One of the burning issues of the day is playing out painfully among Vietnamese-Americans in New England: Which side of Black Lives Matter should the community be on?

Some see the movement as a rightful denunciation of structural racism and police brutality. Others in traditionally conservative Vietnamese-American communities in Dorchester, Quincy and Manchester, New Hampshire, regard BLM and their supporters as unpatriotic and dangerously leftist.

BLM's detractors include a Vietnamese immigrant named Bao Chau Kelly of Hooksett, New Hampshire. She is a pro-Trump activist who has recruited a small but vocal group of Vietnamese-Americans to attend “Blue Lives Matter” rallies in support of police and flood social media with messages attacking Black Lives Matter as a violent anti-American ideology. They have excoriated Vietnamese-Americans who embrace BLM, including Massachusetts Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover.

Earlier this summer Nguyen released a video on Facebook explaining why she thought it was important to support Black Lives Matter. Her video included a reference to Asian-Americans' heightened fears following a string of reported verbal and physical attacks across the U.S.

“We can't fight against racism directed towards our community while standing complicit in a system that disproportionately discriminates, devalues and criminalizes and brutalizes our Black friends and neighbors,” she said.

Nguyen told WGBH News she knew that some among the area’s estimated 30,000 Vietnamese-American residents would react negatively to this message. However, she said she did not expect it to lead to “personal attacks” and what she called “vile anti-Black rhetoric.”

“I also didn't anticipate equating Black Lives Matter to socialism and communism. And in fact, I find that to be very ironic because my father served in the South Vietnamese military and was put into a re-education camp by the Communists for eight years.”

In her translated post written in Vietnamese, Chau Kelly said of Nguyen: “It is a shame that her father was an officer of South Vietnam ... and was imprisoned by the [North] Vietnamese communists.”

Chau Kelly's post, cited in an article in theEagle Tribune, goes on to say: “They escaped Vietnam so that she can live in freedom and democracy and have a better future, yet this Massachusetts [representative] embraced the American communists and domestic terrorists BLM."

Complicity with communism are fighting words in Vietnamese communities. But that accusation was hurled unapologetically by Chau Kelly and her supporters on Facebook at Nguyen and other Vietnamese-Americans who hold liberal and progressive positions on race.

WGBH News reached out to Chau Kelly but received no reply. With a large following on social media, she has organized and taken part in several anti-Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Concord, N.H., this summer attended by armed white counter-demonstrators.

“Anytime you disagree with them they call you a communist,” said Tami Nguyen, in reference to Chau Kelly and other conservative Vietnamese activists. Nguyen is Rep. Nguyen’s younger sister and a fervent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I truly believe that Black Lives Matter is a launchpad for anti-racism, for all other communities,” said Tami Nguyen. “Black people paved the path for so many years. How'd we get here? It's Black folks who stood in the front lines to fight for immigration. It wasn't the Asian people. We had no voice. It was the Black community.”

BLM Protest Blue Hill Avenue
Black Lives Matter protest stopping traffic on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester in early June of 2020.
Phillip Martin, WGBH News

Tami Nguyen took part in the massive demonstration on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester and march through Franklin Park in June. She said she also organized rides for protestors trying to leave the Memorial Day weekend demonstrations in downtown Boston when violence erupted.

A recent graduate of Boston University, Nguyen is in her early 20’s and believes that Vietnamese-Americans her age generally agree with the notion that Black Lives Matter. By contrast, she said, she is shocked by what she has been hearing and reading in right-wing Vietnamese social media. Nguyen alleges that some of what she has seen is not just racism. It’s more specific than that, she said.

“There's so much anti-blackness rhetoric within the community. I didn't realize how much anti-blackness there was. I'd start joining like Facebook groups to read more about why folks are so against the current movement. I'm just still in the appalled level of it.”

Nam Pham, the Massachusetts assistant secretary for housing and economic development and a respected leader in the Vietnamese-American community, said he has heard this before. His father was a trade union leader in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese forces moved into Saigon, Pham and his family made their way to the United States, eventually settling in Dorchester’s Fields Corner in 1981. Thousands of other Vietnamese followed.

“We just needed a place we could call home,” said Pham.

Most Vietnamese immigrants in the Boston area came from the south of the country and were ardently anti-communist. Many identified with the Republican Party, said Pham, and viewed African Americans generally as too liberal. Some accepted racist stereotypes of Blacks as criminals and as people to be feared, said Pham. This dread was compounded by street violence during the early post-war Vietnamese migration period.

“In the '80s, in Fields Corner, virtually every Vietnamese that I knew at that time had some physical confrontation; attacked by different groups, white, Black,” Pham said.

But it was Blacks who many Vietnamese feared. Pham said that is changing. He and others interviewed for this article said many Vietnamese-Americans over the decades forged closer relationships with African Americans in Dorchester and other New England communities.

Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID — a nonprofit community development organization in Fields Corner — said among Asian-Americans of all nationalities there has been a growing acknowledgement of the role that African Americans played in helping to make their arrival to the United States possible. She said much of their success resulted from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. That watershed legislation accompanied the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Le, who arrived in the U.S. as a child, said VietAID is working to root out anti-Black, anti-outsider attitudes within Vietnamese communities by setting examples.

“I call this a Vietnamese leading organization," Le said. "I'm Vietnamese-American but our staff and our board are racially diverse. Our preschool is a racially diverse preschool; Caribbean students, Latinx students who come to our preschool, and the residents who live in our affordable housing units are more and more so Black. Our programing aims to also support people of other ethnic backgrounds and not just Vietnamese.”

Le is convinced that Black Lives Matter's detractors represent a shrinking base within Vietnamese-American communities in Dorchester, Quincy and other areas where they live in significant numbers. She said Vietnamese — facing their own struggle with American racism and economic disruption — must work with African-Americans toward their shared goals.

“If Black folks are displaced from Fields Corner, it's not like there are special protections that will make sure that Vietnamese folks don't get displaced until it's gone, right?" Le said. “So, if we're going to fight for our right to stay in Fields Corner because of gentrification and whatnot, we also have to see that other folks are fighting for their right to stay in their homes.”