Image by John Kazior

Beyond “Hate” | Evading the Carceral Trap of Asian American Grievance

Rose Nguyen

To mark the one-year anniversary of the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that left eight people dead, six of whom were ethnically Chinese or Korean women, The New York Times published an op-ed by Korean American novelist Min Jin Lee headlined “Asian Americans Have Always Lived With Fear.” Lee draws on the results of an informal Twitter survey in which she asked her Asian and Asian American followers how they’d changed their daily routines in response to recent incidents of anti-Asian violence. According to Lee’s DIY sociological findings, Asian and Asian American men and women have become more reluctant to leave their homes. When they do venture out into the world, they carry pepper spray and personal safety alarms, take taxis instead of public transportation, and wear hats to obscure their faces. 

Lee’s respondents were reacting to a real threat. After the novel coronavirus arrived on American shores in early 2020, customers began avoiding Chinatowns, strangers spat on and hurled slurs at Asians, and Asian Americans shared stories of Covid-shaming on social media. By March, the Trump administration was fomenting nativist ire with turns of phrase like the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu.” 

In the months after March 2020, this distinctly new strain of anti-Asian sentiment would manifest itself in random acts of public humiliation and physical violence, often captured on grainy surveillance video. The organization Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate (or Stop AAPI Hate), also founded in March 2020, has cataloged thousands of self-reported incidents of anti-Asian racism, ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault. Media coverage of the organization’s reports diagnosed a wave of anti-Asian hate that crested with the tragic mass shooting in Atlanta.

Though Lee’s survey focused specifically on behavior modifications in the past two years, she argues that the mood of terror and hypervigilance among Asian Americans is nothing new. “This has been happening for as long as I can remember,” she writes, before going on to chronicle her family’s brushes with violence after immigrating from Korea to Queens in the late 1970s: break-ins at her parents’ jewelry shop in Manhattan’s Koreatown, muggings, robberies at gunpoint, schoolyard bullying, and racist epithets directed toward her and her sister. Lee recalls keeping vigil for her parents at home as a teenager, anxiously awaiting their safe return every night.

Left out of this bracing account is the historical particularity of 1970s and 1980s New York, which saw a fiscal crisis brought about by rapid deindustrialization, widespread unemployment, and gutted social services. What matters for Lee’s narrative is the continuity between then and now — an inescapable, transhistorical condition of discrimination against Asian Americans. And it is telling that while she describes, in novelistic detail, the clothing and stature of her family’s attackers, she omits one fact in particular: their race. Lee also seems hesitant to explicitly call for increased police protection — understandable after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, which mainstreamed calls to abolish a criminal justice system that disproportionately jails, and outright kills, black and brown people. “Do I reasonably expect another person or a government body to keep me safe in some perfect way?” Lee asks. “I can’t say that I do. That has not often been my experience.” While she, along with the Asian Americans who replied to her Twitter thread, has been able to find “workarounds” for self-protection, Lee concedes that “a workaround is not a real solution and a temporary fix is never available to everyone who needs it.” So what would a “real solution” look like? 

Lee’s op-ed speaks the language of the movement that’s arisen in response to the surge in violence against Asian Americans. Two years in, we are coming up against the limitations of “Stop Asian Hate” — a slogan that negates rather than putting forth a positive message. What is the political content of “ending hate,” a framework that obscures the political and economic foundations of racism and myopically focuses on individual acts of spectacular violence — on “hate crimes”? And moreover, what is “Asian hate” to begin with? 

Without a critical intervention, the campaign to “Stop Asian Hate” risks endorsing the default solution for public safety under racial capitalism, a system that protects some (white, wealthy) at the expense of others (black, indigenous, brown, poor). But a different path is available. The recent renaissance in Asian American consciousness could be channeled into solidarity with other marginalized groups in the United States, rather than into harsher prosecution of them — but it will require a course correction.

