A popular image of Asians, particularly East Asians, in the US is the model minority myth, which is very successfully used as a tool to help maintain white supremacy in the US. The model minority myth grew in popularity in the 1950s and 60s in a strategic manner which countered growing public unrest regarding “racial disparities” in the US. The model minority myth flattens vastly different Asian ethnicities, painting Asians as a monolithic group of “good” non-whites able to rise above unfair and strenuous conditions to be held up as an exemplary group of minorities in the US. The basic idea is that if Asians can succeed in spite of the hardships stacked against them, why can’t other non-whites? Despite being completely false and doing more harm for Asian communities than good, these so-called “positive stereotypes” promoted through the model minority myth imply that other racialized groups who have “not done as well for themselves” – especially Black people, but also Indigenous and Latinx peoples – are strictly to blame for their own hardships and “disenfranchised” position in US society. This framework strategically obscures structural disparities created through anti-Black white supremacist violence, such as the lasting impacts and legacy of African chattel slavery.
The model minority myth crafts a stifling, inaccurate, and violently homogenizing representation of “Asian-Americans.” This carefully constructed identity is employed by white supremacy as a wedge tool to maintain the existing US social orders that relegate Black people to “the bottom.” Meanwhile, we are strategically taught to believe that Indigenous peoples are “extinct” and therefore their lands are considered “empty” and available for our and others’ settlement. Newly arriving Asians, as well as those of us born here in the United States, are active participants in the settler colonial nation state. Our presence here on these lands – however complicated by our own histories of European colonialism and dispossession, and the violence we experience due to white supremacy and other oppressive power structures – works to ensure the continued occupation of these lands, the ongoing invisibilization and genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the unrelenting attacks on their lifeways.
The model minority myth is a highly valued staple in the world of white conservative media. Bill O’Reilly, the infamously bigoted right-wing pundit for Fox News, used it in a long-winded rant entitled “The Truth About White Privilege,” in which he tried to argue that white people are not structurally advantaged in comparison to non-white groups of people. He laughably argued that while white privilege doesn’t exist, “Asian privilege” does recycling false and decontextualized “statistics” and rhetoric about “Asian success” to blame Black Americans for their own oppressionand justify his anti-Black ramblings.
Immediately following the killing of Akai Gurley, both the mainstream and conservative right wing media, as well as independent bloggers (read: racists on the internet) hurried to pull up Gurley’s records, building a “case” to justify his death and excuse Liang’s lethal actions that night. Articles can be found repeatedly referring to Gurley as a “thug” anda “career criminal.” The word “thug” itself has its roots in the Hindi and Urdu word thag – which has meanings related to swindler, thief, and the verb “deceive” – and only entered the English language after the British colonial occupation of India in the 1800s, during which Indian “thugs” were targeted for extermination. Over time, the word in Standard American English has transformed into a racially coded epithet applied especially to Black people, and sometimes other people of color, to imply that they have a violent and untrustworthy nature. The way that the term “thug” is used in media shows a clear indication that if a Black person is deemed a “thug,” their mistreatment or murder at the hands of the police can be excused, or even celebrated as a “good riddance.” For years Black people have spoken out about the way the term “thug” is morphing into a socially acceptable way to call Black people the N-word without actually using the N-word.
Less than 24 hours after Akai Gurley was killed, New York’s CBS local had already published a story which ended with the unnecessary, unsubstantiated, and sensationalizing claim that “Gurley has 24 prior arrests on his record.” Regardless of the truth of that claim, it should go without saying that Gurley’s past had nothing to do with the cause of his death, and in no way justifies the extrajudicial taking of his life. Arrests by the police are racially motivated; the record of arrests may be a more accurate reflection of institutional racism and anti-Blackness rather than representation of Gurley’s character. In June 2015, the New York Post went as far as to outright declare Peter Liang’s innocence by deeming the shooting “accidental” in their article headlined “Cop who accidentally shot man in stairwell to face manslaughter charge.”
