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Asian Innocence, Black Guilt: What David Dao Tells Us About Violence and the White Imaginary

The outrage over David Dao’s brutalization by United highlights the public’s tacit acceptance of anti-Black violence.

The outrage over David Dao's brutalization by United highlights the public's tacit acceptance of anti-Black violence. (Photo: Pieter van Marion; Edited: LW / TO)

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If you’ve been online in the past week, you’ve seen the video. A shaky camera follows David Dao, an older Asian man, as he is dragged by aviation police down the narrow aisle of a crowded United flight. His stomach is exposed, and his glasses hang precariously below his nose. Moments after his removal, he somehow reboards, blood dripping from his mouth and ear, moaning: “I have to go home,” and, “Just kill me.”

One week and dozens of think pieces later, there is much to glean from the messy national conversation about race, policing and violence that ensued in the aftermath of Dao’s bloody removal from United 3411. At its core, the spectacle of Dao’s removal is a reminder of the tenuous relationship between Asian racialization and a US carceral state founded on the conflation of Blackness and criminality. In a racial landscape in which Asians figure primarily as a symbol of racial exceptionalism, Dao’s treatment is a call to build better frameworks for understanding state violence against Asian Americans, one based not on generating empathy from the white imaginary, but on a moral and political vision of abolishing state violence altogether.

Who Is David Dao?

As footage of Dao’s beating went viral, media and news commentators raced to offer a definitive take. Varying from colorblind critiques of the airline industry to calls for Asian American solidarity with Black Lives Matter, this body of discourse speaks to mainstream America’s limited frameworks for talking about police violence against Asian Americans.

Early reports divorced Dao’s Asian racialization from the incident, with The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News alike describing a “passenger” or “doctor” sans racial descriptor. Social media commentary harping on early reports that Dao claimed he was singled out for being Asian prompted responses such as Clio Chang’s “Why It Matters That the United Dragging Victim is Asian,” which linked the media’s deracination of the incident to popular conceptions of Asian Americans as “model minorities” that don’t face contemporary racism. Meanwhile, business commentary continued to separate Dao’s Asianness from his treatment, instead emphasizing the airline industry’s dehumanizing treatment of passengers (Dao’s lawyer even suggested Dao may become the “poster boy” of disgruntled fliers, as if being slammed into your armrest by police is on par with wanting a bit more leg room). Socialist and anticapitalist platforms, such as Jacobin suggested that the incident revealed the “everyday violence that keeps capitalism running,” without exploring the specific ways capitalism enacts violence against Asian Americans or other people of color. When race was mentioned, some, like New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, scoffed at the idea that an Asian man could be the victim of racism. The colorblind frame of much of the early discourse speaks to mainstream America’s inability to conceptualize Asians as victims of racism, let alone police brutality.

On social media, a very different narrative quickly emerged. Initial reports suggesting that Dao was Chinese led to an onslaught of activity on Chinese social media platforms WeChat and Weibo. The topic trended on Weibo, where it garnered hundreds of thousands of comments from aggrieved Chinese and Chinese Americans promising to boycott United and bemoaning the singling out of a passenger alleged to be Chinese (Dao was later reported to be Vietnamese American, though he may also be ethnically Chinese). The narrative of Asian victimization soon bled into anti-Blackness: a White House petition with the co-opted hashtag #ChineseLivesMatters quickly gained over 200,000 signatures. One Weibo commenter claimed: “If it were a Muslim or black person, they never would have acted this way.” This narrow lens of Chinese aggrievement is not new: a popular narrative pinning Chinese/Asian victimization on imagined American favoritism for Blacks has dominated Chinese-language advocacy efforts against affirmative action and in the trial of Peter Liang, a Chinese American NYPD officer convicted of manslaughter for the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man. That many WeChat groups saw fit to rally both for an Asian victim of police violence in Dao and a Chinese American agent of police violence in Liang speaks to an understanding of racial violence and discrimination governed by narrow ethnic identification rather than structural critique.

To the contrary, Steven Thrasher’s viral Twitter thread described the incident as “an act of racial violence” and asked rhetorically: “Would a white woman have been dragged like this?” Where Chinese-language social media focused on a narrative of isolated Chinese victimization, Twitter bubbled with calls for interracial solidarity, with many Black and Asian American commentators linking Dao’s treatment to the larger crisis of police brutality that disproportionately impacts Black communities. Thrasher compared the argument that Dao should have simply complied with requests to deboard to the logic of “If he’d obeyed he’d be alive!” that is often applied to Black victims of police violence. When media began circulating allegations that Dao had a criminal past, many quipped that he was “getting the Black treatment,” referring to the familiar media habit of putting the character of Black victims of police brutality on trial, rather than the officers responsible.