 

Asian Americans have long occupied an uneasy position in American racial politics. Cathy Park Hong described it in her (in retrospect, extraordinarily timely) February 2020 book Minor Feelings as “a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down.” Since the 1960s, Asian Americans have been held up as the so-called model minority — industrious, law-abiding, self-reliant, anti-Communist — especially in contrast to the black Americans who were then fighting for civil and economic rights. 

The model minority myth proved remarkably resilient through the new millennium — until the pandemic, when any veneer of racial acceptance cracked completely. “I never would have thought that the word ‘Chink’ would have a resurgence in 2020,” Hong wrote in April of that year. Weeks earlier, a 23-year-old Korean student in midtown Manhattan was surrounded by a group of women who asked her, “Where’s your fucking mask? You’ve got coronavirus, you Asian bitch?” One punched her in the chin. The next month, a man in a hoodie flung acid at a 39-year-old Asian woman taking out the trash at her Brooklyn home, and she was hospitalized for severe second-degree burns over her hands, face, and upper body. 

But by that summer, another kind of Asian American racial consciousness, again anticipated by Hong in Minor Feelings, was coalescing. “I am ashamed of the antiblackness in that Korean community,” she writes, reflecting on the the reaction of some Koreans during the 1992 L.A. riots, when the killing of a black teenager, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean shopkeeper stoked tensions between racial and ethnic communities. “I belong to a group who have been given advantages over black and brown people,” she confesses. As the George Floyd rebellion brought millions of Americans into the streets, many Asian Americans — in particular young, college-educated, and second-generation — arrived at a similar view. If Asian Americans had previously been aligned with the white end of the racial spectrum, they now had a moral imperative to build solidarity with black and brown people. To be good allies, many resolved, they had to call out and expurgate the anti-blackness endemic within their communities. Letter-writing campaigns circulated toolkits in different languages with instructions for starting difficult conversations with family members. Instagram slideshows disseminated succinct histories of black-Asian solidarity, examples of anti-blackness among Asian Americans, and guilt-ridden explications of the “proximity” of Asian Americans to whiteness.

A new canon of Asian American activism took shape almost overnight. There was no shortage of nostalgia for the glory days of student activism in the 1960s, when “Asian American” was formed as a political identity and ethnic studies departments were founded across the country. Rediscovered heroes included the radical civil rights activists Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, who cradled a dying Malcolm X in her arms. An old slogan, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power,” was fished from a protest sign in a photo from 1969 — but it wasn’t long before it, too, was deemed part of a sullied past. The sign, it turned out, was held in the photo by Richard Aoki, a Japanese American CIA informant who improbably infiltrated Black Panther leadership. 

Monyee Chau, the Taiwanese and Chinese American artist who had helped revive Aoki’s slogan, issued a public apology on her Instagram. “Let us practice this routine of unlearning our internalized oppression,” she wrote. “I have a lot to work on as an Asian person.” The illustrator Felicia Chiao repurposed the image on Aoki’s poster — a yellow tiger and black panther curled into a yin-yang symbol — into a sign bearing the black protest slogan “No Justice, No Peace.” “We have the same oppressors but we are not oppressed in the same way,” Chiao wrote on Instagram. “Now is the time to listen, provide support, and use our proximity to whiteness to protect Black lives. Reject the model minority narrative and raise hell.” She added two fist emojis: one black, one yellow. 

 

As 2020 wore on, public support for Black Lives Matter diminished. In June 2020, an astonishing two-thirds of Americans supported Black Lives Matter. By September, that percentage dropped twelve points across the board; the loss of support was most pronounced among white respondents, though there was a slight dip among Asian Americans, too. 

Meanwhile, accounts of anti-Asian “hate incidents” continued to flood the Stop AAPI Hate database. Between March and late December of that year, the organization logged over 2,800. In January 2021, the 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee was shoved onto the San Francisco sidewalk and killed. In February, a 61-year-old Filipino man’s face was slashed with a box cutter on the New York City subway. Days later, Asian American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu personally offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who caught the person who, in a viral video, pushed another elderly man to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown. 

