The Curious Case of the Asian American Victim

The Curious Case of the Asian American Victim
People demonstrate at the 'Stop Asian Hate March and Rally' in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 27, 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The mass shooting in Atlanta on March 16, which took the lives of six Asian women among the eight victims, appears to be a one-off event—the violent act of a deeply troubled 21-year-old man who, according to what he told the police, was trying to wipe away sexual temptation, in the form of massage parlors that he felt guilty patronizing.

But that’s not how the incident was treated by the Asian American commentariat. Instead, a consensus quickly formed among journalists, scholars, and cultural figures writing op-eds and giving broadcast interviews that the shooting represented a pervasive, historical victimization by Asian people at the hands of the white majority. It was almost as if shootings of Asian women by white gunmen were an everyday occurrence, rather than a singular, exceedingly rare event.

Bee Nguyen, the first Asian woman to be elected to the George state assembly, declared at a rally four days after the shooting that the incident requires us “to demand justice not only for these victims but for all victims of white supremacy.” The Asian-American Association of Massachusetts, a supposedly nonpartisan group established by the state legislature, issued a statement blaming the attack on “misogyny, white supremacy, and the historical portrayal of Asians as the ‘Yellow Peril.’”

The Korean American novelist R.O. Kwon wrote a “letter to my fellow Asian women whose hearts are breaking,” published in Vanity Fair, saying that the Atlanta murders represented “the passing of women shot for what they looked like, killed by a racist gunman and by this country’s white supremacy.”

Two days after the attack, the page one headline in The New York Times read, “How Racism and Sexism Intertwine to Torment Asian-American Women,” with the article quoting several women excoriating the Atlanta police for even thinking that the massage parlor shootings may not have been racially motivated. There were no views on the other side of the issue in the Times coverage. Similarly in a New York Times podcast, the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong said, “We have also been victims to systemic racism throughout history,” except, she continued, “we have been conditioned to pretend that it doesn’t exist.”

“I think that came from the white supremacist system that we live in,” she added.

The country may be used to this sort of narrative, with its intersectionality vocabulary of racial oppression and sexism. Looked at historically, these terms do contain kernels of truth when applied to Asian Americans, who have experienced plenty of both exclusion and violence in the past.

Still, the prevailing narrative for Asian peoples in America over the last quarter-century and longer has told a success story. Asians may experience a certain residual bigotry, but they have overcome it, the story goes, turning themselves into the “model minority.” The values of hard work, studiousness, and the postponement of gratification won them a disproportionate number of slots at the country’s most coveted schools and helped them become the wealthiest large ethnic group in America.

But that all was ignored in the wake of the Atlanta shooting, with commentary turning instead to a narrative of victimization at the hands of the same supposedly white supremacist America that has, in what seems a contradiction, welcomed them as immigrants and allowed them to prosper.

This is significant. It signals the ever-growing expansion into the mainstream of a set of ideas once considered the province of a radical political and academic fringe. Asian Americans—or at least the Asian Americans paid attention to by the mainstream media—apparently have adopted a version of critical race theory, the notion that America is divided into white oppressors and the non-white oppressed, and that history consists of the effort of the former to maintain the “structures of oppression” that ensure its dominance over the latter. Through this lens, the triumphalist narrative of Asian success is a patronizing expression of racism.

“The dangerous and racist ideology” of the “model minority” is “a means to really minimize and silence and erase the diverse, rich Asian experience in order to reinforce and maintain systemic racism and oppression,” Anastasia Kim, an associate professor of psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, said in a colloquium on the Atlanta murders.

Stop Asian Hate protest
People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence in New York City, on April 4, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In many ways, the growing embrace of this narrative of systemic racism and white supremacy, at least among the intelligentsia, represents the continued assimilation of Asian Americans—like other groups, they too are embracing their victimhood. They, too, are highlighting discriminatory events from the past. But the effort is fraught not only because of the broad success that many millions of Asian Americans have enjoyed in supposedly white supremacist America, but also because of the complex politics of race itself.

The very term Asian American is an arbitrary construct, one that throws together people from more than 20 countries and regions that in many cases have no more to do with each other culturally or racially than they do with Africa or Europe.

Conditions vary considerably among them. Indian Americans have the highest average household incomes in America; people originating in Cambodia, Bhutan, and Bangladesh are less prosperous. There are Hmong refugees and other tribal groups from Laos; the descendants of Vietnam boat people who escaped South Vietnam after the communist takeover there in 1975; rich ethnic Chinese tycoons and ethnic Chinese and Korean workers in nail salons, dry cleaners and restaurants. Almost nothing, except the mania for creating ethnic groupings and contrasting them with the supposedly dominant whites, justifies putting them into the same category.

In that sense, what’s called anti-Asian violence has really mostly been violence against Chinese Americans or other people who are mistaken for them, carried out by people angry over the “China virus.”

