Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Getting Up On Whitey.

Black/Asian Tensions - A Convenient Euphemism?

An article in an online mag called "Mic" that covered the recent Akai Gurley killing by Chinese-American cop, Peter Liang, caught my attention recently. The piece makes the argument that it is the social and political dimensions of the death - rather than the specific circumstances of the incident - that should persuade us against supporting Liang. Furthermore, supporting Liang, the title of the article suggests, will result in "worse racial tension". The article does not explain why this should or would be the case, and neither does it question whether such a reaction would be reasonable or ethical.

Instead, the implication is that such an outcome - i.e. worsened racial tensions - is both natural, reasonable and possibly acceptable. Sadly, justice is not served by committing further injustice. Levelling disproportionate charges against an offender because it satisfies political requirements (which is the fundamental concern of those who support Liang - and not racial prejudice on the part of his supporters) and assuages our frustrations about historical and ongoing racial injustices is as unjust as not indicting policemen who commit brazen murder.

For justice to be justice, the social and political conditions that gave Gurley his hand in life cannot play a role in how Liang is charged or tried. Liang is not guilty of creating the housing projects, nor of their state of disrepair, nor of racial inequalities that makes those living in poverty more likely to be black. If those factors are considered in the case, then justice is not served. Those who support Liang are demanding that he be tried not with social and racial injustices that are beyond his control in mind, but that the specific circumstances of the incident be given the utmost consideration. But the Mic piece fundamentally argues that we should overlook the injustice of charging Liang disproportionately because  there exists so much racial injustice in society. That sounds more like vengeance and scapegoating and less like justice.

Nowhere in the piece is this idea of scapegoating more clearly illustrated than in the words of New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres whom the Mic piece quotes thus...
"If we were as aggressive in policing the housing conditions as we are in policing the residents"  [this might have never have happened.]
This would be hilarious if it did not come on the tail of such a tragedy. The New York City Council bears the sole responsibility for approving the city budget and also monitors the performance of city agencies - which includes New York's public housing authority responsible for the maintenance of the high-rise project where Gurley was shot. How does the New York City Council doing a piss-poor job of ensuring decent housing conditions in its jurisdiction have anything to do with the charges levelled against Peter Liang? In effect, what is being said here is that a membere of the NY City Council admits that it failed in its responsibilities to the people who it represents, contributing (greatly) to the circumstances that led to the tense situation that resulted in the death of an innocent man, and maybe even contributed to the manner of, and raison d'etre for vertical patrols. Yet the implication is that these factors should be considered in Liang's case. This is as unfair as institutionalized racism itself.

Yet it is the dramatic title of the Mic piece - "Supporting This Chinese-American Cop Who Shot a Black Man Only Makes Racial Tension Worse" - that I find to be most disturbing. The idea that an entire community will experience negative outcomes from the actions of a few of them is a classic example of racist thinking. More specifically, it is an acknowledgment that there exists an intolerance amongst blacks for Asian-Americans such that their merely voicing a different opinion of advocating against possible racial injustice against Asians is sufficient to make racial tensions worse.

It looks worse when we consider that Chinese-Americans account for a mere 20% of the population of Asian-Americans and that those who seem to support Liang account for a fraction of that. Yet, their actions will serve as the catalysts for "worse racial tensions". I cannot think of a more clear example of racist mob reasoning. Furthermore, I wonder if - but doubt that - the piece would have been published if it had been directed at white-Americans.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting, there were no commentators claiming that Ferguson's white residents' support for Darren Wilson would worsen racial tensions. Yet, here, in the Liang case where there are, objectively, several reasons to be concerned that justice is being twisted for political expediency, we are told to expect a potential worsening of racial tension possibly because those questioning the indictment happen to be Asian. Why, then has no (as far as I know) African-American commentator published an article warning of worsening racial tensions when whites support white cops who kill? Whatever the reasons, there seems to be a clear message that - unlike Asian-Americans - the entire white community will not be held accountable and subject to worsening racial tensions because a minority of them supported killer cops.

An examination of the nature and character of black/Asian tensions might provide some insight to this disparity in attitude. In short, "black/Asian tensions" means two different things to each group. For Asians, these tensions are often experienced as violence. Whereas Asian on black violence is almost unheard of, black on Asian violence seems to be far more prevalent. By contrast, African-Americans seem to experience black/Asian tensions most often as a series of interpersonal slights that are perceived to be an affront to dignity and pride. African-Americans complaints of anti-black violence committed by Asian perpetrators are rare, but there is a long list of Asian victims of violence - ranging from school children to the elderly - at the hands of black perpetrators. Clearly, there is a vast difference in how these "racial tensions" are experienced by both groups.

In the context of the Mic article, to say that there will be an increase in racial tensions could - and should - be viewed as a way of saying that the experience of these tensions by both groups will be intensified. Or, put another way, blacks will experience more hurt pride at the hands of Asians and Asians will experience more hostility and violence from African-Americans.