News outlets reported on the wave of anti-Asian racism, citing statistics from Stop AAPI Hate. This increased visibility brought up mixed emotions. “I felt a profound sense of grief,” literary theorist Anne Cheng wrote in The New York Times. “But I also experienced something akin to relief. Maybe, I thought, now people will start to respond to anti-Asian violence with the same urgency they apply to other kinds of racism.” 

Especially uncomfortable, given the previous summer’s racial reckoning, was that in several of the most high-profile cases, the assailants were black. Ratanapakdee’s son-in-law conducted an unscientific survey at rallies, asking Asian people who had been publicly harassed what the race of their assailant was. “Everybody I talked to said it was from a black person,” he told The New York Times. Activists and journalists were quick to rebut the narrative of black-on-Asian violence, pointing to a study that found the perpetrators of anti-Asian violence to be overwhelmingly white. Preserving the fragile cross-racial solidarity of summer 2020 required focusing on the plight of victims, rather than the prosecution of culprits.

But that was no longer the case after March 16, 2021, when the 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, a white, Christian man with an alleged sex addiction, shot up three massage parlors in Atlanta. According to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department, it was not a racially motivated attack; Long was simply “having a bad day” and the spas were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” (Within days, The Daily Beast reported that the sheriff’s spokesman had posted a photo on Facebook in which he wore a shirt that read “Covid 19 imported virus from Chy-na.”)

The tragedy fit an acceptable liberal narrative for uncomplicated moral outrage — white male shooter, vulnerable victims of color, racist cops — and held a match to the long-simmering resentment, rage, and grievance among Asian Americans. An outpouring of grief overtook opinion pages and social media feeds, as Asian American women shared heartfelt stories of the indignities of sexual objectification and fetishism; a new “hidden history” of anti-Asian racism, discrimination, exclusion, and sexual exploitation was excavated in online explainers and Instagram posts.

If the pre-Atlanta period of consciousness-raising pointed toward abolishing police and prisons, the post-Atlanta period was politically murkier. Though the founders of Stop AAPI Hate remained critical of carceral solutions, community organizers began to call for more policing to secure their neighborhoods. Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, told KQED, “I ask all of our seniors in Chinatown and basically all of our businesses: ‘Do you want to see police in this community?’” He answers his own question: “So far, I haven’t heard anybody say no.” 

In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the simplest political response to the abstract call to “Stop Asian Hate” turned out to be carceral. “Hate” is targeted through the legal mechanism of the “hate crime”: for every hate crime victim, there is a hate crime task force to lock up a hate crime perpetrator. As a legal category, the hate crime is grounded in the idea of individual perpetrators and individual victims; it cannot account for structural analyses of power. Rather than direct attention toward the economic and political conditions that give rise to violence — the dismantling of social services; the enrichment of elites on the backs of the poor, the black and brown, and the undocumented; the criminalization and incarceration of the disposable members of society under the guise of a War on Drugs and a War on Crime; geopolitical strife with China — “hate” becomes nothing more than a terrifying specter. 

A week before the Atlanta shootings, Grace Meng, the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York, and Mazie Hirono, the first Asian American woman senator, co-sponsored the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which funds police departments to collect hate crime data and expedite the Justice Department’s review of hate crimes “associated with Covid-19.” (Note the slippage here: these aren’t hate crimes “against Asians”; they’re “associated with Covid-19.”) In a rare display of bipartisanship, the bill passed by a vote of 94 to one in the Senate and 364 to 62 in the House. President Biden, flanked by Asian American politicians — Meng and Hirono as well as Representative Tammy Duckworth and Vice President Kamala Harris — signed the bill into law on May 20, 2021, just two months after the Atlanta shooting. “All of this hate hides in plain sight,” said Biden.  

Recognition from the state offered relief for some Asian American activists, but it made the progressive flank uneasy. Stances on policing started to splinter along generational, class, and ethnic lines. While older, first-generation Asian Americans tended to favor increased policing, dozens of activist groups — helmed by younger, more educated Asian Americans — jointly signed a statement expressing opposition to the hate crime bill and affirming their commitment to decarceral justice.      

