Anti-Vietnamese racism and pollution spurred violence in Gulf Coast

Written by Zoie Matthew, produced by Sarah Sweeney

Louis Beam burned the U.S.S. Viet Cong on February 14, 1981. Credit: Ed Kolenovsky/AP.

Following the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese refugees fled to the United States, and while some settled in Southern California, others made their way to the Gulf Coast, where they took up crabbing and shrimping. 

But the region was in an ecological spiral — oil spills, pesticide runoff, and toxins from petrochemical plants were poisoning the ocean. Seafood became hard to catch, and local white fishermen started resenting immigrants and blaming them for the shortage. Eventually, violence ensued.

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson catalogs these events in his new book, “The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight For Justice on the Gulf Coast.” 

Johnson tells KCRW he started looking into the story by chance, after listening to the Bruce Springsteen song “Galveston Bay,” which is about a clash between a Vietnamese refugee, a white fisherman, and the KKK.  

“That then kicked off a multi-year investigation where I was sitting across from Klansmen, from aging Vietnamese refugees who had stared down the Klan, from law enforcement,” he says. “It was a massive investigation, but I never really thought I would be thanking Springsteen for pointing me to the story that would become a book.”

The song mentions Billy Joe Aplin, a fisherman from the small town of Seadrift, Texas, who got in an argument about traps with a Vietnamese crabber named Sau Van Nguyen. Aplin harassed Nguyen for weeks after the incident and eventually attacked him with a knife. Nguyen shot him in self-defense. 

“That killing set in motion this slow-burning fire that eventually would consume the entire Texas Gulf Coast,” says Johnson. “Because South turned himself in, but astonishingly found himself acquitted by an all-white jury in a very conservative part of the state. But he was acquitted on grounds of lawful self-defense.”

The killing brought the Ku Klux Klan into the picture after they announced they were going to investigate “improprieties with the trial.” The Grand Dragon of the Klan didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the media storm that ensued, says Johnson. 

“The mere act of involving himself in this conflict allowed him to basically grow a new clan chapter in this small town,” says Johnson. “And from that point on, it was almost like a rinse and repeat — he was looking for any opportunity he could to whip up tensions between these two groups.”

“The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight For Justice on the Gulf Coast” is about 1970s racial animosity set against an unfolding environmental catastrophe along the Texas Gulf Coast. Courtesy of Penguin Random House. 

Using FBI records, case files, and first-hand interviews, Johnson explains how the tensions escalated and spread to Galveston Bay — massive rallies broke out, and the Klan harassed Vietnamese fishermen and firebombed their shrimp boats. 

Eventually, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented the fishermen in a civil trial, which he won.

The resulting injunction stopped the Klan from conducting rallies through Vietnamese neighborhoods, and they weren't allowed to approach Vietnamese people with hoods on. It also broke apart a militia that had been conducting training throughout Texas. In his research, Johnson found ties to the modern white power movement. 

“We're in a period of resurgent militia activity,” he says. “So there [are] a lot of things that happened back then that speak to the present moment.”

A Klan boat is on patrol on March 15, 1981. Credit: John R Van Beekum.

The environmental factors that contributed to this conflict also remain current. Today, almost no shrimping industry still exists in the region. 

“This was always spoken about as a turf war between white and Vietnamese fishermen, but nobody was paying any attention to the turf itself,” he says. “This is now the most toxic water in America. It's called the cancer belt because of the petrochemical industry and all of these toxins that are dumped into the air and in the ground and into the water.”

Another figure in Johnson’s book, a fourth generation shrimper named Diane Wilson, eventually dedicated her life to fighting this industry. She’s still involved in the battle today, at 74 years old.

“It's not lost on me the fact that the one woman in this industry seemed to be the only one who could correctly see clearly that this tiny number of Vietnamese wasn't the problem — it was these massive plants on the coastline,” says Johnson.