We have been taught the racist and anti-Black notion that Black people somehow deserve the violences inflicted upon them by white people and white power structures like the institution of the police. This common train of thought ignores that Black peoples’ existence in this country has always been constructed as criminal, especially following the end of African chattel slavery. Legislation such as the Black Codes, the Pig Laws, and other statutes enforced during the Jim Crow Era, legally placed heavy restrictions and harsh punishments on Black people. These statues were not applied to whites, and were often not enforced, or were unevenly enforced against, other non-Black people. These types of legislation are aimed at denying Black people civic equality and preventing them from accessing critical infrastructural resources.
Using the “model minority myth” again as a wedge, news outlets as well as supporters of Liang have been able to paint clear and oppositional images of Gurley and Liang. Gurley has repeatedly been presented to us as a “career criminal” and a “thug” with a long history of arrests. We can observe a recurring implication that his “violent lifestyle” would have brought him to a similar fate anyways, or that he “had it coming to him” for engaging in “criminal” activity inthe past. Portrayal of Gurley in this decontextualized, inaccurate, and dehumanizing way strategically and conveniently leaves out crucial historical and present day context of the specific violences enacted against Black people. These histories and contexts manifest themselves today through the degradation of Black people’s quality of life, such as through unsafe public housing like NYCHA buildings filled with predominantly Black residents living in homes with hallways without working lights, where police officers wander the stairwells in the dark with loaded guns pointed forward.
In contrast, Liang is portrayed very differently; he is always pictured in the media with his mouth closed, not speaking, and wearing a suit. He is spoken of as “inexperienced” and a “rookie.” He is described as being born to an immigrant family, and a hard worker. Most importantly he is (was) a member of the NYPD, an organization dedicated to serving and upholding the white supremacist, settler colonial nation state. The term “rookie cop” consistently precedes or follows Liang’s name in media. The descriptor automatically and often unconsciously registers in people’s minds as a marker of innocence, since it has connotations of inexperience and is often used to indicate that someone is foolish, amateur, and doesn’t know any better. The term is obviously infantilizing, and it is no surprise that it has been repeated over and over again since infantilization has a long and well documented history of being projected onto the bodies and characters of Asian Americans. Infantilize Asian women and you’ll find the well-known stereotype of the eroticized, childlike and submissive Asian woman. Infantilize Asian men and you’ll arrive at your equally well-known trope of the clumsy, unassertive and apologetic “emasculated” Asian man: a slit-eyed, buck-toothed figure with hands clasped, a bowing and obsequious buffoon with limited agency. Insistence on constructing Liang as an unlucky “rookie cop” in the wrong place at the wrong time who didn’t know what he was doing is simply another more coded and less direct way of applying this passive and infantilized Asian stereotype onto Liang.
The inherently dehumanizing racist stereotype described above is used to invoke and identify a particular type of East Asian character which is associated with certain unfavorable and inferior traits in mainstream US consciousness; this trope provides us with a lens to see how Liang is received and viewed. Liang has not spoken to media, but he need not speak to summon a series of feelings and thoughts in the general public about who he is – feelings which ultimately draw sympathy, and portray him in a light of innocence. Like Liang, Gurley also doesn’t have to speak; but for Gurley, the silent image of a Black man invokes not sympathy and a presumption of innocence, but rather an arsenal of anti-Black narratives and tropes which are projected onto his defenseless and now lifeless body – may he rest and rise in peace, power, and love.
Due to internalized racism – a process which impacts the ways that racialized peoples see ourselves and what wordsand characteristics we identify with – it is of no surprise that many Asians have taken to finding a sense of pride – and certain levels of safety and protection – in identifying with the model minority myth. This racist myth was created by and is consistently weaponized by whites; however, it is also employed by Asian people against other racialized groups. The model minority myth has become so pervasive, invasive, and insidious that it is even employed by Asian people against other Asian people in both direct and indirect ways. Through the media as well as the academic and non-profit industrial complex, homogeneously “authentic” “representatives” of our heterogenous communities are determined, constructed and empowered. This unique class of “educated” and “legitimate” Asians is then able to inform and considerably contribute to the determination of the terms of engagement in “social justice” organizing, and even dictate which Asian people are seen as valid, legitimate, and worthy of being heard, included, or protected.