In a 2021 lecture on black-Asian solidarity, sociologist Tamara K. Nopper offered a sobering assessment of the political implications of Stop AAPI Hate’s data set. The organization collects data on both physical attacks and non-violent microaggressions, the latter of which account for 63 percent of the “hate incidents” in Stop AAPI Hate’s most recent national report. Media coverage that conflated both types of incidents, she argued, was codifying the developing crime wave narrative. That framing primarily served police departments, eager to recuperate their compromised legitimacy in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests: they could justify their existence — and request additional funding — by pointing to a public demand for increased safety.

Pro-carceral legislation and increased policing represent one vision for “stopping” Asian hate, but at what cost? Measures billed as cracking down on hate crimes disproportionately single out black people. “Hate crime legislation is about carceral state development,” said political scientist Naomi Murakawa on the podcast “Time to Say Goodbye”; it’s a way of taking “an aggrieved, victimized population and offering them [entry] into the American family by way of saying, ‘We will jail and kill people who harm you.’” It’s easy to see how the current tide of justified fear and anger could turn into a carceral sequel to the model minority myth: the model minority that cries hate crime.

 

Who, exactly, has been calling for Asian Americans to atone for their own anti-black racism, and who has been framing anti-Asian violence in the language of hate? Who, in other words, has been speaking for “Asian America”? 

The past two years have exposed fault lines within a decades-old coalition that has been straining to accommodate growing differences in ethnicity, class, and migration history. The disjointed topography of Asian America is partly a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted race-based immigration quotas while giving preference to educated, “high-skill” immigrants from South and East Asia. Members of this cohort, due to their credentials and visibility within media and cultural spheres, often overshadow the involuntary migrants, the refugees from countries besieged by wars of American imperial aggression: the Hmong, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese. 

At the height of the George Floyd protests, some Asian Americans were quick to disavow Tou Thao, the Hmong American police officer who stood by as Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck. Though Thao seemed like a deserving object of condemnation, observed the Korean American writer and “Time to Say Goodbye” cohost Jay Kang, “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these declarations almost always come from elite-educated, upwardly mobile East Asians and they’re almost always directed at poorer, or, at the very least, less genteel immigrants, whether nail salon workers, beauty shop owners, or, in this case, a Hmong-American policeman.”

Working-class Asian Americans, as Kang suggests, tend to be looked down upon by their more affluent counterparts — except when they can be invoked to the elite spokeseople’s advantage. Consider the open letter by Asian American business leaders published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the Atlanta spa shootings. “Our community includes your cashiers, your teachers, your cooks, your doctors, your dry cleaners, your colleagues, your neighbors, your friends,” they wrote. “We cut your nails. We write your code. We, together, have launched rovers to Mars and back. Many of us have created jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans.” But did the same “we” really do all those things? What does it mean when a group that includes the CEO of Zoom, a cofounder of YouTube, and the cofounders of Peloton say, “We cut your nails”? 

As bourgeois Asian Americans move into the upper echelons of society (getting into Ivy League schools, gaining representation in Hollywood films, breaking the “bamboo ceiling” on Wall Street) their individualistic self-advancement does come at the expense of class solidarity — something many would rather forget. When, amid a spike in anti-Asian discrimination and violence, a Chinese director — the daughter of a billionaire — wins the Oscar for best director, should we really celebrate?

 

Another year of the pandemic, another round of anguish over the deaths of Asian American women and elders, each somehow more gruesome than the last: GuiYing Ma, 61, head bashed in with a rock as she swept the street in Queens; Michelle Alyssa Go, 40, pushed to her death from a Times Square subway platform; Christina Yuna Lee, 35, followed into her home in Manhattan’s Chinatown and fatally stabbed. In a twisted extension of the model minority myth, media coverage of Go’s and Lee’s murders played up their LinkedIn credentials: both were young, white-collar professional women who had gone to good colleges. “You can tell me all you want [that] this is not related to me being Asian but when I look at pictures of Michelle Go and read the story I see myself in it,” the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum told CNN.