According to the group Stop AAPI Hate (AAPI standing for Asian-American Pacific Islanders) there have been some 3800 reported assaults against Asians since the early days of the COVID pandemic, a sharp increase from previous years—with the race or ethnicity of the victimizers often not described. Citing this figure and the Atlanta-area shootings, the Senate last month passed a bill by a 94-1 vote titled “The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.”

“To me it’s pretty shocking, because I know that it’s not something new,” Min Zhou, the director of the Asian American ethnic studies program at UCLA, said in a Zoom interview. “Historically Asians were discriminated against. It’s on and off, and when I say ‘off’ I mean it’s just less visible. It has been there all along, but it gets heightened, and the impact has been profound on me personally.”

It is understandable, especially given this history of anti-Asian discrimination, that many Asians and others would feel this way. The attacks have evoked memories of incidents, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death by two white autoworkers enraged by competition from Japan—they mistakenly thought Chin was Japanese.

Reagan leading industrial countries summit
US President Ronald Reagan (R) talks to Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone (L) during the first session of the heads of the delegations of the Tokyo summit of the Leading Industrial Countries at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on May 5, 1986. (Mike Sargent/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, there are major differences between the past violence and exclusion and the current spike in violence, which major media seem largely to ignore. The country has officially repudiated the internment of Japanese Americans; President Reagan in 1988 formally apologized to them, and each surviving internee received a reparations payment of $20,000. The killing of Vincent Chin seems similar to the spike in anti-Asian violence, one related to fury over losses of jobs because of Japanese competition; the other an irrational fury at Chinese falsely supposed to be responsible for the COVID epidemic.

Neither case, though, demonstrates some continuing, pervasive racial hatred of Asians much less some effort by white supremacy to keep Asians down. Nor does the spike in anti-Asian violence, however horrifying. Almost 90 percent of the incidents have been verbal or involve acts of shunning, and many of them appear to have come from mentally disturbed, often homeless people. A substantial number of the reported attacks have been carried out by other minority group members, especially blacks, though commentators cited in the media attribute even this to white supremacy.

The public radio station in San Francisco, KQED, for example, interviewed Sherry Wang, a professor of counseling for Santa Clara County, on the reluctance of some victims to report on attacks against them for fear of encouraging anti-black feelings. Wang said that “these concerns about reporting racist incidents are reflections of the wider effect that white supremacy has on both Asian American communities and black communities.”

In other words, when a black person knocks down an Asian woman and kicks her in the head, the fault lies with white people, a notion that the journalists at KQED approvingly reported.

To point this out is not to minimize the shocking nature of the violence. In fact, one of the most vicious attacks, shown on security camera video, was of a man on a Manhattan street repeatedly kicking a 65-year-old Filipino woman in the head while shouting, “You don’t belong here.” This understandably had a powerful impact, especially on Asian women who are a large majority of the reported victims.

But even among scholars, at least in recent public comments, there seems to be little effort to put the past history into context, or to acknowledge how much things have changed.

Since the mid-1960s, 14 million Asian immigrants have arrived in the country.

Different subgroups have had different outcomes, but the average household incomes of Indian Americans, Korean Americans, and Chinese Americans are substantially higher than whites, despite the latter’s supposed efforts to maintain their dominance.

Lawsuits have been filed against Harvard and Yale by groups representing Asian students, claiming that they are held to a higher standard than other students in admissions decisions. Still, even with that higher standard, 20 percent-30 percent of the student bodies and a great deal of the faculties of the most exclusive universities in the land are of Asian descent. At the California Institute of Technology, which does not strive for racial balance in admissions, the number is 43 percent.

The Harvard University campus
The Harvard University campus is shown in Cambridge, Mass., on March 23, 2020. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

And yet, the Asian American commentariat seems determined to have Asian Americans identified as a group victimized by white supremacy. One reason clearly is that, in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, doing so has become fashionable. Liberal Asian Americans working in elite institutions wish, as do white liberals, to show solidarity with blacks, and one way to do that is to express a common victimization.

“There’s definitely a cool factor, especially for young people,” said Kenny Xu, a writer on these topics and author of the forthcoming book, “An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy.” “Look at Hassan Minaj and his tirade in favor of affirmative action.” The reference was to the popular Indian American stand-up comic who a couple of years ago inaugurated a Netflix series, “Patriot Act,” by ridiculing the lawsuit brought by some Asian students against Harvard for allegedly discriminating against them in admissions.

“I find it hilarious,” Minaj said, “that this is the hill we’re willing to die on.”

But the tropes of critical race theory long predate recent events. The academic world, especially the ethnic studies departments, have been preparing this ground for decades, promoting the idea that white supremacy is at the heart of the American experience, and the constant repetition of that notion has gradually transformed it from a theory to established, indisputable fact.