The model minority myth can and often does function completely undetected in mainstream consciousness, and there is no doubt it is functioning in this case. Whether Liang and his supporters are conscious of it or not, they are all relying on racist stereotypes, both of Asian and Black people, to insist on Liang’s innocence. The insistence to find Liang not culpable of ending Gurley’s life and to perceive Gurley as somehow deserving of his own death invokes thelies of the model minority myth. Ideas espoused by many of Liang’s supporters play right into the time – honored tradition of white power in the US benefiting from non-white groups of people enacting violence and aggression towards one another: explicitly serving, protecting and upholding anti-Blackness while ultimately fortifying white power. Notes on “Colorblindness” and the Ways the Criminal “Justice” System Works for and Against Differently Racialized Bodies.
On February 10, 2015, Peter Liang was indicted by a grand jury and charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of official misconduct. The following day, at a previously scheduled court appearance, Liang turned himself in to the court and pled not guilty to all charges. He was subsequently released on his own recognizance without having to post bond and was suspended from his job without pay. During the press conference in which Brooklyn’s first Black District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced the indictment, a reporter asked him if race was a factor in the indictment. Thompson said that race had nothing to do with the indictment, stating that such “allegations” were “baseless” and went on to make several statements valorizing the NYPD. While it is necessary to affirm that Thompson’s decision to indict Liangwas almost certainly not based on personal anti-Asian prejudice, it is equally important and crucial to remember that race is an inherent and inescapable factor that is literally all-encompassing and operates at all levels, whether we are aware of it or not. Thompson and Liang are two parties involved in one legal process. Even if all major parties involved in the trial shared the same race, it still remains true that the judicial system is an institution of consolidated settler colonial power which upholds the racial hierarchies of white supremacy. No matter the identities of the people in each role in the courtroom, the roles themselves are necessary parts within a larger structure.
Liang, who is Chinese-American, will face the same judicial system that has historically and systematically targeted Chinese people with racist legislation such as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not repealed until 1943. In contrast, chattel slavery of Black/African/and African-descended peoples was still legal in 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was passed in 1863, and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 legalized racial segregation and paved the way for the notoriously violent, genocidal and anti-Black Jim Crow era. This case – which involves the first Black District Attorney, prosecuting a Chinese NYPD Officer for charges involving the killing of a Black man – cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. It must be situated within a racialized context in which we understand that policing, law enforcement, and the criminal “justice” system work for and against differently racialized bodies, while always maintaining and replicating settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness.
During the indictment proceedings when Liang was released on his own recognizance and not taken into custody, Akai Gurley’s aunt actively reminded those in the courtroom that day that race exists and is a relevant factor in thecase when she pointed out that the presiding judge, Justice Danny K. Chun, is Asian. Justice Chun – who is Korean-American – and Liang are both East Asian, and are ascribed to the same racialized group. Whether it is acknowledged in mainstream society or not, East Asians are able to access certain privileges through white supremacist power structures that Black people are not afforded – privileges which exist specifically because of violence that is directed toward and specifically targets and impacts Black communities. For example, East Asians – despite being deeply impacted by white supremacy – are not being systematically and extra judicially murdered by police in the way that Black people are. While it is possible that an Asian judge may have aided Liang’s prospects, whether their shared race had anything to do with Chun’s treatment of Liang or not, it cannot be disputed that there is a widespread and well-known precedent of police receiving special favor in court. Fordham University law professor James Cohen said in regards to this case that the “defendant was released without bail because he’s a police officer.”
The numbers tell a story of impunity and special treatment for police officers in US courtrooms. According to a report requested by the National Institute for Justice, when it comes to police killings only 41 officers were charged with either manslaughter or murder over a seven-year period ending in 2011, despite the fact that police departments reported over 2,600 “justifiable homicides” during that time. Only one-fourth of police officers arrested on gun-related charges were held in custody while awaiting trial. Liang is among the 75 percent of police officers who are able to walk out ofthe courtroom after being charged with gun-related crimes.
Supporters of Liang have interpreted Gurley’s aunt’s proclamation of “Asian Judge!” in the courtroom as amounting toanti-Asian racism. A Black woman acknowledging that race exists and impacts all facets of her life is not racist. In fact, the effort to attempt to remove or ignore race as a factor, like Kevin Thompson’s statements showed before, is commonly referred to as “colorblindness.” “Colorblindness” is the false and dangerous belief that race and color do not matter. This approach to race ignores people’s lived experiences that can be attributed to their ascribed race, rejects cultural differences, and invalidates the ways that different races are perceived and treated. The acknowledgment that both Chun and Liang are Asian should remind us of the ways that racialization, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness are omnipresent and are actively at play at all times, both within and outside of the courtroom. Despite being oppressed through various logics of white supremacy, Asian Americans are afforded the ability to participate in, uphold, and benefit from anti-Black racism and the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands through accessing white settler colonial power structures – of which the “justice” system is one of the highest order.
