Much of the conversation and advocacy surrounding anti-Asian racism has failed to connect it with anti-Blackness, and has itself been mired in carceral and anti-Black thinking.
By Jordana Allen-Shim
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a massive spike in documented cases of anti-Asian violence. A February 9 report from Stop AAPI Hate, “the nation’s leading coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian hate and discrimination amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” revealed over 2,808 first accounts of anti-Asian violence in the United States with 7.3% involving Asian-Americans over the age of 60. Additionally, California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported to the Voice of America (VOA) that 2020 saw a 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in major U.S. cities.
Despite little to no mainstream media coverage of these alarming cases of anti-Asian violence, vocal racial justice activists and video footage recording many of the acts of violence brought widespread public awareness to the issue and sparked a much-needed public conversation about how white supremacy impacts Asian-Americans and other Asian people in predominantly white Western nations. However, much of the conversation and advocacy has failed to connect anti-Asian racism with anti-Blackness and has been mired in carceral and anti-Black thinking.
It is easy to fall into the trap of carceral logic when discussing and advocating against hate-motivated violence. But since racial justice and the carceral state are fundamentally at odds, it is essential to reject the notion that the legal system is a viable path and framework for combating anti-Asian violence. The term “hate crime” in and of itself grants the state power to define what is and isn’t hateful, and contextualizes hate-based violence in the framework of “crime,” a concept the state has singular power over defining. Multiple government officials have introduced legislation that would make the already criminalized act of “harming” a police officer a hate crime, with Democratic Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signing a law that makes it a hate crime to “target” police officers, and Republicans and Democrats alike in the U.S. House of Representatives passing the “Protect and Serve Act” in 2018 to combat the imaginary “war on police.” Ultimately, allowing “crime” and “hate” to be defined by the government allows the inclusion of oppressive groups like the police and exclusion of any marginalized groups the government warrants undeserving of legal protections. Moreover, contextualizing hate with the language of “crime” legitimizes a criminal legal system designed to re-enslave Black people and criminalize people of color.
Unfortunately, as is typical with incidents of hate-related violence, there has been a push in the Asian-American community to arrest perpetrators of this violence, as if having the police and criminal legal system, which are both inherently racist, toss people into cages will deliver justice. We cannot simultaneously advocate for police and prison abolition while supporting police and prisons when it becomes convenient to us. The same brutal violence Asian-Americans are up in arms against is the exact same kind of violence that police and prisons enact upon people of color each and every day, particularly Black people. We cannot depend on a state-sanctioned death squad that murders Black and Indigenous people daily to bring justice for acts of anti-Asian violence. Much of the public uprising in the Asian-American community over this violence stems from many of us just now realizing that our lives and safety can be threatened by white supremacy in the same ways Black people’s lives already are and have been since the inception of the United States. Many in the Asian-American community perceived ourselves as relatively safe from this kind of violence, and the fact that there is widespread documentation of racial violence against us is coming as a wake-up call.
Of course, the truth is that we have never actually been impervious to racial violence. The full criminalization of undocumented status began with the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the U.S. government has consistently fought tirelessly to ensure that Asian people continue to be exploitable, deportable labor for capitalism ever since. With that being said, it is undeniable that Asian-Americans do not face the same or even comparable levels of violence as Black and Indigenous people do, especially when it comes to state-sanctioned executions in the form of police shootings. Even now, the mainstream conversation on anti-Asian racism centers mostly on interpersonal violence, with the only major recognition of how the state facilitates interpersonal racial violence centering on former U.S. President Donald Trump. He undeniably played a massive role in motivating this violence but is ultimately a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself, which is a government that gleefully exploits, deports, and oppresses Asian-Americans. That oppression is not through state-sanctioned physical violence by the police so much as it is through legislative violence that strips away labor rights, denies Asian communities the basic resources we need to survive, and allows Asian-Americans to be deported the moment they are no longer perceived as useful to capitalists.
