Asian police and the complicity of Asian Americans in anti-blackness

Left: Daniel Holtzclaw, half Japanese American, convicted of raping and assaulting 13 black women on the job; Right: Peter Liang, Chinese-American, convicted of fatally shooting an unarmed, innocent black man

As my black and brown friends on Facebook express grief and horror at the recorded murders of #AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastile, the majority of my Asian/Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) friends’ statuses are about the latest Pokemon Go release and basketball players. Don’t get me wrong — not posting about #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean you are somehow anti-black or racist. The opposite is also not true; a #BlackLivesMatter status does not give you a badge of progressive honor indicating you are not anti-black. Everyone has a right to post whatever they want and how often they want on Facebook. But we must recognize that the ability to post about Pokemon Go or basketball players in the wake of assaults on black lives is a luxury and privilege AAPIs have because of our (social and phenotypical) proximity to whiteness. The luxury to think about anything else at this time but the murders of black lives, fear for your own mortality, and systemic racism is a privilege.

The police officer who shot 32-year old Philando Castile is allegedly of Asian ethnicity, according to Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting.

[July 8, 2016 12:15 AM: Note– The officers involved have been identified as Jeronimo Yanez and Joseph Kauser, with the officer who shot Philando being identified as Yanez. While the eyewitness account under stress may not have accurately identified Yanez as of Asian ethnicity, that does not erase the relevance and necessity of calling out anti-blackness in AAPI communities]

“It was a Chinese police officer that shot him,” Reynolds narrates on the video. “He asked him for his license and registration, which was in the back of his pocket, ’cause he keeps his wallet in his pocket. As he went to reach, he let the officer know that he had a firearm on him and before he could let the officer know anything, the officer took off shots. About 4 or 5 rounds were shot.”

The officer still has his gun pointing into the car. “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hands up!” the cop yells, breathing heavily. Castile lies in the driver’s seat with one side of his body drenched in blood.

As Reynolds narrates to the live-streaming, the police continue to yell at her and she remains calm and deferential.

“Keep your hands where they are,” the shooting officer states.

“Yes I will, sir, I’ll keep my hands where they are,” Reynolds replies.

As the phone lies on the floor facing the sky for a few seconds in the middle of the video, one can hear what sounds like the same officer that shot Philando screaming expletives (the “F” word) intermittently in the background.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is, in part, about the disregard of justice, law enforcement, media, and other societal institutions for black lives. These institutions are plagued with structural, systemic racism — the same racism that enables a judge to sentence 3 years of prison to a Latino man but only 6 months of jail for a white Stanford student for similar charges, the media to publish a mug shot of unarmed black men unduly killed by police while publishing graduation photos of convicted white killers, and the police to disproportionately arrest and kill African-Americans.

Non-black AAPIs have been complicit in these racist structures. While AAPIs are marginalized and oppressed by white supremacy and racism, we are not impacted by racism in the same ways that black, Latinx and Native American people are. Not only are AAPIs impacted differently by racism, but because it has benefited AAPIs to do so, Asian-American communities have perpetuated and been complicit in anti-black racism for decades.

The complex positioning of AAPIs in America’s racial landscape came to a forefront in February 2016. Peter Liang, a Chinese-American NYPD officer, became the first cop to be convicted for the killing of an unarmed, innocent black man. Liang recklessly drew his weapon while on a routine patrol of a housing project and fired into a darkened stairwell, fatally shooting Akai Gurley. I have no doubt that, amid an endless string of white cops being let go with no punishment for the same crime, Liang’s non-whiteness contributed to his conviction.

Liang’s rightful conviction was a stark reminder to Asian-Americans that while AAPI communities are not hyperpoliced and massacred to the extent that black and brown communities are, AAPIs are also not afforded the same “protections” the system affords white people. AAPIs are still “other” to white America. AAPIs faced two options at that point: protest the conviction in aspiration to white privilege, or march alongside black and brown people in the fight for justice against institutional violence.

In the epitome of anti-blackness, many AAPIs chose the first route: “No amount of nuance or qualification or appeal to Martin Luther King will change the fact that the first massive, nationwide Asian-American protest in years was held in defense of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man.”

Many non-black AAPIs would rather buy into the “model minority myth,” lap up the “positive stereotypes” white America feeds us, keep our heads down and mouths silent in times of racial conflict unless we perceive it to directly affect us (e.g. affirmative action), and do as much as possible to distance ourselves from blackness than march alongside black and brown folks against the white supremacist structures that oppress us all (albeit in different ways).