Peter Liang the “Scapegoat” and the “Pawn,” and Other Narratives That Invest in Anti-Blackness
Another term that is frequently coupled with Liang’s name in headlines and articles is “scapegoat.” This term is usually used to describe a person, an event, or even an object that can be unfairly blamed for the wrongdoings of others. Supporters of Liang have claimed that the District Attorney’s decision to indict Liang, and the judge and jury’s decision to convict him, was made in an effort to squash the backlash against police and prosecutors that has been demonstrated after high profile non-indictments of officers such as Darren Wilson, who murdered 17-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, MI, and Daniel Pantaleo, who murdered Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. They believe that Liang was indicted because as a Chinese officer it is easier and more favorable to punish him than to punish white officers (and white men in general) like Wilson or Pantaleo. While it is true that the “justice” system is made to favor white men, the arguments being used to make that point rely on anti-Black racism and work to legitimize police violence toward and murder of Black people as acceptable. Of course, the exact circumstances between the three cases (Liang, Wilson, and Pantaleo) are different, and the actions of all three officers are different. However, the outcomes – the taking of Black life – remain the same. Framing this situation as though Liang is simply being scapegoated not only muddles reality, but also ignores larger structures at play, like anti-Blackness and the rampant state violence carried out through local police forces across the country. Liang chose to become an NYPD officer. He knows the risk of carrying a loaded lethal weapon.
Many of Liang’s supporters have tried to assert that Liang is was merely a “pawn” by pointing to the testimonies of multiple police witnesses that claim Liang’s decision to draw his gun on a vertical patrol was not out of the ordinary and simply a “standard part” of police procedure; trying to say that this type of accident could happen to anyone. Could it happen to anyone? This begs the question that Kenneth Palmer – Akai Gurley’s stepfather – asked of Liang: “Why did you have your gun out in a place where families live, where children walk up and down the stairs, where they playand travel?” Vertical patrols and Broken Windows style policing are methods of control carried out by police andutilized to maintain a white supremacist social order in which Black people are continuously policed, monitored, and controlled through violence and death. Again, by becoming a police officer, Liang vowed to carry out orders and duties such as vertical patrols.
A 57-page document issued by the NY state District Attorney’s office outlines the case and meticulously highlights a series of reckless breaks in protocol engaged in by both Liang and his white partner, Shaun Landau. As Jen Fang of Reappropriate points out, the document actually serves to disprove the entire “scapegoat” argument. Shaun Landau had been on modified duty since the shooting and was finally fired on February 12, 2016. He was granted immunity in exchange for what has been widely considered the crucial testimony that secured Liang’s conviction. Neither Liang nor Landau even attempted to help Akai Gurley as he lay bleeding out from a gunshot wound to the heart. Landau testified that he never even read his CPR textbooks during his training at the Police Academy, was fed answers to his exams on the subject. Despite the granting of immunity from the state, Shaun Landau is still at least in part responsible for Akai Gurley’s death.
Some Chinese-Americans are dishonorably and disgustingly seizing upon this tragedy as an opportunity to gain personal political gains under the misguided banner of “furthering civil rights” for Chinese and other Asian groups. For example: working alongside Joseph Concannon – a white man, former NYPD captain, and current vice president ofthe Queens Village Republican Club – are Republican party political rejects/hopefuls, Phil Gim and Doug Lee, who have been actively engaged in organizing multiple pro-police demonstrations in support of Liang. These troubling conservative self-appointed “representatives” of NYC’s Chinese diaspora are demanding state sanctioned civil “rights” without acknowledging that the ongoing struggles and triumphs of Black/African/African-descended people have been foundational to advancing rights for Asian Americans. Further – no matter how uncomfortable or complicated it is toacknowledge – the “rights” we seek are granted through the power of the settler colonial state, and thus inherently require our ongoing participation in occupation.
