Wen LIU (劉文)
The recent waves of anti-Asian violence have been a wakeup call for many Asian Americans, not only in terms of their racial position in the US but also the meanings of Asian American identity itself. As a vastly diverse population without any shared culture, language, or even lineage—and constantly contested by intragroup class and ethnic conflicts and diasporic nationalist disputes—Asian American communities are struggling to formulate an analysis about the structural roots of the violence that surrounds them. However, both the liberal and left responses thus far have not been satisfying: the former has utilized a discourse of hate to consolidate and propel Asian American sentiments of racial injury into hate crime legislation reform and calls for increased policing, while the latter has demanded an anti-carceral coalitional response to ending white supremacy through the internally fraught rhetoric of “Asian-Black solidarity.” In this article, I draw from Iyko Day’s framework of Asian racialization from the vantage of North American settler colonialism to provide a transnational analysis of anti-Asian violence that is rooted in capitalist crisis and imperialist rivalry between the US and China.
Liberal Antiracism and Trumpism
From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the nonprofit organization “Stop AAPI Hate” has explicitly identified the growing cases of anti-Asian violence as directly connected to the then-president Donald Trump’s racist “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” vitriol that linked Covid-19 to people of Asian descents. However, the entanglements between racial violence and geopolitical contestation show why popular claims that the rise of anti-Asian violence is a result of Trumpism are both reductionist and problematic. First, in a moment where the Biden Administration must establish itself as the post-Trump regime that fosters national “unity” amongst Americans, the Trumpism hypothesis repackages the historically rooted violence against racialized Asian peoples into white liberal sympathy for Asian Americans. This liberal discourse treats hateful, right-leaning Trump supports as the sole problem, as if the root of the issue were not over two centuries of racial capitalism and US imperialism in the Asia Pacific.
Second, liberal antiracism has obscured anti-Asian violence by construing it as a form of individual racial hatred and aggression; this obfuscation substitutes a closer scrutiny of the class tensions internal to the Asian American community for a hollow call for more positive and “authentic” forms of Asian American media representation that can diminish hateful attitudes with empathy and understanding. The issue of rising income inequality among Asian Americans from the 1970s to present, with Asians being the most economically divided racial group in the US,1 is never addressed by Asian American political elites. Asian American politicians, such as Andrew Yang and Grace Meng, have leveraged the brutal attacks against working-class Asians—especially the murders of immigrant Asian massage workers during the Atlanta spa shootings— to make a case for why Asian Americans deserve to be “protected” as a racial group. However, they do not center the factor of class. So, while many Asian/Americans of the professional class have the privilege to shelter at home, many others have been subjected to extreme forms of violence on the streets, in the public transit system, and in in-person businesses during the pandemic.2 Indeed, Asian Americans are the racial group with the lowest Covid-19 infection, hospitalization, and death risks compared to all other groups, including Whites, and yet that statistic hides the unequal ways in which Asian-Americans have been affected.3 These statistics make the “Covid-19 Hate Crime Act”—a legislation that is mobilized solely based on the idea of Asian American vulnerability during the pandemic—ever more contradictory. Simply put, liberal antiracism rearticulates racial violence as based on discursive misunderstanding and individual hatred rather than as symptomatic of broader material injustices within and across racial groups. Under these liberal antiracist logics, racism as an individual and discursive issue can be resolved by replacing a “bad” politician and his divisive speech with a “woke” one who preaches unity. Liberal antiracism and the Trumpism that it defines itself against, then, are two sides of the same coin.