On the other hand, white-Americans hold most of the power in society and violence between the black and white communities is more mutual. Asians possess no such institutional power. Thus, it could well be that this idea of worsening violence towards Asians reflects a belief that it is less likely to be met with the kind of potential for retaliatory violence that would arise from white society. If not, why were there no commentaries proclaiming the prospect of worsening racial tensions in the aftermath of violence against Asian children and the elderly? The answer is that there is no expectation or probability of anti-black violence to flare up amongst Asian-Americans, and at worst Asian store owners might commit more acts of effrontery to African-American pride.

But it is not just that there seems to be a proclivity towards a casual attitude when it comes to anti-Asian violence in black America. The increasing presence of African-Americans in positions of political and social authority has altered the landscape of black and Asian relations in unexpected ways and there is another extremely disturbing phenomenon that seems to be emerging in the saga of black/Asian relations that goes beyond mere "tension" and hints at more deep-rooted anti-Asian racism in black-America.

In many of the communities where some of the worst and most violent incidences where "black/Asian tensions" have been reported, African-Americans hold influential positions as local politicians, heads of police, heads of school boards, school principals and so on. This means that in many of the spaces where the lives of many Asian immigrants and African-Americans intersect, it is African-Americans who often wield the power of America's institutions. This has not always turned out too well for Asian-Americans.
Council Member Inez Barron and Assembly Member-Elect Charles Barron will be holding a press conference at 12 noon in front of the Brooklyn DA’s Office, following a meeting with District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Office, regarding the shooting death of Akai Gurley, by Police in the Pink Housing development. - See more at: http://www.blackstarnews.com/ny-watch/news/charles-barron-calls-for-arrest-of-liang-nypd-cop-who-killed-akai#sthash.oZM2rYgo.dpuf

The Liang case produced its own example of a skewed application of institutional power.....
Council Member Inez Barron and Assembly Member-Elect Charles Barron will be holding a press conference at 12 noon in front of the Brooklyn DA’s Office, following a meeting with District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Office, regarding the shooting death of Akai Gurley, by Police in the Pink Housing development.......“We are calling on the arrest and indictment of Officer Peter Liang,” says Charles Barron.
This seems like a blatant case of elected officials endeavouring to influence the judiciary to bring about a criminal prosecution - charges which could, objectively, be viewed as disproportionate and biased. After all, why hasn't Liang's partner - Landau - also been charged for not calling in the shooting and not administering first aid? Aside from the fact that democracy itself is predicated on the principle of the strict separation of powers and that there seems to have been an open and unapologetic flouting of this principle to target an ethnic minority individual, the idea of institutional power of elected officials targeting an Asian policeman while ignoring the fact that a white officer also neglected his duties reeks of racial bias. The words "persecution" and "bias" come to mind here.

Even worse, here, these local politicians explicitly stoked, and threatened to stoke, the flames of violence if the judiciary failed to bring the charges that they wanted brought against Liang...
"Unlike my colleagues, I am not calling for peace and calm. I’m calling for us to be hot,” state Assemblyman-elect Barron said, standing beside Gurley’s gal pal, Melissa Butler, at a press conference outside the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.....If you want somebody to be peaceful and calm, tell the police to be peaceful and calm!.....He also demanded that Officer Peter Liang, who fired the single shot that killed the 28-year-old Gurley on Thursday night at East New York’s Louis Pink Houses, be charged with criminally negligent homicide.
To paraphrase this, an elected official insinuated the use of populist violence to pressure the judiciary to bring specific charges against an accused man. Oddly - but not surprisingly considering that the accused is Asian - no one seems disturbed by this abuse of institutional power. At least I have now learned not to expect Asian advocacy to take note, saving me from disappointment that always follows in the wake of expectation.

Sadly, there are several cases in which Asian-Americans - most often immigrants - living in neighborhoods where much of the power of the local institutions rests in the hands of African-Americans find themselves on the wrong end of institutional apathy and apparent bias. The racial targeting of Asian immigrant students by their African-American peers at South Philly High School several years back was investigated by the Justice Department after claims that the victims' reports to school administrators went ignored by the principle and the District Superintendent, both of whom were African-American. The Justice Department found in favor of the Asian students, finding that the district abused their civil rights and engaged in racial bias against them.

