Unfit to print
WHERE DID we go wrong? That was the predictable question raised last week, notably in the ethnic press, after Kenneth Eng wrote a column titled “Why I Hate Blacks.”
The column, published in the San Francisco-based AsianWeek newspaper in the waning days of African American History Month, was so astonishingly hateful that activists of all stripes immediately rushed forward to condemn it. AsianWeek Editor Ted Fang issued a lengthy apology and fired Eng, who is in his early 20s and also writes science fiction novels. The small press that published Eng’s books announced last week that it was taking them off the market. There was a hastily arranged community forum about strengthening black/Asian relations and improving coverage across color lines. More are surely on the way.
This kind of hand-wringing is to a degree appropriate. It’s also inherently limited, a first step that all too often stands as the entire response to ugly racial moments that generally say more about our so-called enlightenment than we like to imagine. Containing the mess, therefore, is critical. From Trent Lott to Michael Richards to Kenneth Eng, our impulse in the wake of black insult is to kick-start big, rhetorical debates about race that tend to divert attention from hard questions about accountability, about who said what and why.
In Eng’s case, that’s easy. A quick check of his writing reveals an immature, belligerent, insensitive, self-aggrandizing, self-described “Asian supremacist.” His previous AsianWeek columns include such subtle titles as “Why I Hate Asians” and “Proof that Whites Inherently Hate Us.”
Eng comes off as an equal-opportunity hater -- he derides religion, calls white folks “Aryan” and once proclaimed that Hitler was “not a coward.” But his hatred is stoked by the idea that blacks are exempt from the rules of political correctness, especially when they make derogatory remarks about other groups.
Eng himself got away with racist stuff for months; he only got caught when he blasted blacks. What this genius missed is that anti-black venom has a particular history in this country and is the bedrock measure of our national principles of fairness and equality. Put another way, blacks are historically the least advantaged group, and their treatment by the more advantaged -- i.e., everybody else -- is where the rubber of democratic ideals hits the road.
Eng did serve a purpose in reminding us that this rubber is in meltdown and we are in danger of skidding off that road. Not because Eng is such a wack job -- we’ll always have those -- but because he was allowed to go on writing columns when it should have been clear to AsianWeek that his brand of commentary was eminently unfit to print.
Apologies notwithstanding, this is the real accountability problem. AsianWeek is no fringe underground blog but a respected publication owned by a politically connected and media-savvy family in the most liberal of cities, San Francisco. It claims to support civil rights and social justice. How could it possibly slip up like this?
The disturbing answer is that Eng’s sophomoric columns weren’t slip-ups at all but were sanctioned on some level by the people in charge. AsianWeek’s editors may not have agreed with the column’s particulars, but it still passed their smell test. Publishers and editors don’t have to agree with opinion columnists -- trust me on this one -- but they do have to agree with the soundness of the columnist’s logic, and they certainly have to distinguish mindless ranting from righteous anger.
By this measure, Eng’s diatribe wasn’t even debatable. He was waving a red flag so big and bright, you’d have to have been blind or completely unschooled in race relations not to see it. Presumably, AsianWeek’s editors are neither.
Fang has so far stopped short of blaming anyone other than Eng for what happened, saying instead that AsianWeek is doing some soul-searching and reviewing its editorial policies. That’s like a rogue cop shooting an unarmed bystander in front of 100 witnesses and the police department responding by reviewing its use-of-force rules. Sure, procedure has its place, but it often pales in comparison to the bigger truth. And the truth here is that the most base and unsubstantiated views about black people still found expression in a sophisticated publication for and about Asians.
Was this cognitive dissonance or cognitive harmony? That’s the question we need to be asking.