THE BLOG

Peter Liang, An Asian American Scapegoat?

02/13/2016 11:02 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2016
  • Frank H. Wu Distinguished Professor, UC Hastings College of the Law

Peter Liang has been made a scapegoat. The dictionary definition of the Biblical term is an individual (originally a goat) sacrificed for the sins of others. He is a fall guy. The Chinese American New Yorker has been found guilty of killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed African American, in an 2014 encounter in public housing.

There is no doubt that racial discrimination and disparities, some of which is open and much of which is structural and subtle, continues to afflict law enforcement that is legitimate and necessary. So much has happened recently that even those who would have denied the phenomenon must admit there is a pattern. It is black people, in particular young men, who are being killed without justification. The demands for justice cannot be gainsaid.

Yet our understanding of these troubling dynamics has been not only literally but also figuratively black and white.

The record of official bigotry toward African Americans should not require revisiting. But perhaps it is worth noting that among the slave-catchers who pursued fugitives who had wrested away their freedom, the Southern sheriffs such as "Bull" Connor whose vicious attacks on peaceful protesters were a catalyst for the civil rights movement, and the Los Angeles officers whose beating of Rodney King was captured on film, none were of Asian descent.

The history, however, of Asian American solidarity with African Americans is not especially known. Even Asian Americans are unaware of the alliances. The Japanese American Citizens League, founded in 1929, sent a contingent to march with the Reverend Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C. The "Yellow Power" movement of the Summer of Love copied the "Black Power" movement. Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American admirer, held Malcolm X after he was shot, though she remained an "unidentified" Asian woman in the photo of the moment. The late Grace Lee Boggs, formerly the dutiful daughter of Chinese Americans, was such a radical organizer with her husband, James, son of a black sharecropper, government surveillance operatives tagged her as possibly black.

During the OJ Simpson "trial of the century," broadcast live and being re-renacted now for a new generation, presiding judge Lance Ito, a Japanese American, was sometimes described as neutral by virtue of race (rather than his robes). That is impossible. There is no refuge from race in American life. All of us have a role.

The problem for Asian Americans, as for others, is we cannot control how we appear on the stage of a tragedy that has been playing since well before our arrival. We have been cast against our will, as a model minority until we are not. We cannot help but seem to have come only lately, despite Asians being here in significant numbers since before the Civil War. Perceived as perpetual foreigners who are not quite members of the community, we are an easy target.

Race infuriates all of us. It becomes difficult to reason, to remember that principles are only principles if they are applied universally.

Liang should not receive a pass, because he happens to be a minority himself. But he shouldn't be subjected to selective prosecution either, or a sentence that makes him an example. He ought to be treated like others.

There are so many others who could be held accountable, before and to a greater extent. That is the most compelling claim in favor of Liang, the absence of high-profile convictions of his peers who are Caucasian. The old-fashioned phrase, "a Chinaman's chance," meaning no realistic possibility, was coined with cause. That's what Liang had in court.

It is possible to agree, in the strongest terms, that black lives matter, while also insisting, equally, that due process be respected. Asian Americans, no different than African Americans, have a stake in eliminating racial profiling. It serves no community to be pitted against another.

How strange, how wrong, it is, that the face picked to represent police brutality toward blacks is yellow.

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