“We don’t want to be pushed around anymore, or picked on anymore,” Mr. Gim said. “We’re going to fight back.” If people like Mr. Gim or Mr. Lee are so concerned with anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism, their frustrations would be better spent attacking and dismantling imperialist white supremacist power structures rather than using those very structures (and exploiting language barriers) to manipulate other people into supporting their personal political agendas and, intentionally or not, investing in the maintenance of anti-Black state violence and murder enacted by the police.
On February 17th, 2015, a poorly-designed petition with very little context or factual information was created by a resident of Pasadena, California, identified only as “K.P.” It called upon the White House to intervene in the case and withdraw the charges against Liang, despite the fact that the White House has no authority over the decisions made by state or local prosecutors. The petition was rapidly and widely circulated using Facebook and We Chat – a Chinese social media app – and by the time it was closed, it had gained a total of 123,980 signatures. The petition – which again claimed Liang as a “scapegoat” – contained absolutely zero substantial supporting evidence and was written in only five short sentences. It was able to garner so much support by relying on inaccurate and pervasive anti-Black racism, as well as on people’s warped understandings of the ways anti-Asian racism and Asian identities function. In addition, the petition found the eager and excited support of white supremacist right-wing elements like Front Page Mag, which never miss an opportunity to stoke the flames of tension between non-white groups for their own benefit.
In April of 2015, Chinese Americans gathered in Brooklyn to march across the bridge to Manhattan’s Chinatown in a call for a fair trial for Liang – many waving signs that read “NO SCAPEGOAT” both in English and in Chinese. Queens resident Jim Cheng was quoted describing how he thinks Asians are perceived in America. “They say, ‘This Asian guy. This community [doesn’t] vote. They don’t have enough elected officials. They don’t know what to say. Let’s get him!'” Cheng then went on to say, “In America, people say, ‘Well, white people is first class. Black people is second class.’ What I see, Chinese is no class, or the last class. So we have to change that.”
Cheng’s statement demonstrates clear frustration stemming from feelings of being unseen, unheard, unrepresented, and unprotected. This speaks to a feeling and knowledge of outside-ness, which has some roots in the original trope of Chinese people in America as the “unassimilable other.” Existing in a society dominated by white supremacy – and the various ways white supremacy manifests, such as through the Black/white binary and the hypervisibility of Black people – does contribute to feelings of erasure in both Asian, as well as other non-Black, communities of color. This then results in misdirected vitriol and violent lash back against Black people from our communities, and in turn works to both maintain and strengthen the white supremacist, settler colonial nation state.
Through the use of white supremacist institutions such as mass media and academia, conversations about race are constructed as though Black and white are the primary and most important racial groups in this country, positioning other groups in a grotesque competition for space and breeding resentment and more anti-Black racism from our communities. The Black/white binary is a powerful tool which normalizes the ongoing occupation, settler colonialism, and total invisibilization of Indigenous peoples. The Black/white binary functions as a tool for predominantly whites – but also for other racialized groups, such as East Asians – to maintain and replicate relationships of domination and false superiority over Black people. This in turn promotes and fosters entitlement to not only accessing white power structures, but also settler colonial power, and the continued occupation of Indigenous lands.
By examining Cheng’s statement we can see how the Black/white binary and the hypervisibility of Black people has created space for the construction of false narratives about race, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy in American society. Cheng’s statement can be decoded to reveal a pervasive and inaccurate perception: that the hypervisibility of Black people results in negative impacts for Asian people – as though there is a direct correlation between the lack of visibility and representation of East Asian people, and as if that is somehow caused by the hypervisibility of Black people. The quote also indicates a false belief that the hypervisibility of Black people is something wholly positive for Black people, when Black people have repeatedly noted otherwise. Trudy of Gradient Lair has written that the hypervisibility of Black people functions in a way in which Black people are constructed and used as stepping stools who can then be turned into non-human products to be consumed by and used for the benefit of whites and non-Black people of color. Relating this back to Cheng’s quote – and the sentiments expressed within it which are not unique to Cheng – we can see how support for Liang has manifested in ways that are devoid of larger understandings of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Upholding narratives that blame Black people for the structural racism faced by Asian people further invests in not just the dehumanization of Black people, but also in the advancement of white supremacy, at the explicit expense of Black people.
