Jeff Yang: Asian-American community has arrived at a fork in the road
It's time for Asian-Americans to affirm their solidarity with the black community, he writes
Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to radio shows including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Last week, only hours after the chilling killing of prone-and-restrained Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident Alton Sterling, the next police shooting of a black man burst onto America’s radar. Philando Castile had been gunned down in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, during a traffic stop. Horrified legions swarmed to Facebook and watched as Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, livestreamed the bloody aftermath, reciting what has now become a familiar allegation of a cop pulling over a black person for a trivial infraction, and reacting to mundane words or gestures with deadly force.
Then came the detail that, for Asian-Americans, caused our hearts to leap into our throats. Here was Reynolds’ description of the cop, whose blurry image could still be seen, screaming desperately behind her, demanding that she show her hands: “He’s Chinese, about 5’5-5’6½.”
And with that, the killing took on another form for us.
In the wake of the shooting of Akai Gurley by NYPD officer Peter Liang, tens of thousands of Asian-Americans took to the streets – not to demand justice for Gurley in solidarity with weary, enraged African-Americans who had seen this happen hundreds of times, but to plea for leniency for Liang, his killer. The argument they made was a logical one, according to the broken rules of justice in this country, and terribly sad: If white officers were going unpunished for killing black people, why should an Asian cop have to pay the price?
In the wake of the revelation that the officer who ended Castile’s life might be Asian, I saw posts to my social feeds that sought to frame this as “another Liang,” another “Asian scapegoat” to be fed to the media and the justice system, another “tragedy with two victims,” a slowly rising drumbeat of rage and bitterness beneath the louder collective chorus of shock and mourning.
Reaching out to some of the angriest individuals, I discovered they fit a certain pattern: They were immigrants who came to this country believing deeply in this nation’s promise. In their time in America, they, too, had experienced prejudice, but believed they had overcome it, through focus and fortitude.
They had no hostility toward black people; on the contrary, they talked about beloved black co-workers, employees, associates, neighbors, friends. But they invariably saw them as “the good ones,” the exceptions who managed to rise above the endemic problems of their community, not because they were given “unfair advantages” like affirmative action, but because they “worked hard and earned it,” echoing an essay that was just published in the English edition of the Chinese newspaper Global Times, which called upon African-Americans to “learn from Asian-Americans” by “valuing education and career success” and having the “determination to succeed even in the teeth of prejudice.”
The next day, it was revealed that the cop had actually been misidentified by Reynolds in her moment of traumatic stress; he wasn’t Asian after all, but Hispanic, which prompted a new response from these voices that was just as telling: Relief and then dismissal, as they moved on to other matters – suggesting, in essence, this is no longer our problem.
But this reaction is exactly why it is our problem. Because even if in this case the killer was not “one of ours,” we as Asian-Americans remain complicit in the terrible toll the African-American population has faced, because of our indifference, our lack of empathy or our outright embrace of a meritocratic mythology that labels our community a “model minority” and black Americans as a values-compromised “underclass.”
The truth is that as the U.S. population is poised to become majority nonwhite, the Asian-American community has arrived at a fork in the road.
Do we continue to ignore the ambient fear and disregard for blackness around us, or do we acknowledge that it is part of what we have assimilated – a structural element in American culture?
Do we acknowledge the ways in which we were the beneficiaries of black Americans’ historical exploitation and incredible sacrifice, or do we ignore that the root of America’s prosperity is its original sin, and that the rights all people of color now enjoy were won through the struggle to end slavery and the institutionalized oppression of black Americans that followed?
Do we pursue the privileges that have long been associated with being a part of the dominant minority in this country, or do we aspire to a future in which no group can hoard social, legal and economic advantage, alongside a black community that has led the way in that fight for generations, against the greatest of odds and with the direst of losses?
Do we continue to stand aside, ignoring the injustices black Americans face, thinking that it’s “not our problem,” or do we stand against these senseless, horrific killings, recognizing that when it becomes our problem, it is too late? Ten-thousand Asians marched for Peter Liang, demanding the same miscarriage of justice that has let other killer cops go unpunished. What if those 10,000 Asians had marched with black protesters instead, demanding equity under law for them, not exception for us?
Fortunately, a growing number of Asian-Americans are asking these very questions. Hundreds of them came together over the past week to share their answers, collaborating on a crowdsourced “Letter for Black Lives” designed to be shared with parents, friends and relatives to begin a conversation around why Asians need to affirm our solidarity with the black community. It has already been translated into 30 languages, shared tens of thousands of times and sparked thousands of conversations.
One of those conversations was one I had with my own parents, who have always had sympathy, but not always empathy, with black Americans. I shared with them the letter and told them of its origins and about the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which preceded it. My mother’s response initially led me to worry that it hadn’t had an impact. “Why say ‘Black Lives Matter’?” she said. “All lives matter.”
I began to explain to her the problem with the term “all lives matter,” that the phrase erased the urgency of the crisis being faced by the black community in particular.
“No, no,” she interrupted. “I’m saying it’s asking for too little. Even a cat or dog’s life ‘matters.’ What the letter really says is black lives must be respected.”
Keep sharing. The letter works.