While many Asian American responses used the attack on Dao as an opportunity to call for deeper Asian American investment in Black Lives Matter and the fight against police brutality, some of these articulations of solidarity fell flat. In an op-ed for CNN, Jeff Yang wrote that Dao “could’ve been Sandra Bland, pulled over for failing to signal and ending up arrested and dead in a cell.” In comparing Dao to Bland, Samuel Dubose and Walter Scott, Yang falsely equated the recurrent (but relatively rare) police brutality facing non-Black Asian Americans with the daily threat of police terror that Black communities live with. Meanwhile, a ludicrous USA Today headline asked if Dao was the “Asian Rosa Parks,” comparing a mistreated airline passenger with a Black civil rights icon who, besides her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott, spent decades fighting voter disenfranchisement, police brutality and the imprisonment of Black political activists. With an underdeveloped language for analyzing police violence against Asian Americans, well-intentioned liberal commentators fell into the trap of false equivalences and the erasure of the specificities of anti-Blackness.

These competing narratives each offered very different answers to the question: Who is David Dao? To the white middle class, he is the everyman frequent flier, frustrated by long security lines, cramped cabins and dehumanizing treatment from airport security and airline staff. To some Chinese people, he became a symbol for those slights and injustices suffered by the “quiet” minority, a rallying call for communities tired of feeling invisible in the US’s multicultural discourse. To progressive Asian Americans, Dao is a different sort of wake-up call: a reminder that in Trump’s America, the conditional privileges of the “model minority” are easily revoked, and that safety and freedom for Asian Americans is tied to the struggles of other communities of color.

We should also be grappling with a different question: Why Dao? Amidst an onslaught of daily anti-Black violence, the media attention afforded to Dao is striking. While news outlets have clamored to cover statements from Dao’s family, his lawyer and United Airlines officials, the recent beating of Nandi Cain Jr., a Black man who was hit repeatedly in the face by a police officer who accused him of jaywalking, has gone largely uncovered. Meanwhile, as Zoé Samudzi pointed out on Twitter, a Black woman who was dragged by her limbs from a Delta flight in December 2016 after she displayed a “huge attitude” was met with relative media silence. Amidst endless cases of anti-Black violence, why has Dao captured our attention as an example of policing gone wrong?

Anti-Black Violence Transposed

If the incident itself is unremarkable, perhaps it is the victim who is exceptional. In demonstrating the forms of violence worthy (and unworthy) of collective outrage, Dao reminds us of the extent to which everyday anti-Black violence — what Saidiya Hartman calls the “terror of the mundane and quotidian” — is rendered unexceptional in the popular imagination. If the US’s outrage shows the bloody police beating of an elderly Asian man to be beyond the pale, its silence reveals the understood truth that society considers anti-Black police violence within the bounds of reason. Desensitized by even the most graphic forms of anti-Black violence in an era of auto-play Facebook videos and countless stolen Black lives turned into hashtags, the white imaginary is moved only by the spectacle of watching an elderly Asian doctor — an avatar for the constructed model minority — “getting the Black treatment.” In the case of Dao, the anti-Black violence of the state is rendered legible — and labeled egregious — only when transposed onto a body capable of generating widespread white empathy.

Central to the discourse surrounding David Dao is the question of innocence. Is Dao innocent? The reporters who saw fit to dredge up Dao’s criminal record may say he is not, as may “law and order” ideologues who believe any noncompliance with the law is justification for a beatdown. However, the outpouring of popular support and the widespread consensus that Dao’s criminal record does not justify his violent treatment indicate that his innocence, or at least his undeservingness as a target of police violence, is presumed.

Yet we know that the concept of innocence is highly racialized, as it is classed and gendered. In her essay “Against Innocence,” Jackie Wang warns that a critique of state violence grounded in the language of innocence and an “appeal to the white imaginary” is ultimately ineffective when we consider the gross conflation of Blackness and guilt. Seen this way, it is Dao’s non-Blackness — and thus his presumed innocence — that renders the violence afforded him unacceptable. While many have argued that United 3411 proves the limits of conditional privilege under the model minority myth, Dao’s ability to generate empathy and identification from the white mainstream speaks to the fact that Asian racialization, while othered, remains sanitized when considered in relation to Blackness. That the Black woman dragged from Delta 2083 did not become a “poster child” for the aggrieved (white) American flier speaks to the racial boundaries that delimit white empathy and identification.

