In-Depth

Backlash Over Anti-Racist Billboard Challenges Houston’s Vietnamese American Community

In Southwest Houston, a Vietnamese American businessman received death threats and a boycott when he put up a bilingual Black Lives Matter billboard.

Nguyen Le stands in front of the Black Lives Matter sign he erected in Southwest Houston.

Like millions of other people, Nguyen Le watched the eight-minute, 46-second cellphone video in which George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.

The 50-year-old businessman said he had to do something.

“I couldn’t remain silent anymore, because to me remaining silent would just be complicit to all this,” said Le, who runs a well-known insurance firm in Southwest Houston.

After Floyd’s death, Le saw an ad from the 1970s with Black Civil Rights leaders calling on the government to help Vietnamese refugees, like himself.

“That was the beginning of ’78,” Le said. “And then I realized, ‘holy crap’ — later that year I was an 8-year-old boy languishing in a refugee camp.”

It inspired him to show his solidarity with the Black community. In late June, Le put up a bright yellow billboard in Houston's Viet Town that read “Black Lives Matter” in English and Vietnamese.

“We added the Vietnamese translation just because I'm Vietnamese, I was born in Vietnam,” he said. “Everything we do now is bilingual.” Some 91,000 Vietnamese immigrants live in the Houston area.

Le said he was expecting some pushback — but the death threats caught him off guard.

Boycotts and death threats

A Vietnamese vlogger on YouTube called for Nguyen Le to be lynched for his billboard. The video now has more than 36,000 views.

His Facebook page filled up with hate speech. Some critics called him a communist, and he said his insurance business lost 12 clients. The Vietnamese media criticized Le. He responded with a press statement.

“I was never told that I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did,” he wrote in the statement.

Shortly after the backlash, people organized to support Le. They rallied in front of the billboard. They defended him on social media. An online fundraiser for Le's business has been shared more than 3,000 times.

“I'm really encouraged by how many people have donated,” said Ngoc Anh Nguyen, a doctor in Houston who created the GoFundMe page.

“At first it was only Vietnamese Americans, or Vietnamese people donating,” Nguyen said. “Then it went to people in other countries, people in other states, and then non-Vietnamese people who literally have no bone in this fight.”

She said the billboard controversy has sparked difficult conversations in their community, particularly among young people and their parents, who are more likely to be conservative.

Evolving conversations on race

Bao Huong Hoang, 35, is one of the many Vietnamese Americans in Houston who support Nguyen Le and Black Lives Matter. She’s an administrative director of protocol research at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and generally steers clear of controversial topics, like race, with her parents.

But, she said, earlier this week, she sat down for dinner with her parents and her mom mentioned the billboard out of the blue.

“She said ‘you know about that billboard, I've been hearing in the Vietnamese radio they've been talking about it’ and she said, ‘initially it made me very uncomfortable’,” said Hoang.

Her mom told her about the media reports showing people of all different races supporting the Black Lives Matter billboard.

“She said she saw all these different faces, masked faces, but faces out at the protest. She said she's had a change of heart. She said she thinks it's now a good thing,” Hoang said.

Hoang said she’s pleasantly surprised to see her mother change her mindset.

Jacqueline Dan’s mother was less supportive when she found out her daughter was a supporter of the billboard. Dan’s mother, who lives in Houston, questioned her daughter when she saw her name on the GoFundMe page.

“She said, ‘the Vietnamese community… does not like this billboard’,” Dan said.

Her mom argued that Vietnamese stores are targeted by Black people. But Dan rebutted — she works as an immigration attorney at the public defender’s office in Orange County, California.

“I represent the people who break into Vietnamese stores and homes — and they speak Vietnamese,” Dan said.

These divisions are not uncommon in Asian American families, especially among the first and second generations, according to Janelle Wong, who studies Asian American public opinion at the University of Maryland.

“Those who are older or first generation tend to be more conservative when it comes to racial justice issues than our younger people,” Wong said.

In the last five-and-a-half years, she’s seen a small but vocal minority emerge that aggressively opposes racial justice.

But nearly 75% of Asian American voters she polled in 2016 said the U.S. government should do more to enforce equal rights for Black people in the country. And, she said, there are many older Asian Americans who have paved the way for the younger generation.

“The community as a whole is — among adults — 73% foreign born, and we actually see that group is still more progressive than white Americans as a whole in terms of their ideas about race,” said Wong.

Nguyen Le said even in though his 70-year-old mother was upset about the billboard — especially the attacks it spurred towards her son — he saw her opinion of its message “Black Lives Matter” evolve.

“I explained to her (I had to do something) when I watched a grown man call out for his mama after his last breath,” Le said. “She finally understood that.”

“Because she cried for me, at 50, when a total stranger went online and called for my lynching.”

Le said his mom’s own fear for her son’s safety made her realize why he could no longer remain silent on anti-Black racism.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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