Then comes the model minority myth, where anti-Blackness has once again been excluded from the conversation. The model minority myth seeks to prove that capitalism works and deny that systemic racism exists by holding Asian-Americans up as the “model minority,” people of color who were able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and achieve success in various fields that make them useful and admirable to capitalists. But this myth doesn’t exist in a vacuum specifically targeting Asian people; it was purposefully designed to defend the U.S. during the Cold War by supposedly proving that anyone can prosper under capitalism and disproving racism as a legitimate socio-economic factor in American society. As the Civil Rights Movement emerged, the U.S. argued that Black people were not uniquely oppressed by the government and were rather just lazy, unwilling to work hard enough to achieve success and social mobility. Politicians and media across the political spectrum exploited a false image of Asian-Americans specifically to deny systemic racism against Black people. Thus, we cannot discuss the model minority myth and the way white supremacy has stereotyped Asian-Americans without also discussing anti-Blackness.
Asian-American identity in and of itself was developed in large part due to the anti-racist activism of Black Americans during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Though the term Asian-American is now commonly used, the very concept of a pan-Asian identity in the United States is relatively new, developing in the 1960s. Prior to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, a pan-ethnic Asian identity did not exist—i.e. there were Korean-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, but not Asian-Americans. The idea of a pan-ethnic Asian identity was developed by Asian-American racial justice activists specifically to unite Asian people behind the cause of racial justice and anti-imperialism that Black people led. Groups like the Third World Liberation Front saw Asian-Americans uniting with other people of color against racial violence and imperialism around the world, vocally opposing the Vietnam War and other U.S. colonialist projects during the Cold War. Having Asian-Americans participate in leftist, anti-capitalist action was and still is essential, as capitalist forces in the Western world selectively prop up anti-communist people of color (and also white Latin-Americans), many of them wealthy and well-educated and thus inherently opposed to the redistribution of wealth and universal access to education. Done so to supposedly “prove” from a first-person perspective that communism is evil and capitalism is good.
As the abolitionist movement now gains unprecedented traction, we as Asian-Americans must unify in support of Black Liberation, which guarantees liberation for all people of color. We cannot embrace the anti-Blackness so commonly perpetrated by non-Black people of color, which has occurred in response to some of the documented anti-Asian violence being perpetrated by Black men. While any anti-Asian violence must be condemned, Black people do not have the systemic power to oppress Asian people in the first place and any instances of anti-Asian violence still root back to the same white supremacy that endangers Black people with both state and interpersonal violence. Falling onto the same anti-Blackness that led to the fatal shooting of teenager Latasha Harlins at the hands of Korean-American shop owner Soon Ja Du in 1992 will bring justice for no one and simply empower the system that sanctions the violence against Black people Asian-Americans are only just now coming to fear. By leading the racial justice movement for decades upon decades, Black activists have arguably done more for our community than Asian-Americans ourselves have. We have undeniably been less active in the racial justice movement, and racial justice activism from Asian-Americans has largely only broken into the mainstream in response to instances of brutal non-state violence rather than the systemic violence that enables the current hate-based violence to occur.
Racial justice will never come from anti-Blackness and playing into the anti-Black carceral system. Neither the police nor prisons are our allies, and we cannot respond to hateful violence by calling for and celebrating the arrests of hateful individuals at the hands of the hateful death squad known as the police. We cannot eliminate anti-Asian violence without eliminating the anti-Black carceral state and disempowering the anti-Black ruling class that upholds capitalism built upon the enslavement of Black people. Just as the racial justice activists who pioneered Asian-American identity knew, there is no such thing as racial justice without Black liberation.
Jordana Valerie Allen-Shim is a Toronto-born, U.S.-raised award-winning writer, director, and editor of Korean and Jewish descent whose work has been featured in over 115 film festivals around the globe. She is also a dog mom, She-Ra and ABBA superfan, and aspiring graphic novelist.
Along with film, Jordana Valerie has a deep background in activism and social justice. She also worked in electoral politics for four years, holding leadership positions at several major progressive organizations, before realizing that she could make a far greater change through art. Her life goal is to dismantle capitalism but she is also intent on telling bold, disruptive stories about queer women and non-binary people of color.
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