While Delta’s unnamed Black passenger fell into well-worn tropes of “Black aggression,” it is a stretch of America’s racial imagination to picture an elderly Asian doctor displaying the same “huge attitude” that supposedly justified her treatment. The sympathetic white frame is offended by suggestions that an elderly Asian doctor is deserving of a beatdown, even if he was, as Mike Brown was labeled in death, “no angel.” To many, it appears common sense that the anti-Black violence of the police state should not be weaponized against Asians. By delineating Dao’s treatment as unacceptable while remaining silent in the face of the everyday atrocities suffered by Black people, white Americans (and the many people of color invested in respectability politics and whiteness) draw a line in the sand between forms of violence we deem necessary for the sake of “law and order,” and those we consider egregious.

This is not to concur with commentators, such as Andrew Sullivan who argue that Dao being Asian is irrelevant to his treatment. As Steven Thrasher asked, can any of us imagine aviation police dragging a screaming white woman down the aisle? While Thrasher placed Dao within the specific American tradition of anti-Asian violence, noting the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese American mass incarceration during World War II, we need not look so far back for parallels. In considering Dao’s treatment, some may be reminded of the recent wave of Chinese American scientists accused of espionage, the 70-plus Muslim South Asian political asylum seekers deported in 2016, the post-election murders of Harnish Patel and Srinivas Kuchibhotla, or the routine humiliation of South Asian flyers at the hands of TSA agents. The stoking of anti-immigrant sentiments by the Trump administration has led many to wonder if Dao is a symbol of the precarity of model minority status in Trump’s America.

So why has Dao, and not others, captured our imagination as the Asian face to police violence? Why not Barry Prak, the Cambodian American man who was shot and killed in an exchange with Long Beach police in June 2016, and who himself was an activist fighting police brutality? Why not “Jessica” Jianqing Klyzek, the Chinese American woman who was beaten by police during a raid of a tanning salon in Chicago in 2013? Why not Sureshbhai Patel, the Indian grandfather who was partially paralyzed by police while strolling through his son’s Alabama neighborhood in 2015? Indeed, Patel, who had the police called on him by a neighbor who described him as a “skinny Black guy,” may be more aptly seen as “getting the Black treatment” — his pigmentation serving as a proxy for guilt, his limited English read as contempt or resistance in the context of his (mistaken) Blackness.

Again, we return to the question of presumed innocence. When victims of racial violence must be understood as innocent and respectable in order to be deemed worthy of white identification, we rely on appeals to what Hartman calls the “precariousness of empathy.” It is easier for the white imaginary to see itself reflected in Dao, a middle-class doctor, than in Prak, a suspect in a 2014 shooting who allegedly brandished a knife during his fatal encounter with Long Beach police. Likewise, perhaps “Jessica” Klyzek, a tanning salon worker in an establishment accused of illegal sex work, fell too far beyond the threshold of white respectability to warrant sympathy despite her brutal beating by officers who yelled they would “send [her] back to wherever the f*** you came from.” And while many in the South Asian American community rallied behind Patel, the relative media silence in his case speaks to the limits of a hegemonic East Asian frame within and beyond the Asian American community (one wonders if Dao would have made national headlines if not for the initial outrage on Chinese social media). Reliance on appeals to innocence and respectability end up reifying the model minority myth that so many Asian Americans detest — propping up notions that Asian doctors and lawyers, but not Asian “thugs” and working-class laborers, are worthy of protest.

Yes, David Dao is deserving of our outrage. To see many Asian Americans and others understanding Dao’s treatment not as an isolated incident, but as part of a system of police violence indicates the small openings for political good that may come out of his brutalization. And yet, the attack on Dao is also a reminder that respectability politics offer an inadequate framework for addressing state violence. Our activism and our outrage cannot be reserved only for those victims deemed deserving by the white imaginary. Mass consumption of pixelated records of anti-Black violence — on mobile phones, nightly news and Facebook feeds — cannot desensitize us to the “terror of the mundane”: the spectacle of the exception does not make the rule any less egregious. In the end, white empathy, a precarious and quickly exhausted resource, cannot be the fuel with which we propel our activism. Getting free means pushing the boundaries of our imaginations toward a radical expansion and redistribution of our own empathy.

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