By Anne Jiang ’23 for Fall 2020 Issue

TRIGGER WARNINGS: police brutality, systemic racism, violence, sexual assault

400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to America, the United States continues to undertake a moral reckoning with the systemic racism built into America’s very foundations. Our shameful ignorance at this reality pulses through supposed events of justice,  from the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 (which actually failed to ban slavery) to that of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some argue that systemic racism ended with the passing of the 13th amendment, when slavery supposedly became illegal. Others believe that the end of segregation marks the final victory for racial justice. Yet, in 2020, four centuries after the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of what is now known as the United States, the subjugation of Black Americans is still indisputably a part of this country. This subjugation is a crime that none claim responsibility for, but for which every non-Black American is responsible.

On May 25, 2020, the world watched as Tou Thao, a Hmong officer in the Minneapolis Police Department, stood indifferently aside as colleague Derek Chauvin brutally murdered George Floyd. For non-Black Americans, George Floyd’s killing was used as political ammunition from all sides in the coming months, from electoral politics to attempts to find legislative backing. For Black Americans, it was another painful reminder that their lives do not yet matter in a country built on the backs of their ancestors. 

Despite Asian Americans’, especially East Asian-Americans’ reputation–in our own communities and beyond–for being apolitical, docile, and subservient “model minorities,” Thao’s actions prove that in a country economically, socially, and politically built by slaves, there is no such thing as an apolitical identity. 

My family taught me that lawfulness and hard work, especially in academics, were key to succeeding in the United States. Since they were immigrants and political refugees who had built their new lives from the ground up, I too bought into this false narrative of meritocracy. 

This was Thao’s path as well. Spurred by a “sense of duty to help protect people and be a community resource”1, he  graduated from the Police Academy with a degree in law enforcement. In his capacity as a police officer in Minneapolis, the “straight and narrow narrative ingrained in him led him to aid and abet his colleague. Not only was he supporting his colleague, he was loyal to his capacity as an officer of the law. If this is true, then the law, plain and simple, is one that condones the violent murder of Black Americans in the name of…what, exactly? 

I grew up with the message that the law was to be respected. Consequently, police officers became enshrined in my family’s mind as those who are invested in our success, livelihoods, and well-being. Even as the police  broke into my home to demand that X year-old me stop crying, even as my parents screamed in the background, and even as officers  laid their hands on my inner arms without my or my parents’ permission, I was told they were to be respected as the keepers of the law. It then came as no surprise to me that Thou felt a sense of duty to the police force, a sense of duty strong enough that even the death of another human being could not override it. Though we may never know what kind of thinking drove his actions that day, it is clear that this is one of the many violent ends that political apathy can lead to.

Herein lies the perfect storm of what it means to be an Asian American. We are taught that we have a duty to our families to adhere to laws that were created neither by us nor for us and to achieve self-preservation. Blind respect for authority has made Asian Americans complicit in racial violence. For the majority of us, our blindness  manifests as avoidance and blame shifting. We convince ourselves and tell those close to us that government violence only affects people  who break the law and that doubling down on our respect for the system will in turn earn us respect in return. We reject the basic value of a human life in favor of trust in the system, because we fear that speaking up against the system will make us vulnerable to the violence that others experience and that we too have experienced at the hands of the state. 

It is on this fear that the government capitalizes. It is reinforced in media representations and political rhetoric that Asian immigrants are the “model minority,” that we are proof that the system cannot be racist. In reality, we swallow white supremacy by the mouthful in the hopes that one day it will benefit us. When riots broke out in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, white law enforcement fed Asian American entrepreneurs the myth that the destruction of their businesses and livelihoods was the fault of the Black community in LA, when in reality, it was all a response to police brutality created and perpetuated by that same white law enforcement. We spend our lives chasing the dream of assimilation when in reality our labor and subservience is exploited, our peoples are mocked through cultural appropriation, and our languages are denounced as symbolic of a failure to assimilate. In short, our existence in this country is weaponized. I say this not to erase Asian American activism during World War II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, but to explain that political apathy and conservatism are still pervasive in our communities. We must realize that our very belief that America is not racist was crafted by and for white supremacy.

It is absolutely essential that Tou Thao’s deplorable complicity be our wake up call. Asian Americans must take hold of the political power that they possess and use it, not to blindly support the state and those that represent it, but to dive headfirst into activism, so that we can create communities that value all lives. To those who are now waking up, it may be too late to save the lives already lost, but that is no excuse to lay back down. We all live in a country where Black Americans are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate of White Americans2 and where laws have been created34 with the express purpose of incarcerating and therefore enslaving5 Black Americans. We all live in a country where Black citizens make up 21% of those living under the poverty line, despite only making up 12% of the population6. We all live on land stolen from Native American nations and in a country whose economy and ideals of freedom were built on the backs of enslaved people brought here against their will. We live in a country that is racist. I must repeat these gruesome truths to ourselves to break out of the conditioning done to us through state propaganda (especially for those educated in public schools) and through the myth of Asian docility perpetuated by all who surround us. As Americans, we have a duty to our fellow Americans to stand against our country’s  racist laws and violently racist institutions. More importantly, liberation for the most marginalized and criminalized in our country is the first step to collective liberation for all minority groups. The Asian-American community has been manipulated in favor of white supremacy and the carceral state, but it is also a largely untapped source of political and social power. Not only do we have the power to create change, we have a moral obligation to do so in order to achieve collective liberation from the hands of white supremacy.


Works Cited

1 https://www.startribune.com/trouble-signs-showed-up-early-in-the-career-of-fired-minneapolis-police-officer-tou-thao/572551651/

2 https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/poverty-rate-by-raceethnicity/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

3 https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2019/03/26/467486/1994-crime-bill-continues-undercut-justice-reform-heres-stop/

4 https://eji.org/news/nixon-war-on-drugs-designed-to-criminalize-black-people/

5 https://www.history.com/news/13th-amendment-slavery-loophole-jim-crow-prisons

6 https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/poverty-rate-by-raceethnicity/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D