How Should Asian-Americans Feel About the Peter Liang Protests?

Protesters rallied in Brooklyn on Feb. 20 to support the former N.Y.P.D. officer Peter Liang.
Credit Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

Every public thing that happens to Asian-Americans — whether the unexpected ascent of a Harvard-educated basketball star, the premiere of a network family sitcom or the conviction of a 28-year-old rookie cop who shot and killed an unarmed black man in the stairwell of a housing project — doubles as a referendum on the state of the people. This sounds unfair, but it happens because Asian-Americans are so rarely in the national conversation, especially within the sludgy arena of identity politics. As a rule, we seldom engage in the sort of political advocacy and discourse that might explain, or even defend, our odd, singular and tenuous status as Americans. This is how it has always been for immigrant populations who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are on a quick march toward whiteness.

On Saturday, Feb. 20, Asian-Americans briefly broke that silence: They were among the thousands across the country who gathered to protest the manslaughter conviction of the former N.Y.P.D. officer Peter Liang in the killing of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man. Last November, just five days before a grand jury in St. Louis decided to not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Liang and his partner were on patrol in the Louis Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn. Liang, who had his gun drawn, opened a door to a stairwell. The gun was discharged; a bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley. Rather than administer medical treatment to Gurley, Liang and his partner argued over who would call their supervisor.

On Feb. 11 this year, Liang became the first N.Y.P.D. officer convicted in a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade. Many Asian-Americans felt that Liang had been offered up as a sacrificial lamb to appease the ongoing protests against police violence that started two summers ago in Ferguson, Mo. The pro-Liang protests, in turn, sparked small counterprotests by black activists, who argued that justice had been served and that a killer cop was a killer cop, period. A discomforting paradox lay beneath the whole confrontation, one that cut straight across the accepted modern vision of Asians and their adjacency to whiteness: If Liang (and, by extension, all Asian-Americans) enjoyed the protections of whiteness, then how do you explain his conviction?

The Liang protests mark the most pivotal moment in the Asian-American community since the Rodney King riots, when dozens of Korean-American businesses were burned to the ground. The episode is often said to have been precipitated by the horrific killing of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a Korean store owner, after a confrontation over a bottle of orange juice. In reality, the tensions between Asian store owners and the black neighborhoods they served had been simmering for years; they began well before Rodney King became a household name, and they continue today.

This long history has erased any possible nuance Saturday’s protests might have brought to our understanding of what happened to Liang. Which is tragic, because there is much ugly, essential nuance to be examined. There are many within the Asian-American community, for example, who believe that Liang deserved to be convicted of manslaughter, but who also wonder why it was the Asian cop, among many other equally deserving officers, who took the fall. Others point to the deaths of Rafael Ramon and Wenjian Liu, two police officers — one Hispanic, the other Asian — who were murdered as they sat in their car in December 2014, at the height of protests against police violence in New York. In the days that followed, as policemen from around the country flew to the city to attend the funerals, I recall talking to Asian friends about the anxiety we felt over Liu’s funeral, and whether the outpouring of support and grief would measure up to what it might have been if he were white. These are selfish, neurotic thoughts, but they are the burden of feeling one’s citizenship may be conditional, and the price of decades of collective silence. When thousands of mourners showed up to Liu’s funeral and gave their condolences to his widow, our fears were put to rest, at least for a little while.

All these anxieties, born out of these small but crucial referendums on our place in America, have been reignited by Liang’s conviction. Even if you believe, as I do, that Liang should be in jail, the inevitable follow-up question — why only Liang? — suggests that the unjust protections routinely afforded to white officers should be extended either to everyone or to nobody at all. To ignore this suggestion is intellectually dishonest.

But to engage with it is to ignore the overwhelming context of the case: yet another unarmed black man killed by yet another police officer. The cleanest response — one I’ve seen throughout social media, where clean, vaguely lobotomized responses often reign supreme — is to simply say that some justice is better than none. But how can any sincere confrontation of racial inequity in policing and the criminal-justice system ignore the inconvenient singularity of Liang’s conviction?

Each of these thoughts represents an uneasy, probing investigation into the complicated, often-complicit relationship between Asian-Americans and the nation’s racial hierarchies. I do not claim to know the right answer to any of these questions. I do not know how to explain why I knew Liang would be found guilty well before the verdict was announced. I cannot adequately describe the conflict in feeling like a race traitor for applauding Liang’s conviction while also feeling like a race traitor for questioning it. I know the lifeblood of my conditional whiteness as an educated, upwardly mobile Asian-American lies somewhere in those conflicts. And because it’s historically been in the best interests of people like me to never discuss these things, even in private, I lack the vocabulary to discuss it.

This cultural aphasia comes from decades of political silence. Asian-Americans, for the most part, have been absent from modern social-justice movements, partly by their own choosing. Last year, while reporting an article for the magazine on the anti-police-violence activism of DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, I attended Black Lives Matter protests across the country. In each city, I grew angrier and angrier at the lack of Asian faces among the marchers. I had long lost faith in storybook solidarity, but I had never expected to see the divide between blacks and Asian-Americans laid out so starkly.

The dissonance between those two stories — the pan-cultural dream and the reality — is what deforms the stated intentions, however good or bad, of the Peter Liang protests. On Saturday, some protesters carried signs bearing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s image and a quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This is the stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice. The protesters who took to the streets on Saturday are trying, in their way, to create a new political language for Asian-Americans, but this language comes without any edifying history — no amount of nuance or qualification or appeal to Martin Luther King will change the fact that the first massive, nationwide Asian-American protest in years was held in defense of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man.

And yet it would be catastrophic to ignore the protesters’ concerns altogether. Asian-Americans have begun to protest in the streets, in part, because they have begun to wake up from that multicultural dream in which their concerns are lumped in with the rest of the minority groups of America. The word “minority” has increasingly come to encompass only black and Hispanic people. Perhaps it always did. It is my belief that Asian-Americans have to form their own way of talking about race, privilege and justice, one that acknowledges both our relative privilege and the costs of our invisibility. But that language takes time to build, and at the next political action, the message will certainly still be clumsy and riddled with contradiction. I only hope it serves a more just cause than the freedom of Peter Liang.

Jay Caspian Kang is a contributing writer for the magazine.