The murders of immigrant Asian massage workers during the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings painfully illustrated how neither a liberal focus on the politics of hate nor a blanket call for unity under white supremacist attacks would be sufficient for comprehending the structural violence embedded in the dynamics of global capitalism, border control, racialized misogyny, and US militarism abroad. Many grassroots organizations such as Red Canary Song and CAAAV have pointed out the fact that anti-Asian violence does not only manifest in sensationalized forms of brutality but also in the everyday violence of police harassment, gentrification, and intra- and inter-racial class exploitation. With or without Covid-19, these forms of structural violence will continue to affect working-class Asian migrant communities. Community organizations such as Red Canary Song and CAAAV remind us that the politics of “anti-Asian hate” propagated by liberal antiracists can in fact normalize state violence and even bolster anti-black violence through carceral thinking.4
The Long Road toward Asian-Black Solidarity
While many Asian Americans and allies, especially those with left-leaning sensibilities who have been in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, see the mobilization around “Stop AAPI Hate” as a potential moment to build Asian-Black solidarity, the abovementioned liberal antiracist tendency to mobilize around antiblack carceral solutions and hate crime legislation makes such an alliance more fraught and difficult to achieve. Further, the liberal antiracist impulse to exceptionalize Asianness and anti-Asian violence has generally produced arguments about Asian racialization as not the same as Blacks but comparable to Black racialization. This is often done by invoking the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Internment of Japanese Americans of WWII, or the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 to illustrate a continuous string of anti-Asian violence in the US and to highlight its historical roots. Although such analysis is important to show what Colleen Lye calls the particularity and “nonderivative nature” of Asian racialization as not just a by-product of antiblack racism, 5 this set of discourses can be easily mobilized away from building Asian-Black solidarity. Moreover, this particular history of anti-Asian violence typifies the East Asian body, especially the Chinese and Japanese, as the representative body of Asian racial injury and thus erases the specific violences leveraged against Southeast Asian and South Asian peoples.
Within the past decade, we have seen the rise of such politics of racial injury mobilized by Chinese American elites in alliance with their White “allies” toward antiblack movements and legislation: from the lawsuit against Harvard University and other Ivy League institutions’ racial quota during admissions, to the pro-police Peter Liang rallies in New York City,6 and more recently to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York’s support for legislative efforts against “critical race theory” in public education.7 These claims of racial injury, devoid of and even hostile to any analysis of racial capitalism, are performed to justify colorblind racist pursuits and to further consolidate the position of Asian American elites as what Frank B. Wilderson calls the “junior partners” of Whites.8
Apart from the sheer brutality and horror, one reason why the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings was able to garner such national attention was in part because the perpetrator was a White man. This detail allowed for a less awkward conversation around the broader goal of “End White Supremacy,” which posits both Asians and Blacks as victims of White violence. This can be compared to earlier in the year when attacks against Asian-looking people came from Black or other racial minority individuals in some instances. 9 The Asian American impulse from liberals and leftists alike to analyze both the Atlanta spa shootings and the numerous random anti-Asian attacks as symptoms of the broader structure of white supremacy is certainly productive as it shifts our focus away from individualized aggression towards structural racism, but how might we develop a deeper analysis of these structural dynamics in an effort to build a more sustainable Asian-Black solidarity?
Capitalist Crisis and Imperialist Rivalry
The popular call for “Yellow Peril for Black Power” as a rhetorical strategy to align Asian racialization with Black racialization can in fact mystify racial class relations between these two groups. In her book, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism, Iyko Day argues that Asian racialization must be situated in the settler colonial project in North America where Asian peoples and their labor are conceptualized as alien, abstract, and threatening. 10 From cheap yet hyper-efficient Chinese railroad workers in the mid to late 19th century to “high-tech” overachieving model minorities post-1965, there is a continuous logic of economism that undergirds Asian racialization, figuring Asian people as foreign and excessive forms of abstract capital opposed to the romanticization of white concrete labor and the inferiorization of Black labor. Day’s analysis points to why anti-Asian racism surges during periods of economic recession and heightened global capitalist competition, such as in the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 at the tail end of the early 80s recession and in the midst of the US-Japan trade war, as well as in the current economic recession under Covid-19 amidst the backdrop of the ongoing US-China trade war. In both cases, physical and lethal violence launched against Asian people can be understood as an attempt to reconcretize Asianness in its inferior and racialized bodily form over and against the alien and abstract economism of the Asian body. Day has coined the term “romantic anticapitalism” to describe this urge by (White) nativists to fetishize concrete labor as “natural” and “organic” while demonizing abstract labor as “alien” and “immaterial.” Romantic anticapitalism, is in fact not anticapitalist at all but rather backward and repressive. It associates the mobility, hyper-productivity, and intangible labor embodied by Asianness as threatening and ultimately destructive to the nation-state. In this sense, the street harassments, physical attacks, and even murders of Asians can be understood as forms of violence that attempt to “put Asians back” into their confined, racialized corporeal form—to make Asians less economically threatening in the eyes of the “romantic anticapitalist” nativists.
