Politically empowering Asian Americans

Op-ed: Chinese American protests over officer's conviction unlikely to further political power.

I have devoted most of my life to developing ideas to engage more Asian Americans in U.S. politics, and I believe that as long as Asian Americans are left out of the political system, we will not have true democratic equality in the United States. So I should be cheering the fact that, in the middle of this presidential primary season, Chinese Americans across the country planned political protests in 40 cities at the end of last month. But instead of celebrating this coordinated political action, I am feeling uncertain about what it means for true Asian American empowerment.

Why were Chinese Americans protesting? On Nov. 20, 2014, a Chinese American police officer, Peter Liang, and his partner were patrolling a housing complex in Brooklyn, N.Y. While checking a dimly lit stairwell, Officer Liang's gun fired, and his bullet struck an unarmed black resident, Akai Gurley. The shot was fatal.

On Feb. 11th of this year, Officer Liang was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Gurley and one count of official misconduct for failing to administer CPR and not immediately calling an ambulance, but a supervisor instead. The Chinese American organizations sponsoring the rallies contend that Mr. Liang is a scapegoat, taking the fall because he is a member of a racial minority group, while white officers who have been accused of killing unarmed black men and women in recent years have largely gone free.

As a Chinese American and scholar of Asian American Studies, I sympathize with the Liang family. Mr. Liang was a rookie, and by all accounts he was badly trained by his employer, including inadequate training in CPR. It is also difficult to ignore the tragedy befalling Akai Gurley, an innocent victim of police violence who — like Baltimore resident Freddie Gray — is one of hundreds of unarmed black men and women who have been killed at vastly disproportionate rates by members of police forces across this nation.

The political mobilization happening in Chinese American communities can be seen as part of a longer history. In the mid-1800s, Chinese laborers were recruited in part so that white employers would not have to answer to the demands of newly freed black slaves. In the 1980s, when black leaders organized protests against Korean American grocers, a predominantly white media encouraged a narrative of "black-Korean conflict" that deflected America's eyes from the ways in which federal and private lending policies, zoning laws and restrictive racial housing covenants created residential segregation that excluded both black and Asian Americans from economic and political power. Instead of questioning why both groups faced widespread employment discrimination and were locked out of the mainstream economy, media stories focused on interracial tensions.

Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a 1999 essay that attention to black-Asian conflict protects white privilege from both black and Asian political power, deflecting black demands for racial justice while still maintaining Asian Americans' political and civic exclusion.

This is still happening to some extent today.

Things have changed for Asian Americans. We are no longer excluded from many sectors of the mainstream economy, but we still lack political power and, as I've argued in three books, are largely ignored by the U.S. political system, despite being the fastest growing racial group in the U.S.

That is not likely to change soon, even after these protests. Political power will not emerge from rallying around a single individual incident. And political power will not emerge when Asian and black communities are divided. There is also heated debate within the Chinese American community about whether these protests were on the side of justice; political power will not emerge from these conflicts within our community.

True political empowerment can be achieved, however, through political education and voter registration. More importantly, it can happen through a more coherent political agenda that includes calling for necessary and systematic reforms to police accountability across the board. It can happen if Asian Americans work together for the policies that public opinion data show they support at high rates: universal health care voter protections and access to language assistance, and economic redistribution. Asian Americans can also work together to confront nativist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiment that is leading to hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities across the nation. So, yes, by protesting Peter Liang's conviction, some in the Chinese American community showed they could mobilize politically, but there is still a long road to true political empowerment and representation.

Janelle Wong (janellew@umd.edu) is a professor of American studies and director of the Asian American studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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