Statements and sentiments such as this are not unique. In fact, we can find similar narratives repeated over and over again throughout decades and even centuries. Recently, Bill Maher, white left-wing liberal and host of the late night television show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” made a ridiculously racist assessment in reference to lash back from Black people about Hollywood’s overwhelming whiteness and anti-Blackness. Maher – speaking as host along with three other white people talking about this topic – claimed that the reason the “#OscarsSoWhite” is because China hasthe largest growing movie market and, according to him, “Asians are really racist!” Therefore according to Maher’s white supremacist logic, it is Asian peoples’ fault that Black people are not being recognized and honored for their accomplishments, not the fact that Hollywood is itself a highly segregated industry which overwhelmingly employs whites more than all other groups at all levels of production.
Additionally, all non-Black people of color are significantly represented less than both Black and white people at the Oscars. This again illustrates the way in which the constructed Black/white binary fuels negativity and prejudice – which eventually becomes violence – between non-white groups. This is a blatant example of the problems that arise when white people are allowed to dominate narratives and language used to talk about non-white people, as well as todictate and determine how many non-white people may appear in mainstream media. At both conscious andunconscious levels, mainstream media continues to perpetuate narratives that reproduce and fortify white supremacy by pitting people of color against one another, and ensuring that non-white groups are not able to effectively work together to attack and unsettle the settler colonial white supremacist nation state.
Liang, who is a police officer and is seen as a hard-working immigrant, is able to access narratives which give him a greater proximity to whiteness, such as: being a police officer, patriotism, nationalism, and the idea of America as a “melting pot” where immigrants can participate in the “American Dream.” It should be noted that despite Akai Gurley’s family having also migrated here (from St. Thomas), he and his family are not afforded the same narrative of being hard-working immigrants. This speaks to the particular ways that Black people are seen and constructed in the US. “Acceptable” and even admirable characteristics, qualities, and narratives have been attributed to Liang – due to his proximity to whiteness and participation in settler colonial power structures – which continue to work in his favor even after his conviction. This is evident in both the widespread support he has received, as well as the violent backlash from Liang’s supporters that has been wielded at CAAAV (an Asian community organization) members and other Asian people who have provided crucial support for the Gurley family.
When we thoroughly interrogate the nuances of this case and contextualize them through a historical lens, it becomes alarmingly clear that Liang’s Chinese and other Asian supporters have utilized rhetoric that is anti-Black – whether consciously or not. Whether Liang had any prior intent to hurt Gurley or anyone else, and despite being a “rookie,” being “startled,” “making a mistake,” or whatever other arguments Liang’s supporters have used to defend him, nothing can change the results of Liang’s actions: a young man and father had his precious life violently ended, and a family has been left to mourn and pick up the pieces.
Yes, if Liang were a white cop, he would be treated differently than he is as the son of a cook and a garment worker who moved here from Hong Kong. It is true that Liang and his parents are immigrants, and that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association – the notoriously racist and violent NYPD’ officers’ union – has not lauded Liang as a “model officer” or supported Liang in the ways that they swiftly worked to defend Daniel Pantaleo’s character. Despite all of that, the basic argument being made by many of Liang’s supporters (and others who rely on any of the previously discussed framing) is that since white officers like Pantaleo and Wilson are able to essentially “get away” with killing Black men with impunity, then so too should East Asian officer Liang.
Peter Liang is not a “pawn” or a “scapegoat,” but rather as a police officer Liang is an active agent in maintaining a system which relies on the deaths of Black people like Akai Gurley.
Liang being seen as a political “pawn” and continuously claimed as innocent by some Chinese and other Asian-Americans speaks volumes. “Asian-American” racialized identity has been constructed as being capable of being a “wedge” identity which can be leveraged in whichever direction best serves to strengthen and maintain the white supremacist nation state. Whether we understand the contexts, the histories, or even the existing power dynamics or not; the way that a person is racialized always impact the ways that the criminal “justice” system works for or against them. It is true that Chinese Liang is the first NYPD officer to be convicted of a police-involved shooting in a decade, and the fact that he is not a white officer most certainly played a role in achieving these results. However, the notion that non-Black officers of color – like Liang – should be as equally unaccountable as white officers for their murders of Black people is outrageous, and further ensures a future in which Black people will continue to be routinely brutalizedand killed by police of all races with impunity.
