The People v. White Supremacy
Tragedy struck the Atlanta area on the evening of March 16 when a 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight individuals at three separate spa locations. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. The shooting occurred as America crossed the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic. Racist and xenophobic rhetoric surrounding the virus, propagated by the Trump administration and reinforced by right-wing media, has culminated in a 150 percent increase in hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities since last March.
As the recent surges in violence pushed national conversations towards the colonial and imperial history of anti-Asian racism, a simultaneous countercurrent of anti-Black rhetoric began to surface on social media platforms and news media outlets.
One month before the deadly shootings, NBC News aired a 10-minute Nightline segment memorializing Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American who was killed in his San Bernardino neighborhood earlier this year. At one point in the segment, Ratanapakdee’s white son-in-law stares into the camera to deliver a short message: “We need the Black community to realize that Black people are hurting Asians, and they need to speak out in their own community.”
It is clear that Ratanapakdee’s loved ones are speaking from a place of immense grief. At the same time, their comments echo a reoccurring narrative about relations between Black and Asian Americans that conveniently erases the role of white supremacy in creating antagonistic relationships between people of color. Too often, a story is spun out of tensions between racial or other minority groups that effectively put them on trial before a national audience—usually, Black People v. Another Marginalized Group.
The identity of the real perpetrator is almost always obscured. The true impetus of these tensions is a society that has historically been deeply and intentionally stratified along racial lines. How do we move our attention to the case that will liberate us all from the oppression of racialization? How do we get The People v. White Supremacy a day in court?
In the 1999 paper “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” political scientist Claire Jean Kim proposes a new framework for thinking about racial dynamics in America. Her framework seeks to add nuance to the traditional binary discussion of “Black versus White” and illustrates how white supremacy and colonialism have racialized all people of color in unique ways relative to one another. In particular, Kim speaks to the racialization of Asian Americans and the “midpoint” position they occupy between white people and Black people in a wider “field of racial positions.”
From racial triangulation, we get the model minority myth. In sum, the model minority myth creates a racial “characterization” of Asian Americans as “hard-working, independent, intelligent and economically prosperous.” This stereotype simultaneously condemns Black Americans for their failure to “overcome” the obstacle of racism. It ignores the racial wealth gap—a byproduct of slavery—and the day-to-day institutional anti-blackness that bars Black people from opportunity regardless of individual efforts.
At the same time, Kim adds that the lasting impact of American imperialism in Asia and the intellectual legacy of orientalism renders Asian Americans “immutably foreign” and unable to assimilate into white society. The model minority myth also overlooks the history of Yellow Peril, America’s concerted legislative effort to codify anti-Asian racism and prevent Asian Americans from gaining citizenship and having a legal framework to fight for their rights during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Most insidiously, the model minority myth fulfills its purpose as a rhetorical tool to vilify Black people and Black political movements while also obfuscating the poverty many specific Asian ethnic groups experience. Instead, the model minority myth creates a monolithic image of the Asian American that “overcame” racism. In effect, Kim concludes, racial triangulation both “valorizes” Asian Americans relative to Black people “on cultural and/or racial grounds,” while “subordinating both groups, especially the latter.”
Kim’s racial triangulation model provides a much-needed context for media representations of tensions between Black and Asian Americans. It explains why angry Twitter users demand in a Greek-like chorus that Black people “keep that same energy” whenever news of the racist abuse or murder of a non-Black person hits social media. These statements reduce decades of civil rights work, academic scholarship, and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement to an “energy” that can be replicated simply by retweeting a thread.
Furthermore, demanding that people “keep that same energy” is a divisive, reactionary tactic. But it’s no wonder, given how easy it is for incidents of racism to be forgotten, sanitized, or outrightly denied, that Black Lives Matter is so often misused like an ideological stick to prod others into action.
