Opinion

The trial of Peter Liang and confronting the reality of Asian American privilege

On Tuesday, former New York police officer Peter Liang was sentenced to probation and community service -- but no jail time -- in the 2014 killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project.

This notably light sentence is a relief to some Asian Americans -- particularly Chinese Americans -- who leaped to Liang’s defense from the start, arguing that the shooting was a tragic accident and that Liang’s prosecution and conviction were proof of selective prosecution and racial scapegoating. 

But many progressive Asian Americans -- who called for Liang’s conviction and rallied Asian Americans to stand in solidarity with black people against police violence -- are bitterly disappointed with Liang’s sentence.

This divide over the Liang trial reflects a much deeper political division within Asian American communities about whether to pursue an “Asian-first” strategy or a broader racial justice agenda. At the heart of that debate is a crucial topic that often gets swept under the rug, one the Liang trial will hopefully bring to the fore: the beneficial positioning of Asian Americans in the country’s racial order. 

Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites. They have also been immunized, relatively speaking, from the systemic, routine and often lethal violence exercised by the state against the black community -- not just episodes of individual killing, but the institutionalized violence of residential segregation, educational segregation, job discrimination, policing and mass incarceration.

This advanced positioning of Asian Americans relative to black people in the U.S. racial order can be traced all the way back to the mid-19th century. Chinese arriving in San Francisco were residentially segregated, subject to mob violence, harassed through municipal laws and widely scorned as inferior to and unassimilable with whites. Still, they were universally seen -- on the authority of the ethnological science, racial common sense and international norms of the day -- as a different, superior order of being as compared with black people. They were aliens ineligible for citizenship, but they were also ineligible for enslavement.

Peter Liang’s supporters have zoomed in on the narrow question of whether he was treated more harshly than his white counterparts, while blocking out the larger picture of the privileges and immunities Asian Americans enjoy. 

The notion that Asian Americans are pawns or sacrificial lambs in the war between whites and blacks is a recurrent fantasy among many Asian Americans. A scapegoat, however, is by definition a moral innocent, one made to bear the blame for others. By what authoritative procedure have Asian Americans absolved themselves of moral responsibility for the hierarchical racial order in which they are embedded?

That Asian Americans experience discrimination does not secure their innocence. Nor does the fact that their privileges and immunities are not as complete or robust as those of whites.

This is a pivotal moment in the political history of Asian America. Currently, some Asian American groups are forging alliances with conservative white politicians to defeat state affirmative action bills and spearhead anti-affirmative action lawsuits against elite universities. Others have moved in the opposite direction, denouncing these “Asian-first” moves and calling for Asian-black solidarity in the fight against white supremacy.  The Achilles heel of the latter position it that it assumes the unity of nonwhite interests, even though Asian Americans are positioned differently from black people in the U.S. racial order.

The Liang case challenges Asian Americans to develop a political ethos that calls for confronting racial hierarchy and anti-black racism, even when the self-interest of Asian Americans dictates otherwise.

Claire Jean Kim is a professor of Asian American studies and political science at UC Irvine.  She is the author of the award-winning book "Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City."

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