AAPI complicity in anti-blackness is remarkably articulated in Kat Yang Stevens’ fantastic historical analyses of Akai Gurley’s manslaughter:

Non-Black Asian Americans receive rewards from white power structures for participation in anti-Blackness. Asian Anti-Blackness manifests on a nation-wide scale through access to “positive stereotypes” that Asian Americans – especially East Asians – can use to distance themselves from Blackness. These “positive stereotypes” are coded within the model minority myth and were originally crafted by white people to justify white people’s mistreatment of Black people and can also serve to demonize other groups. The model minority myth suggests that Asians are a successful and safe group of “good minorities” while other “minority” groups who are painted as having “not done as well for themselves” – especially Black people – are to blame for their own hardships and “disenfranchised” positions in US society.

Non-Black Asian Americans across the nation are not experiencing the same level of unrelenting police violence and murders as Black people are. NYC Chinatowns do not experience the same level of policing and harassment that Black New Yorkers do; nor do NYC Chinatowns experience the type of policing that is enacted in the mostly Black neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn – where [Peter] Liang shot and killed [Akai] Gurley. This is the violent reality of constant danger and dehumanization that Black New Yorkers are subjected to that Chinese and other Asian Americans are not subjected to in a systematic way.

[…] Every racialized group in America is impacted in very different and strategic ways by white supremacy. Recognizing similarities in our struggles can be a powerful tool for building solidarity and strategic alliances with other groups. But when we try to flatten our experiences by equating them to the experiences of another group, we do a disservice to everyone involved and end up further strengthening white supremacy.

-Kat Yang Stevens, “Reframing the Conversation: 5 Claims from Peter Liang’s Supporters that are Misinformed and Anti-Black”

It is time for AAPIs to actively fight against anti-blackness in our own and other communities. In recent incidents, it has become clear that Asian-Americans are not innocent bystanders in this assault on black lives– but rather active participants.

November 2014: Chinese-American cop Peter Liang fatally shot unarmed African-American Akai Gurley

December 2015: Half-Japanese-American cop Daniel Holtzclaw was accused of assaulting or raping 13 black women while on the job and was found guilty on 18 of 31 counts

If AAPIs want to live in a world where people of all races face justice, equal opportunity and inclusion, we must not stay silent on the anti-blackness that we, our relatives, and our ancestors have internalized and continue to perpetuate; we must march alongside our black and brown community members in the fight for racial justice and #BlackLivesMatter.

Other good reads:

Jeff Yang Tweets on #PhilandoCastile

Resources for non-Black Asians on Anti-Blackness

This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter

Sign up to receive a copy of the crowdsourced, open letter written by Asian Americans to talk to their apolitical Asian family members/friends about Black Lives Matter

10 Replies to “Asian police and the complicity of Asian Americans in anti-blackness”

  1. Very late responding to this, but I do want to say I appreciate this blog post and its call for API communities to stand in solidarity with black people. However, I wish there had been a more nuanced analysis for API communities, given that we do not all experience racism in the same way (as someone mentioned above). Moreover, not all API people have a phenotype close to whiteness, and some API identify as brown.


  2. FYI, recent updates from news sources have confirmed that the officer who shot Philando Castile was Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino police officer, not Asian.

    Here’s one of the sources:

    While the spectre of the Holzclaw and Liang cases remain, this latest update from the Yanez case is at least helpful in dissipating some of the heat weighing on the Asian-American community due to those unfortunate incidents.


  3. Pacific Islanders do not experience racism in the same ways as Asians/Asian Americans. The article uses AAPI and Asian American interchangeably; they are not synonyms. Doing so erases PI experiences and identities, and is another example of Asian/Asian Am complicity in inequality. Please make that correction.


  4. Great write up! While it’s very easy for us Asian Americans to stand by and offer hopes and prayers since we are not directly targeted by corrupt prejudices, the fact that we, as a community, are often ignored or overlooked, can make us feel inferior and ‘obedient’ to be the model minority. I think your article highlights the fact that there is just as easily a chance for us to be vulnerable because of our ethnicity, just by some fate, that isn’t the case for us. As of right now, yes I agree with you, as a minority it’s SO important for us to stand along side any other race, which has been oppressed or made to feel inferior.
    Thank you for your article, it’s nice to hear an Asian voice and a minority speaking on the matter and urging more people to stand for racial equality. #blacklivesmatter

    Liked by 2 people

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