Scott Kurashige, chair of the Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Department at Texas Christian University, for example, put it this way in an interview with Vox: “What we need to realize is that there’s this timeless structure in which there’s always one group on top and another at the bottom. … This country has had a white supremacist ruling class since the beginning.”

Lok Siu, an associate professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at UC-Berkeley, told the New York Times that anti-Asian violence is “built into the structure and built into the way we think of Asians and the way we insert Asians into society.”

Asked to elaborate on this idea, she spoke of the long history of exclusion of Asians, going back to the ban on the immigration of Chinese women in 1875, followed by the ban on virtually all Asian immigration that lasted from 1925 to 1965, the murderous anti-Chinese riots in California and other places in the 19th century, the laws forbidding marriage between Asian men and white women, and even bans on land ownership by Asians. There’s no question that for many decades America did treat Asians with systemic, legally enforced, exclusionary racism.

“When you have these laws about who belongs and who doesn’t belong, you’re creating an ideology of distrust, that these people don’t really belong here,” Siu said in a Zoom interview. “There’s a bamboo ceiling that prevents Asian Americans from actually achieving full equity with white Americans, and that is still an issue. It’s not written into law, but you can see how it functions, making Asians the perpetual foreigner, the yellow peril.”

By no means do all Asian Americans agree with that analysis, or with the adoption of the critical race theory narrative. On contentious issues like affirmative action, there are bitter divides among Asian groups and between some of them. In the election last year, voters in California defeated by a 67 percent majority Proposition 16, which would have ended a state ban on racial preferences in state college admissions. Groups made up largely of ethnic Chinese played prominent roles on both sides of that issue.

“Asians are caught in the crossfire of a culture war, with the progressive side seeking to inject traces of white supremacy into every situation to confirm their ideology,” said Wenyuan Wu, the executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, one of the groups that opposed Proposition 16.

There are also aspects of the Asian American discourse that will be controversial among both Asians and non-Asians. Among the demands made by Stop AAPI Hate, the group reporting on the incidents of anti-Asian attacks, is that the United States discontinue the China Initiative, the Justice Department program to investigate technology theft by China and its agents in the country. The program, according to a letter the group sent to President Biden, “has led to the wrongful targeting and persecution of Chinese scientists.”

One element in this picture, also originating in the academic world, is a concerted attack on the idea of the model minority, pejoratively called the Model Minority Myth by its detractors. The criticism, which has been made for at least a quarter-century, has been that it creates a misleading stereotype of the smart but nerdy Asian student, which leaves out Asians who don’t fit the stereotype and need help.

stop AAPI hate
A demonstrator holds a sign calling for a stop to hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) during a national day of action against anti-Asian violence in Seattle, Wash., on March 27, 2021. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

But in recent years, the attack against the model minority idea has been portrayed in CRT terms—as an element in an insidious conspiracy to maintain white supremacy, because implicit in the notion of Asian success is assumption that if Blacks changed their behavior, they could do just as well, and it’s their fault if they don’t.

“Why Be a ‘Model Minority’ When You Could Dismantle White Supremacy?” was the headline in a recent article in The Nation, written by Dae Shik Kim, a community organizer in Seattle.

“Asian Americans have long been used as a tool by white supremacists to justify systemic racism against black people,” the author writes, voicing an argument and the vocabulary used by many others.

A related notion, also with roots in academia, is what’s called “adjacent whiteness” or “honorary whiteness” or “conditional whiteness.” It’s the idea that the system of white supremacy has accorded Asians some of the presumed privileges of being white as a way of deterring solidarity among the supposedly oppressed groups.

“Conditional whiteness … weaponizes people of color against their own communities by making individuals complicit in perpetuating racism and exhibiting dominance over other non-white bodies,” one writer, Dorothy He, said in the online journal Reappropriate.

That seemingly radical statement has gone mainstream. In the ethnic studies curriculum recently adopted by the California Board of Education, one of the sample lessons is “Asian American Pacific Islanders and the Model Minority Myth.”

According to the curriculum guidelines, students in that class “will understand how this label for AAPIs becomes a hindrance to expanding democratic structures and support and, at worst, how it creates a division among the AAPI community and places a wedge between them and other oppressed groups.”

In other words, from now on, when it comes to describing the Asian American experience in California schools, the ideas of critical race theory will be treated as accepted truths. The California curriculum was devised as a model for the rest of the country, and other states are likely to follow it.

“The radical narrative caricatures Asian American reliance on hard work, initiative, and an emphasis on education, not as the agency of Asian Americans but as the features of an oppressive system that stereotypes us into ‘white adjacency,” Wu of Californians for Equal Rights said. “It’s an insidious idea.”

This article was written by Richard Bernstein for RealClearInvestigations

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