In a nation with such an extensive history of racial oppression, racist attitudes are infused into the cultural fabric. People of color fall prey to internalizing racist stereotypes about themselves—not to speak of one another. These stereotypes are broadly reinforced, frequently without disruption. So what happens when the Black Lives Matter movement is thrust into the national spotlight? From 2014 on, Black Lives Matter became the benchmark against which all other contemporary American social campaigns—even illegitimate Capitol-storming mobs—are measured and a talking-point for anti-Black rhetoric.
Invocations of the Black Lives Matter movement while discussing racist violence perpetrated against non-Black people are made in poor taste. They are part of America’s cultural tendency to debunk, trivialize, or demonize movements against anti-Black racism in order to avoid addressing it. Most insultingly, these comparisons fail to recognize the costs of Black people’s hypervisibility: government surveillance, endangerment, police brutality, imprisonment, and death. They fail to acknowledge that the widespread availability of images of Black death is deeply disturbing and traumatizing for Black viewers. The comparisons not only diminish the work of Black and Asian American activists alike, but also insinuate that the public is incapable of giving attention and compassion to two different issues at once.
At their core, the comparisons reflect anxiety about being able to hold the attention of the 24-hour news cycle. It is reasonable to worry about not being believed in a nation that seeks to erase Asian identity and exonerate white supremacy from its role in the oppression of people of color. The constant contrasting of the Black Lives Matter movement with other social movements speak to the fears that people of color experience in a country where just 13 years ago, political pundits and laypeople alike declared the birth of a post-racial society following the election of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, deportation, incarceration, police brutality, and hate crimes continued to ravage communities of color.
The hostile race relations crafted by white supremacy in our capitalist society breed resentment between different groups of people of color. This fosters a sense of competition as the pendulum swings between hypervisibility and invisibility around racial issues—as if discussions about systemic anti-Blackness negate the existence of other forms of racial oppression. That resentment poses a major problem; it is a blockade to the cross-cultural solidarity that is required to fight racism and liberate people of color from white supremacy.
To overcome that blockade, it is imperative that we acknowledge the role of white supremacy in creating and maintaining animosity between people of color. We must recognize that white supremacy is predicated on anti-Blackness, the dehumanization and displacement of Indigenous people, and anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Any kind of racial pecking order is artificial and created to service the goals of capitalism and patriarchal white supremacy.
So what can be done? In an essay for YES! Magazine, Oakland-based writer and activist Michelle Kim advocates for education-centered and transformative justice approaches to combating anti-Asian racism. Kim calls on us to reject the urge to make race-based generalizations in the line of “Black people are anti-Asian” or “Asian people are anti-Black.” Instead, Kim urges us to study and amplify the history of Black and Asian solidarity.
The average American history class omits accounts of Asian American civil rights activism, influenced by the work of the Black Panthers and civil rights leaders, and ignores powerful historical examples of Black and Asian solidarity. Here at Tufts, our education includes learning about the role that our university plays in the gentrification of Boston Chinatown.
Kim also encourages readers to look deeper than the reflexive calls for higher levels of policing as a solution to acts of violence, and urges us to support community-based interventions “that seek to keep all of us safe.” In Oakland and across the nation, multi-racial coalitions have sprung up in a show of solidarity and care for members of the most at-risk members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community.
Further, we must educate ourselves about the ways that anti-Asian sentiment manifests outside of interpersonal encounters, like in deportation surges that target the working class and separate Southeast Asian families that sought refuge from violence in the U.S. decades ago.
Moreover, it is crucial that we support AAPI communities materially. Some options include donating to local organizations that serve Boston’s AAPI population and sharing the GoFundMe pages of victims and their families.
The families and friends of the victims lost to racist violence are not symbols in a political conversation. They are individuals who have the right to express their grief in ways that are authentic to them. For the rest of us, spectators to their bereavement, we must direct our attention to the causation of the problem—white supremacy. We must work to build movements of solidarity that allow us to reckon with internalized racist attitudes and eliminate the structures of white supremacy that fuel xenophobia and perpetuate violence against Asian Americans and all people of color.