Ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang’s conviction of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley should be a rare moment of relief for black people that there is some justice. Gurley had, like Timothy Stansbury ten years before him, been guilty of nothing more than walking in the stairwell of his Brooklyn apartment building.
It is not enough — not nearly enough — to assuage the pain of losing yet another of our people to state violence, but it should have been something.
But some in the Chinese American community perceive an injustice that Liang would be convicted for killing a black man, when so many white officers have not even faced charges. Protests organized over the weekend have taken what was a conversation on state violence and White Supremacy and turned it into a discussion on the divisions between black and Asian communities and anti-black racism within other non-white racial groups.
I asked my friend — the amazing comedian, writer and activist Jenny Yang — to chat about the Peter Liang conviction, the surrounding controversy, and the state of black-Asian-American relations today. The conversation took a very long and winding road to the end destination of peace, harmony and social justice cookies.
Jenny: The moment I first heard about Akai Gurley being shot by a cop with a Chinese surname my heart immediately sank. I was like, “Oh no. Here we go.” Firstly, because I was saddened that another person was gunned down.
And secondly, I know that in every case when Asians are included into the broader American racial discussion, we confuse EVERYBODY. It fucks up an already tough conversation.
Ijeoma: It’s a very challenging situation where you have brown and black people — and then Asian people off to the side and it never seems to be the same conversation. And when it’s all in the same arena, there’s so much confusion and mistrust. Some valid, a lot not.
Jenny: Yeah totally. Regardless of the race of the police officer though, my general reaction is always sadness and anger for those who are gunned down — often black and brown folks. The fact that they are dead while we are debating the politics behind an officer’s actions is what is paramount to me.
Ijeoma: Yes, and the protest against Liang’s conviction seem to be aware that there is a problem, but completely misguided about what the problem actually is. I think too that this is an opportunity to see that perhaps the Asian-American community, in contrast to the model minority myth, has real grievances with White Supremacy that don’t get much light.
Ijeoma: I think a lot of non-Asian people are scratching their heads trying to figure out what it’s about. But I think the fact that we don’t know has a lot to do with how little the black and Asian communities mix.
Jenny: It’s tough because there is a strong sense of “injustice” that these Chinese folks are voicing in these articles and on their protest signs, but what’s sad is that they did not mobilize this way when it was the issue of black and brown folks being killed at the hands of the police in the first place.
Ijeoma: And I think that it’s right to recognize the disparity — that one of the very few convictions would be of an Asian American man when the vast majority of white perpetrators go free — but I don’t think the solution is that everybody gets to murder brown and black people without consequence.
I worry too that this will feed into the narrative that the AAPI community is basically a part of White Supremacy, when this same troubled thinking is found everywhere.
Jenny: I knoooooow. WHY, IJEOMAAAA, WHYYYY?
Ijeoma: I encounter it when I talk about R. Kelly — so many black men saying we should go easier on him because a white man wouldn’t get as much shit — like equality is just everybody being able to rape black women.
Jenny: I think Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, especially those who are more recent immigrants and more working class have justifiable grievances about their voices and lives not being valued in terms of politics and policy … but … I just do not agree that rallying around Peter Liang is the way to do it. It is NOT the horse to bet on.
I think it actually distracts from REAL issues that could help the lives of Chinese and Asian immigrant working families.
And to your point about R. Kelly. I think that is a great analogy.
The overarching issue is unjust deaths of black and brown lives. The overarching issue is raping women is bad.
We can debate over how certain perpetrators are treated because they are not white males, but let us not confuse that issue with the most important one.
What also concerns me about this Peter Liang support is that I really wonder who are the people organizing this. This type of mobilization does not happen in a vacuum.
Ijeoma: It makes me so mad, because I feel like there are a lot of people in the AAPI community working SO HARD to bring anti-Blackness in the Asian community to light and to critique it.
Jenny: Like the prejudice is real. But when Asian Americans are talked to like real people, we think like real people who care about others.
When affirmative action was happening, only certain AAPI organizations were all like “We don’t like it because it shuts out Asians!”
But then when you actually look at the surveys and data… A majority of Asian Americans actually support affirmative action! Our communities have been changing.
Ijeoma: Also though, I feel like it’s really easy for the black and brown community to see the AAPI as completely separate and not in any need of our solidarity, you know?
Jenny: I agree. There are shared interests among Asian Americans and other POC groups. I just think sometimes certain elements of Asian Americans, particularly conservative elements, speak out louder and make themselves the representative of our really large and diverse demographic.