America’s existence as a settler colonial nation dependent on systemic anti-Blackness and with a history and legacy of chattel slavery has given rise to very specific and complex race dynamics which are continuously and purposefully obscured, convoluted, and manipulated in order to maintain both white supremacy and colonial occupation. However, those contexts are not well known, and this has created ample room for rampant misinformation and over simplifications regarding the ways that white supremacy and racism impact differently racialized peoples. Racial formation describes the complex processes through which social, historical, economic, and political forces create distinct meanings and ideas about different socially constructed racial groups. In dominant American culture these meanings and ideas are oversimplified, exaggerated, and in many cases completely stripped of meaning and context,and then represented through stereotypes and tropes that can be relied on to convey ideas about people of different races and about how they should be treated.
Racist stereotypes about Black people teach non-Black people to be able to recognize and associate terms like “thug”and “career criminal” with young Black men like Akai Gurley. So-called “positive stereotypes” like the model minoritymyth lend ideas about how East Asian people like Liang are more assimilable and more hardworking than Black people. Combined, these ideologies helped to portray Liang as innocent of wrongdoing. This presumption of Liang’s innocence is especially stark in contrast to the portrayal of the man he is responsible for killing, who was repeatedly attacked and dismissed as being a “thug.”
The ways in which this case has been portrayed is informed by white supremacist settler colonial frameworks. These frameworks erase and obscure the brutal and grotesque histories that have created structural inequalities specifically targeting and affecting Black people, in ways that non-Black people do not equally experience. In addition, ongoing impacts and current manifestations of anti-Blackness – such as the prison industrial complex, extrajudicial murders via police like Liang, and the carceral state in general as an extension of chattel slavery and domination over Black people – are not contextualized, centered, or understood within mainstream US consciousness. The conditions that Black people are currently forced to endure are seen as being separate from – rather than as a result of – these violent histories.
Akai Gurley’s death has been repeatedly justified by pro-police and pro-Liang supporters, organizers, and materials. Chinese Americans and other people who support Liang rely on the obfuscation of anti-Black state violence and settler colonial power. They are weaponizing their ability to access “positive stereotypes” created by whites about Asians, which inform the basis of the model minority myth and imply that Black people have “not done as well for themselves”and therefore are to blame for their own structural oppression. These extremely dangerous and lethal narratives and stereotypes position Black men like Akai Gurley as somehow being responsible for their own deaths.
Policing is a social control technique, and in America the institution of the police has been formidably shaped throughthe relational power dynamics that exist through and because of settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Using theever-present threat of violence and death, white men – particularly military, landowners, and slaveholders – regularly and systematically controlled, patrolled, and policed Indigenous and Black peoples (including those who hold both identities). Night Watches and Slave Patrols began in the early 1700s in South Carolina and specifically enforced physical, mental, and emotional domination and control over enslaved African peoples through extreme violence, murders, and mass murders. These self-organized groups – which also included white women – formed in response tothe growing anxieties of white people who feared that they could no longer control the rapidly growing populations of enslaved people, while simultaneously patrolling and defending the borders of the territories of the land they had stolen/were in the process of stealing from Indigenous peoples.
These groups eventually became more and more organized and institutionalized. By 1778 the Vagrant Act expandedthe power of patrols to stop all white persons who “couldn’t be accounted for” as an effort to derail any actions taken by individual whites that in any way assisted Black people. To further entrench the protection of white supremacy withthe mentality of patrolling and widespread social control, whites were regularly called to perform service in slave patrols, much in the way that drafts require citizens to enroll in military service. White people as a race have a vested interest in maintaining domination over Black people. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed by Congress to quell white fears of “slave power conspiracy” as the number of enslaved Black people continued to grow. “Free” andenslaved Black people were all subjected to harassment, searches, seizures, maiming, and death regardless of whether a law had been broken and without “due process” in the courts, just as the police continue to operate across the nation today.
