Tamara Nopper in New Inquiry:
[A]s suggested in the iconic photograph of him sporting a black beret and sunglasses, Aoki was perceived by many of us who didn’t know him as cool, hip, and most importantly, politically down with the Black struggle. And yes, he was also unfortunately idolized for not being an “emasculated” (read nerdy or gay) Asian man—a homophobic and sexist preoccupation among many Asian Americans and our “allies.” And some of us liked that Aoki was known for providing guns and weapons training to the BPP. While there is afoot an intellectual effort to prove that the BPP was more than just about using guns, Aoki had passed a particular litmus test for non-Black allies of the Black struggle—a willingness to use guns or supply weapons in defense of Black people’s freedom and thus, purportedly be more willing to put one’s life on the line. Simply put, Aoki was, for some of us, our Asian American John Brown.
And yet Aoki was not John Brown. He was not white. He and his family had been incarcerated in an internment camp during WWII. As a youth he had been in a gang and in trouble with the law. His experiences with Blacks were not isolated to political organizing; he had grown up in West Oakland andimages of Aoki during his youth show him hanging out with African Americans. Taken together, Aoki was a working-class Asian American man in a white supremacist society, whose biography makes for an even more seductive interracial coalition story. He was not the border crosser of the white anti-racist variety who used his dominant group member status and racial privilege to paternalistically help Blacks. Instead, for many of us, Aoki was an anti-model minority in the crudest sense: a working-class, socially rebellious Asian American who politically claimed his minority status and committed his entire adult life to radical activism.
Aoki, then, was the perfect hero for leftist Asian Americans as his biography spoke to two simultaneous desires that animate contemporary Asian American scholarship and activism. The first is being acknowledged by other people of color that we are racial minorities and not white or honorary whites. The second is proving to Blacks that we do not hate them or have structural power over them.