When I placed flowers at the makeshift memorial outside Christina Yuna Lee’s apartment, a poster caught my eye. It read, “Anti-Asian Hate Crime Went Up 361%,” citing a widely reported NYPD statistic. I have to admit that I’ve felt a base desire for the killers in all these cases to be brought to “justice.” But I have a hard time imagining what justice would look like without jail, and I don’t want to put in motion a machine of carceral justice that will continue locking men of color up. (I hesitate to note that Lee and Go’s murderers are, in fact, black; Ma’s murderer is Latino.) I want to believe that we can have accountability without punishment, as the abolitionist Mariame Kaba says. Kaba also stresses that we cannot have real safety without relationships — including with people who don’t look like us.

Near the end of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), after police kill an unarmed black man, black residents of Bed-Stuy take to the streets and smash storefronts with baseball bats, and a Korean immigrant shopkeeper guards his grocery store from the advancing crowd. “I’m black! You, me, same!” he shouts in a thick accent, punctuating each word with a thrust of his broom. One of the black men replies, incredulous, “You, me, black? Open your eyes, motherfucker!” His friend holds him back and says gently, “Leave him alone. He’s all right.” The shopkeeper extends his hand as a peace offering. Nobody takes it, but the crowd laughs and moves on.

“I could not leave my race at home,” Min Jin Lee writes in her op-ed. She cannot change her “small, shallow-set eyes, round nose, high cheekbones, straight dark hair.” Nor, for that matter, can I. Nor can any of us who groan every time a headline about Covid is paired with a photo of a mask-wearing Asian woman. In lamentations over the observable fact of racial difference, the question is whether those racialized as not white can ever transcend their bodies — that is, whether they can “pass” into whiteness. What would it take for whiteness to cease to symbolize emancipation from the shackles of race? And what would it take for us to say to one another, “You, me, same?” 

Racial identification, while a starting point for solidarity, cannot be the sole organizing principle for a mass politics. Yes, I feel afraid for myself, my friends and family, and the people who “look like” me, but I feel even more afraid that this fear will justify solutions that hurt others on “our” behalf — more policing, more punishment. This is what assimilation looks like: the more “we” appeal to “your” (white, liberal) moral sympathies, the more we assert common ground with whiteness and distance ourselves from those exiled from its borders. 

Without a clear-eyed analysis of the political and economic foundations of racism, which the frame of “hate” obscures, one is left with an incoherent set of demands for psychic fulfillment: belonging, safety, visibility, and so on. These needs are not frivolous, but they do not constitute political claims so much as personal desires. The personal may be political, but that doesn’t mean only the personal is political. 

Who is the “you” in the opinion pieces about anti-Asian violence? Who is the imagined audience to whom “we” must appeal for sympathy? Moral appeals to the white imaginary, as Jackie Wang argues in the essay “Against Innocence,” won’t get us anywhere. Worse, they reinscribe the terms they oppose.  

On May 12, a gunman stormed into a Korean-owned Dallas hair salon and opened fire, injuring three Korean American women — the owner, a hairdresser, and a customer — in what is, as of this writing, being investigated as a hate crime. Three days later, a gunman in Orange County shot up a Taiwanese church, killing one and injuring five. But we are not the only victims of this “hate”: the very same week, a self-professed white supremacist shot and killed ten black people, and wounded three more, in a Buffalo grocery store. It goes on, and on, and on. 

Two summers ago, we glimpsed, however briefly, the bright flame of a new vision of Asian American identity, one that was essentially collective rather than individualistic, one that expressed both solidarity with and deference to other groups. We must recover and refine that vision — losing, perhaps, the endless excavations of transhistorical racism, and the belabored apologias. And, this time, we should proceed not in hasty reaction to yet another violent spectacle, but as if we had all the time in the world. 

Rose Nguyen is a writer from Honolulu. She is an incoming PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.

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