, when some lady’s purse [gets] snatched, some car [gets] stolen, it always [turns] out to be an African American,” said Julie Lam, owner of AJ Housewares & Gifts in Chinatown square. “Those incidences — what can you say about those?”
Young Tan, a manager at Tous Les Jours bakery a few doors down, said he and other store owners watch for black teens and homeless residents, many of them black, who sometimes steal bread or use the bathroom for long periods of time, but there’s not much they can do.
“We just watch them, and let them go because we can’t do anything,” Tan said. “Sometimes we call security, but they take too long to come.”
He added that fears over public safety compounded Chinatown’s business slump since news of the coronavirus broke in January. “Customers don’t want to come in, they’re worried that Chinatown is not safe,” Tan said.
“People are angry; people are frustrated,” said C.W. Chan, founder of CBCAC and a longtime community leader in Chinatown. “Then people tend to try to find someone to blame and try to point a finger. So easily, that will turn into a race issue — which is not right, which is not good.”
Chan said the most extreme anti-black reactions to the killings are not representative of Chinatown as a whole.
“People look at Chinatown as one group, [that] everybody thinks alike,” he said. “No, [it’s] not. We don’t even speak the same dialects.”
He said the community is ever-changing, with new immigrants always coming in. “Without any guidance, they formulate their understanding and opinion about the neighborhood, about American society,” he said.
David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a church-based community center, said many Chinatown residents are immigrants who are generally distrustful of other races “because of language and a lack of familiarity.” He said they often base their opinions of black people on brief, often negative encounters — exchanges on the street and in stores, often with the homeless.
Wu pointed out that there are places in Chinatown where good Chinese-black relationships are being forged through prolonged, positive interactions.
“One place I’ve seen it happen is Ping Tom Park,” Wu said. “There are people from Pilsen and South Loop and Bronzeville and Chinatown getting together.”
Wu also suggested that faith organizations in the two communities might be good candidates to lead a discussion on race relations.
Chan said Chinese residents who have lived in the United States for many years should speak up when conversations veer toward racial debate.
“Some of us who’ve been in this country for a long time, we also have the responsibility to provide some kind of guidance when people do have the discussion,” he said.
Chan has seen his community through some of its most tense Chinese-black debates. Many years ago, there was a fight by Chinatown residents to close a tunnel on 24th Street that connected the neighborhood to the Harold Ickes Homes, a predominantly black, public housing development just east of Chinatown that was demolished a decade ago. After several Chinese residents were robbed there, community members clashed over the tunnel, which black children walked through on their way to Haines Elementary School in Chinatown.
More recently, in 2017, there was a failed effort by the Chinese community to convert National Teachers Academy — a nearby thriving, mostly-black elementary school — into a high school for Chinatown students.
Chan acknowledged these debates are complex, and finding a solution that works for everyone requires a “combination of community efforts and also the policymakers.” He said he prefers a conciliatory tone, adding that pointing fingers and lecturing one another won’t lead to racial harmony.
But People Matter’s Hendricks said she is tired of tiptoeing around the issue of anti-blackness — which she points out is found among all races.
“Anti-blackness is global,” she said. “Everyone participates in it, but we have to be mindful of it.”
Hendricks compares the issue to a “festering” wound.
“If you ignore the wound, it’s still going to be infected,” she said. “So why not just clean it out and look at it and say, 'We need to get stitches. We need to go to the doctor. We need to put some ointment on it. We need to get all this stuff done so that we can be healed, right?' ”
Hendricks added that people’s views about race are often shaped by their personal experiences. Her group plans to dialogue with the Chinatown community — and beyond — about institutional racism and the causes of poverty and crime.
She said she is hopeful about the work People Matter is doing.
A black student recently brought her Chinese friend to a monthly meeting of People Matter’s Tackling Anti-Blackness in the Chinatown Community subcommittee.
“They said, ‘We want to talk about this issue; it happens in our schools,’ ” Hendricks said, adding that young people talking to their parents about race is an effective way to start a wider dialogue between the two communities she loves.
“We’re building a group of people who are interested in making change,” she said. “We want to give people the tools and equip them with the things they can do so they can make this change that they want to see.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.