More recently, Rochester, NY has seen another explosion of violent racism against Asian immigrants perpetrated by African-Americans under the apathetic eye of African-Americans who hold positions of institutional power. According to the victims, their reports to the police were ignored or not taken seriously even after community leaders held a meeting with police officials.
The anger [of the immigrants] is fueled, he and more than a dozen other residents interviewed say, by hundreds of incidents of robbery and violent and verbal bullying in recent years.......they kept loose documentation of some 300 incidents before a meeting with police two years ago, and hundreds more since, only to see nothing change.........The refugee community typically doesn't report crimes to police because they either fear retaliation, they don't trust police (sometimes because of conflicts with authority in their homelands) or don't think police take their plight seriously.
So, according to the immigrants, the violence cannot be put down to crimes of theft against a vulnerable community - the verbal and violent bullying adds a dimension that goes beyond mere criminal opportunism. The comments of the former African-American police chief - John Sheppard - who met with community leaders are far from inspiring.....
Sheppard described the immigrants as easy targets for crime because they stand out from the rest of the community because of their lighter complexion and facial features.......They may dress different, they may talk different, they tend not to fight back and so that just made them easy victims, easy to identify and the fact that they didn't call police that just made it happen more often.
...that's also known as racism. But it gets even less inspiring. Another officer suggests the following.....
Police Lt. David Gebhardt, who was at the meeting two years ago, said police offered safety classes following the meeting to help the refugees make themselves less inviting to criminals and to become more street smart.
As though somehow the victims of racial violence can change racially motivated crimes by altering their own behaviour. Maybe one of the suggestions to make themselves less inviting to racially motivated crimes might be eye surgery? But Sheppard adds the following.....
There was a time when a lot of Southern blacks were moving from Florida and South Carolina into the Rochester area looking for jobs and they went through the same cycles of discrimination and having to fight back and get a foothold. Then, when they established a foothold, other groups came in whether it was Puerto Ricans or other nationalities and they had to go through the same rites of passage.
This is disturbing to say the least. The idea that racially-motivated violence is some kind of normal rite of passage meted out by African-Americans for newcomers to this country is merely a way of avoiding condemnation of racial prejudice directed at Asians by elements in the black community. No one would dare to make such a suggestion if the perpetrators were white, so why do African-Americans get a pass? Furthermore, the very suggestion that the way to resolve violent racism by "fighting back" avoids the social and political conditions that foster anti-Asian sentiment, but also is an explicit endorsement for the perpetuation of violence - all from the mouth of law enforcement.

In Baltimore itself, despite early indications that there would be targeting of Asian stores, the black mayor of the city did and said nothing to stave off any potential racially-motivated looting - even as the police failed to respond when Asian business owners reported that looting was taking place. These examples illustrate that Asian immigrant experiences of black/Asian tensions engender a gamut of circumstances from black on Asian violence all the way up to apathy and bias amongst African-Americans who hold institutional power that - either by design or unintended consequence - enables or encourages aggression and intolerance of Asian-Americans.

The Mic piece seems to casually accept this aspect of black/Asian tensions and implicitly endorses classic self-righteous racist reasoning that places the blame for racial intolerance on the targets and victims of it. This is not only reprehensible but also extremely disturbing that such an attitude could be expressed and not challenged for its implicit endorsements of racism. Of course, since black/Asian racial tensions manifest most dramatically as black on Asian violence, the article implicitly justifies anti-Asian violence.

This is worrying to say the least, but in the present climate when Asian-American progressives have been prominent in voicing their support for black causes, participated in anti-anti-blackness protests, and shown a willingness to castigate (but also exaggerate) racism within their own community, it is beyond disappointing that those efforts have not translated into a more tolerant and nuanced approach in this black commentary. As Jeff Yang points out (in an article that would have been better suited as a response to the Mic piece), there are many examples of black/Asian cooperation and mutual support, the question is, why is this cooperation and community building between the two groups so easily tossed aside when some Asians voice opposing or unpopular opinions?

If the author of the Mic piece believes that support for Liang will worsen racial tensions, then fine - that may be objectively true - but the passive acceptance of this possibility without any questioning of its rationality or fairness merely serves to justify anti-Asian racism in black-America.

There is nothing implicitly anti-black about the concerns voiced by Liang's supporters - rather, they have highlighted some extremely problematic aspects of the case. Framing their activism as racist - apparently to justify ratcheting up the violence - is the kind of simplistic racist thinking common to all bigoted thinkers. And I'm sorry, but I just don't hold to the notion that racial oppression can justify racist thinking or that those whose communities are heavily victimized by it should be given space to express it uncritically. This would be like saying that we can somehow end racism and racial injustice by being racist and unjust.

This might make sense to some people, but I see no sense in it at all. If a white writer had penned the Mic piece, then I have absolutely no doubt that our advocates would be jumping up and down decrying its implicit endorsement of racial violence. But Asian-America has gotten itself into the habit of dismissing incidents of anti-Asian violence committed by African-American perpetrators out of hand - see Jeff Yang - as though it is a necessary by-product of the fight against anti-blackness. Of course, this merely legitimizes anti-Asian violence and normalizes it as an implicit aspect of the black racial experience. 

Asian-American advocacy's apathy on the plight of the violence against some of the most vulnerable members of our community is a huge dent in the credibility of its pretensions of intersectional activism. There is no logical reason to exclude Asian victims of black racial violence from considerations of justice and failing to do so only reveals the extremely flimsy ethical and intellectual foundations of Asian progressiveness. After all what credibility is there in raising one hand in a fist proclaiming "anti-anti-blackness" whilst flipping the bird at the vulnerable immigrant victims of anti-Asian sentiment with the other?


  1. Knocked it out of the ballpark with this one. Excellent work.

    1. Thanks Apollyon.

      It's disturbing that this aspect of America's race narrative is ignored in Asian-America.

    2. you know that anti-anti-black cartoon that showed two white officer's beating down a very sad-looking black man while three Asian-American women preen themselves with backs turned?

      you should draw a cartoon of two black thugs beating down a feeble Asian grandmother while three Asian-American women in hipster glasses furiously churn out articles about #Asians4BlackLives, backs turned.