Day’s analytic focus on the crises of capital as the primary driver of racial antagonism in the settler colonial project of the United States provides a clear way to examine anti-Asian violence. This is not just a form of “accumulated hateful feelings” against Asian bodied people as “perpetual foreigners” being excluded by the nation-state as antiracist liberals would have it. Rather, Day’s analysis illustrates how Asian foreignness has been constructed and utilized by white settler capitalist elites as a form of mobile capital—efficient, flexible, and even “superior” to others forms of racial capital., For example, the figure of “tiger mother” essentializes “Chinese culture” as a superior and efficient model for upward class mobility while reinforcing the logic of individualized, neoliberal entrepreneurship. Similar to the anti-affirmative action of some Chinese American groups, the exceptionalization of Asianness—and often “Chinese-ness”—can be appropriated for advancing the group’s self-interests by adopting colorblind racism and pursuing “justice” based entirely on the ideology of meritocracy. At the heart of the issue, then, is not a need for more authentic mainstream cultural representation of Asian Americans to deter hateful misunderstandings, but rather an intervention into the “foreign yet superior and therefore threatening” racialization of Asian peoples as alien capital that drives racial antagonism in the service of settler colonialism.
The reclaiming of yellow perilism by left-leaning Asian diasporic groups will not solve the “model minority” myth either, as both constructions depend on the economism of the Asian racial form. Yellow peril was the basis for exclusion and model minority is the basis for assimilation. Looking at this contradiction globally, the nostalgic slogan of “Yellow Peril for Black Power” drawn from the Third World Liberation Front evokes a romanticized vision of transnational Asian-Black solidarity that is no longer possible under current geopolitical conditions. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) regime, in its current form, can in no way be relied on as an anti-imperialist and socialist alternative to global capitalism; on the contrary, despite its differences from the Western liberal model, China has become one of the world’s largest capitalist powers on all accounts.
In the meantime, current events in US racial politics are further complicated by the imperialist rivalry between the US and China, with both nation-states seizing upon the injury and fear of diasporic Asian communities as bargaining chips for consolidating nationalistic sympathies and global legitimacy. Yet such gestures only further erase the ongoing issues of state-sanctioned racial violence in both countries. In the US, anti-Asian violence has been mobilized by Asian American elites to gain political power by calling for a stronger criminal justice system. The “Covid-19 Hate Crime Act” recently passed the US Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support; this bill will expedite review by the Justice Department of hate crime cases and provide more support to local police. Andrew Yang, the Asian American New York mayoral front-runner, has leveraged instances of anti-Asian violence to bolster his campaign platform by calling for more funding for the NYPD Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Further, whether explicitly or implicitly, the outcry around anti-Asian violence has become a way for liberal elites to paper over growing national interest in police defunding and abolition during last year’s George Floyd protests by promoting yet again a liberal antiracist politics of recognition for Asian Americans that reinforces state carcerality. The call for “non-violence” among Asian American liberal elites gains further legibility in juxtaposition to both conservative and liberal commentators who frame BLM protests as exceptionally violent, a juxtaposition which extracts Asian American advantage from antiblack dismissal.
In China, state officials have repeatedly cited racial violence in the US to deflect from critiques against the PRC’s discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities, repressive control of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law Amendments Bill movement and institution of the National Security Law. On May 30, 2020 in an attempt to counter the then spokesperson of the US Department of State Morgan Ortagus’ criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) actions against Hong Kong, the spokesperson of the Chinese state, Hua Chunying, appropriated the BLM chant of “I can’t breathe” on Twitter.11 Hua’s discursive gesture feasts upon Black suffering in the face of lethal police brutality in the US to erase the Chinese state’s own militarized police repression against Hong Kong protestors. This incident further illustrates the way antiblackness can be embedded in claims of racial injury by other non-Black state actors—in the US case, the reinforcement of the carceral state through the Covid-19 Hate Crime Act, and in the Chinese case, the attempted consolidation of sympathy by performing a victimized image of Chinese-ness.
There is still a long way to go on the road toward Asian American liberation and Asian-Black solidarity. The domination of liberal antiracism in the current mobilization against anti-Asian violence requires a critique not only of Asian American identity politics but also of the way domestic US racial politics is leveraged in global geopolitical entanglements between the US and China. The discourses on anti-Asian violence produced in the US—from both the left and right—have transnational ramifications and consequences. While the recent events of anti-Asian violence have certainly further exposed the US as an unstable yet ongoing settler colonial project that profits from racial antagonism between its minorities, we must be cautious about how liberal antiracism is used by Asian/American elites to erase class contradictions as well as how a politics of injury is mobilized by state actors to deflect criticisms against their separate yet connected racial capitalist projects at home and abroad.
Wen LIU（劉文）is assistant research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, in Taiwan.