We must fight to survive anti-Asian violence in an anti-Black world
Rest in power, Mr. Vicha Ratanapakdee. Your name has not been said enough. Certainly not by my specific cadre of Asian American — an identity you and I forever share — whose job it is, in part, to make sense of race, violence, history, inequity, injustice, and abolition to the larger public. You do not need us to defend you now, tragically, but I remain committed to the flight of fancy that we can, all of us, create a world in which your murder was impossible. I remain angry that we do not, and I am angry about your murder.
I am also disappointed by and ashamed of the relative silence from my group — the Asian American educated elite, specifically the loosely defined “race studies” professoriate — regarding the pandemic-intensified onslaught of anti-Asian violence. Accompanying the recent boom in Asian American cultural and political representation has been the highest-ever visibility of Asian American expertise on racial topics. We now have several nominally progressive antiracist folks who have access to giant public megaphones. On the occasions that they do speak out, it is sad to see our public intellectuals repeat what is by now a reflexive tendency to begin not from the pain and suffering — or even the names — of victims but rather from the false notion that Asian Americans are preternaturally presumed to desire anti-Black violence through policing.
Then there is the second false presumption that Asian American demand for more policing would actually be met. This is spurious given that the historically minimal police presence in Chinatowns and other non-wealthy Asian-dominant neighborhoods is, in part, what has made our victims vulnerable to non-police racial violence in the first place. Within these reflexive pronouncements lurks the cognate condescension to both African Americans and Asian Americans that we are not capable of detecting the difference between individual criminals and systemic anti-Black racism.
White-supremacist model-minority propaganda — and often my own class’s complicity by either cosigning or falling prey to it — has fully naturalized the notion that Asian Americans and African Americans are inherently in opposition. This is historically, and at present, false. This ideological naturalization is simply a neoliberal update to the American racial project devised to divide people of color and ultimately all of us. Asian American elites are simply aping white supremacy when we do not claim our own uniquely Asian American voice through our own racialized status within an anti-Black world. A historically determined desire for white liberal approval has made some of us truly believe that we are protected under white supremacy. This is also historically, and at present, false. Ironically, even the contemporary language of antiracism is now mobilized by some powerful Asian Americans to side with elites rather than to defend the most vulnerable Asian Americans in our society. (While this has been ongoing, its effect has been amplified by the Great Awokening of 2020, in which vapid white liberal sentiment cemented its hegemonic terms for discussing racial injustice under neoliberalism.) As always, some of us are choosing permanently inferior but relatively valorized status in a world constituted by anti-Blackness. I caution the rest of us not to be complicit in the naturalization of a presumptive division between Blacks and Asians in America. This is simply anti-Black and anti-Asian propaganda.
Inside the propaganda machine, it is also surely the case that neoliberal whiteness, in addition to false promises of protection and relative valorization, advertises access to mainstream exposure and televisual airtime. This is simply a commodified weaponization of the model minority mirage whose historical deployment is to dismantle welfare and criminalize the most vulnerable Black folks in our society. Rather than studied expertise on the matter, the neoliberal machinery has chosen profiteering celebrities, gaining ever more access to structures of capital in a recently Asian-inclusive multicultural society of spectacle, to be our de facto spokespeople. The sight of wealthy Asian American celebrities profiting off of ever-circulating images of horrendous violence against everyday Asian American elders is one example of the gratuity of racial capitalism in 2021. It is clear that this administered perception of (actually nonsensical) nonwhite desire for more policing, especially in cities where abolishing the police is most immediately and obviously necessary, is part of said machinery’s answer to the ever-popular calls for defunding the police. In other words, while we must demand better of them, both our wealthy actors and public intellectuals have been placed in neoliberal opportunity structures not entirely of their own choosing. More largely, we must hold racial capitalism itself to account, first by mourning our dead and injured and claiming them ours.
Asian Americans can demand justice for Mr. Vicha Ratanapakdee and not be presumed to be complicit in anti-Black racism, just as African Americans can see the difference between shallow white-defined gestures of allyship and true shared integrity in the demand for justice. The Black Radical Tradition has always required such integrity. Historically, true AfroAsian alliance, including in the 1960s and up through all iterations of Black Lives Matter, occurs when Asian Americans see themselves as proudly Asian American and proudly pro-Black, mobilized by a political hatred of the racist violence necessitated by racial capitalism.
Asian American and African American activists are already organizing alternatives to repressive policing as a way to counter this current round of anti-Asian violence without depending on the police state. As always, the intellectual class lags behind the general intelligence. Currently we are also trailing our Hollywood counterparts. We as Asian Americans must fight against racist violence in all forms, prioritizing the defense of our elders, beyond our grief and toward righteous collective outrage at racist violence.
Rest in power, Mr. Vicha Ratanapakdee.