The need to police Black and Indigenous people and their bodies to protect white supremacy and settler colonialism is nothing new. In fact, it is not only older than “America” itself, but it is America itself. Through participation and inclusion in the fraternal order of the police, East Asian people like Chinese Liang pledge their allegiances to an institution built on these legacies and maintained through the ongoing violence and genocide of both Black and Indigenous peoples.
Just one day after Akai Gurley tragically lost his life due to Peter Liang’s actions, Mayor de Blasio urged New Yorkers “not to connect the dots” between Gurley’s death and the murder of Eric Garner, and by extension other Black people who have been systemically extra judicially murdered both on- and off-camera. Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton characterized the shooting as an “accident,” and in doing so not only informally declared Liang’s innocence but also lent credibility to anti-Black narratives weaponized by Asians supporting Liang. Not connecting the dots, aversion to critical thought, intentional historical revisionism, and whitewashing are all required in order for assimilation of non-white groups into colonial power structures to take place. If white supremacy to continueto be maintained and replicated, it will be through the continued weaponization of non-Black and non-Indigenous people of color to participate in and support anti-Black violence, and to fortify the settler colonial nation state through integration and assimilation into institutions of white power such as the police.
While no official records exist of the initial integration of Asian-Americans into policing bodies, it is reported that thefirst Asian police officer was appointed in 1958 in Seattle. Historians of Chinatowns and Chinese diaspora in America have long documented the strained history of relations between US governing bodies and Chinese people living within its settler colonial borders. Many note that few immigrants had law enforcement or military roots before arriving in the US, and those accustomed to repressive governments in China and Taiwan were often suspicious and wary of institutionalized authority. This resulted in a national policing identity that until recently, did not include Asian-Americans.
As a police officer, Liang agreed to enforce laws – all laws – as part of his duties. Since the inception of the colonies, laws and informal social contracts have manifested and continue to manifest in ways that are distinctly anti-Black in their creation and implementation, and that especially impact Black people who are made additionally vulnerable through negligent state-run low-income housing like NYCHA. These practices are undeniably proven to be a direct continuation of Slave Patrols, which were transitional forms of social control that led to the institutionalization of policing as we know it today.
Because Chinese and other Asian peoples have historically been constructed in the American imagination and mythos as “unassimilable,” starting up a career in law enforcement or military service assists in assimilation into white power structures by demonstrating commitment to protecting and upholding the settler colonial nation state. In the year 2000 Asian-Americans made up just 1.6 percent of the NYPD. Between then and 2015 – a mere 15 years – the amount of Asians on the force in NYC had nearly tripled from 629 to 2,100. While it is true that Asian-American peoples need anddeserve access to culturally specific support and resources to respond to violence that occurs within our communities, we must reject, not embrace, participation in policing structures which function to protect and maintain occupation by continuously policing, monitoring, and controlling Black and Indigenous peoples through violence and death.
The fact that CAAAV and other Asian people organizing support for the Gurley family have been targeted by Asian people who support Liang shows just how deeply our communities have internalized anti-Blackness. Peter Liang’s responsibility in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, as well as the subsequent show of support organized by Asian people – Chinese people in particular – serves as a highly visible representation of the ways that anti-Black racism can be accessed in order to protect and defend non-Black people like Chinese officer Liang, while actively working to dehumanize Black people like Akai Gurley.
By possessing the qualities of not being Black or Indigenous to these lands, East Asians and other Asian peoples are able to participate in the settler colonial project and reap the benefits of occupation, while simultaneously escaping the specific violences of social and structural white supremacy that are enacted against Black people in ways that we do not experience. The model minority myth allows for non-Black East Asian people and some other Asian peoples to shield ourselves with tropes and devices that – while true or not – make us less threatening and more acceptable towhite people and white society.
Asian identity is constructed in a way that allows us to gain proximity to and power from whiteness and settler colonialism through our conscious and unconscious participation in anti-Black racism and ongoing occupation. This structuring allows us to both escape from these particular forms of structural violence, while simultaneously benefiting from them when they are leveraged against Indigenous and Black peoples.
1. “Emasculated” appears in quotes to draw attention to the ways that this term relies on the sexist and transphobic construct of gender essentialism, and its use as a pejorative assumes that non-masculine is inferior to masculine.
2. The term “colorblindness” appears in quotes because of the way it turns Blindness and people affected by it into metaphors by distorting and misappropriating their experiences.