Banner photo credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor, "The Word Activists are Looking For is 'Rights' not 'Privilege.'"
When (East and Southeast) Asian Americans were confronted with the fact that an Asian man was an accomplice to murdering George Floyd, our reaction was completely predictable and in line with the past. We were quick to “recognize our privilege” as a racial minority that in many fundamental ways is situated closer to White America than to Black America.
A common refrain by us Asians would be to admit that while we suffer from racial aggressions and prejudice, we can still call on the police to protect us without fear of being killed instead. We can walk the streets of our own neighborhoods without the conspicuous fear of white passersby. We call this freedom of movement the “Asian privilege” — an honorary status granted upon the model minority by White America as their lackeys, the same way Tou Thao was a lackey to Derek Chauvin.
no matter how earnestly or diligently we Asian Americans pledge these promises of self-awareness and allyship, the historical fact remains that nothing changes.
Yet this is at odds in other times of relative quiet on the racial fault line. We write treatises and produce documentaries on how Asians were also the victim of lynchings, mob violence, state murder and concentration camps. When the chaos of the Black/White rupture recedes, we emphasize how the “model minority” status of Asians is actually a lie, that we too exist on the Black Continent.
This contradiction points to the failure of liberalism’s race discourse which centers on relative notions of “privilege.” Privilege discourse would hold that while Asian Americans are not full recipients of “white privilege,” nevertheless it is apparent that it is not our necks being kneeled upon, or our innocent women and men being gunned down by police without consequence.
Thus, when Black Americans are victimized in an undeniable and fundamentally evil way, Asian Americans must out of a sense of respect distance ourselves from the Black Continent and parrot the white liberal: that we must individually be mindful of our own privileges in life, that we cannot forget the sufferings of our Black compatriots, and that we must do everything we can to “reform” the systems of criminal and social justice to “ensure this never happens again.”
Of course these are all empty promises, and no matter how earnestly or diligently we Asian Americans pledge these promises of self-awareness and allyship, the historical fact remains that nothing changes. The liberal conception of “racial privilege” is never upended, police still target Black Americans, protecting White Americans, and mostly ignoring Asian Americans.
A key demand placed upon us by the liberal privilege discourse is the socially enforced notion that as Asian (or White) Americans, we must see the humanity of Black Americans and their capacity to suffer as we suffer. We must not “look away” at the appalling videos of the torture and execution of Black people. We must internalize its lessons, learn to feel empathy, and that if we somehow do this diligently enough, we will come to some hitherto unachievable solution to America’s longstanding but (mostly) unsaid policy of continuous and unrelenting racial genocide of Black Americans.
This utopian idea revolves around the unquestioned need to “reform” the system in hopes of democratizing access to the “privileges” enjoyed by White and Asian Americans. Deray McKesson’s Campaign Zero recently proposed eight “immediately actionable” reforms which can be implemented now, with the “data driven” promise that it would reduce unnecessary police killings by an estimated 72%.
These same proposals are offered everytime the racial fault line erupts, and in the aftermath of all previous incidents we achieved the reform of placing bodycams on most police. This supposedly promised that police killings would drop significantly, and that justice for victims would be swifter and more reliable. This promise has largely been a disappointment.
How then do we escape the circular failings of liberal privilege discourse’s promise of “reform”? We should start with Prof. Cornel West’s straightforward assessment of the situation: “the system cannot reform itself.”
“The system cannot reform itself. We've tried black faces in high places. Too often our black politicians, professional class, middle class become too accommodated to the capitalist economy, too accommodated to a militarized nation-state, too accommodated to the market-driven culture of celebrities, status, power, fame, all that superficial stuff that means so much to so many fellow citizens.”
The acceptance of Dr. West’s bleak assessment paves the way to a revised understanding of what exactly is being violated everytime we see the police murder with impunity a Black person. The liberal who claims that it is time to “recognize our privilege” is actually saying that this system of policing and justice is salvageable for we the privileged are proof of its potential functioning. By loudly stating that we do not suffer as they Black Americans do, we are separating ourselves off of the Black Continent and saying that over here on the White Continent (and its smattering of Asian occupants) the system is working just fine. What we need to do is rescue those trapped on the Black Continent, allowing them to cross the rupture to safety, rather than to “heal” that divide.
What we don’t do under liberal privilege discourse is to communalize the state’s violation against Black Americans as a violation against all of us. And it is within the notion of race itself as an organizing social idea that we see how this can operate. Because while Black Americans have a particular closeness and risk to the kind of murder police have committed against some of them, it is not a crime in actuality done against all of them. Rather, the notion of race binds Black America to the idea that a murder of one of them is a murder suffered by all of them.
The deep inner workings of liberal society have not drawn barriers to prevent the communalization of the murder of Black Americans to the rest of us. We are, for the most part, encouraged by Black Americans to see this as an affront in the same way they see it as an affront — directly against us all, not by proxy through an oftentimes condescending form of racial sympathy. The potential exists.
Rather than creating barriers, it is the utter failure of liberalism to create social bonds between Americans at large, through which the affront of state murder can be communalized by all. We exalt individual rights to be unmolested and protected by the police, but we skip over the notion of the contractual obligations that police have as an appendage of the state towards society at large, in exchange for which they are granted the monopoly of violence.
Thus liberal privilege discourse allows us Asian and White Americans to feel that the police and the state have in fact honored their contract with us on the White Continent, but are in partial default to those same obligations to the Black Continent. Or, more accurately, that we all have individual contracts with the state and police, and that it is our privilege to have those contracts largely fulfilled.
This notion of multiple separate individual social contracts leaves open the door to the impossible: reform of a system that, as Dr. West puts it, cannot be reformed. We need to abandon liberalism’s idea of atomized individual relationships between people and the state, and have it returned to an original — and preferably Rawlsian/egalitarian — notion of the social contract between The People communally and state to which we grant our collective consent to wield our power.
Without a deeper exploration of what being an American even means, and what we must demand of our state, we Asian Americans will remain living our lives pulled part by liberalism’s twin demands of guilt and enjoyment when it comes to our “Asian privilege.”