Ijeoma: I’m totally guilty of it myself. Just a few months ago I was tweeting about black-brown solidarity for like 20 minutes (which is 10 years in Twitter time) and one of my followers asked, “Hey, also maybe we could have black-brown-yellow solidarity?” and I was like, “OH YEAH YOU EXIST AND PROBABLY CARE ABOUT THINGS TOO.”
Jenny: YEAH, Ijeoma! Haha! We are here too!
Things happen to us sometimes!
I can’t emphasize enough though, there are conservative Asian American/Chinese American organizations who want to play us as a racial wedge. They want to use Asian Americans as a way to delegitimize progressive policies that support folks of color.
It is an active element of Asians in America
Ijeoma: I feel like it’s important to recognize that Peter Liang killed Akai Gurley. And it’s important that Liang go to prison for it. But it’s also important to realize that White Supremacy killed Akai Gurley. I feel like people who have a little more power fight really hard to preserve that power, even if it depends on the oppression of others, but we forget that we’re all playing the game that upholds White Supremacy on top.
Jenny: I don’t think we can emphasize that last point enough. Asians think we are playing the American dream right: Get good grades, get into college, get some technical job that has a clear path to upward mobility. A lot of folks have bought into that narrative.
But that story falls apart they minute they have to face a glass ceiling or when they themselves are the target of hate crimes.
Ijeoma: Some people have a lot invested in the system the way it is. It’s quite a gamble to try to destroy it. Like, black people — we don’t have shit to lose. But the moment we get rich we turn New Black as all hell.
Jenny: There are more and more wealthy Chinese from China attending colleges and living in the United States. They are also the ones who get more attention by the media. But what still gets left out are those who have less money and political power, often times more working-class immigrants and undocumented folks. For too long Asians in America have been represented by those who are wealthier and educated.
Ijeoma: Yeah, I feel like the popular representation of Asian folks has almost nothing in common with the Asian people I grew up with here in Seattle. Most of the Asian people I grew up with were Cambodian or Vietnamese refugees. They were just as broke as we were.
Jenny: They only want to hear the exceptional stories of when refugees overcame their hardships… with their individual might and grit… to prove the fantasy of the American dream!
Ijeoma: I really wonder what is going to bring our communities together.
Jenny: It hurts my heart when I see the divisiveness that this Peter Liang case has caused. I feel like that’s our jobs, as communicators, to figure out the language and the conversation to have so that we can connect our struggles.
Ijeoma: None of us are going to be white any time soon.
Jenny: NONE OF US ARE GOING TO BE WHITE ANY TIME SOON. That needs to be on a T-shirt.
Ijeoma: My enemy will always be White Supremacy — and it pops up in strange places, like some Asian cops or Raven-Symoné.
Jenny: Yeah like…I love it when people are like, hey well what if the cop was Black.
It’s like, THE SYSTEM IS WHITE.
Jenny: Whiteness is not a color when it is a series of values and practices embedded in our governing institutions.
Ijeoma: It’s that age old question in all the mysteries, “cui bono?”
It’s always White Supremacy — got its grubby fingerprints all over everything.
Jenny: I had to look that Latin up, Ijeoma.
Ijeoma: I WATCH A LOT OF BRITISH MURDER MYSTERIES.
Jenny: Have we solved White Supremacy, yet?
Ijeoma: I feel really shitty, you know? Even like this conversation, where we have to be like “You still care about black people right?” “You still care about Asian people right?”
Jenny: That was the thing I was gonna add.
I was just gonna say….
BLACK FOLKS. AMERICA. JUST BECAUSE YOU SEE THESE CHINESE PEOPLE PROTESTING PETER LIANG’S CONVICTION…
DOESN’T MEAN THEY SPEAK FOR ALL ASIANS.
And then I want to turn to my Chinese Americans who support Peter Liang.
MY CHINESE PEOPLE:
I GET THAT IT FEELS UNFAIR.
BUT CAN WE JUST SPEAK UP ABOUT WHAT REALLY MATTERS?
WE ARE NOT THAT SELF-INTERESTED. WE CAN BE IN THIS DEMOCRACY AND CARE ABOUT THINGS THAT AFFECT ALL OF US.
Ijeoma: At least we’ve established that we don’t hate each other. Fuck — this system takes up all your damn time.
WE COULD HAVE BEEN BURNING SHIT DOWN THIS WHOLE TIME.
I feel like we need to commit to ridding ourselves of White Supremacy while we rid the system of it as well. Like, I trust you to actually work on that in your community. I think you can trust me to work on that in mine.
But maybe only 10 percent of the day. 90 percent dedicated to burning down the system and rocking out.
Jenny: Yeah. We need to be smart with our schedules.
Ijeoma: Well I think we’ve solved it.
Jenny: (dusts off hands) Where’s our cookies?