Should Chinese Americans Support Peter Liang?

By Chun-Fai Chan

(Mr. Chan was a Chinese-American former educator in Boston and is now graduate student in the Master’s of Public Administration program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.)

Dear Chinese Americans, We Need to Have a Talk About Race in America.

The recent Chinese American protests in support of Officer Peter Liang have made me uneasy about how little Chinese Americans know about the complicated issues of race in America. It is time that we as Chinese Americans start to have this conversation, because it is clearly not as simple as supporting Officer Liang because he is “one of us”. This premise actually dismisses all the complications of how race has shaped Chinese American lives in America and also dismisses the lives of the people who are the true victims of this tragedy, Akai Gurley and his family.

Chinese Americans that still use words such as “black devil” to describe African Americans or to use our native language to talk negatively about African-Americans need to stop NOW. Your words and language actually inflame racial tensions and brings only negative perceptions of Chinese Americans in communities of color. These perceptions actually make the situation much worse for your children who go to public school with children from communities of color, which include many African Americans. Telling your children to “stay away from the blacks” or to “focus solely on listening to your teacher and doing your homework” only avoid tensions and not confront them in a meaningful manner. When I was a teacher in Boston, I taught my Chinese students in Chinese not to say “black devil” or not to disparage “those black kids” for talking loud on the school bus. I also engaged the non-Chinese students on the school bus in order to ease the cultural tensions and to figure out the underlying problems between the two groups. Intervening in these encounters was necessary to respect of each group’s cultures and beliefs without becoming racist and negative. We, as Chinese Americans, actually need mediators who are culturally and racially sensitive to bring the two groups together in order to diffuse these cultural tensions rooted in language barriers and general stereotypes between Chinese and African Americans.

Chinese Americans who make the comparison of Officer Liang’s guilty verdict with the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., have a very misplaced sense of historical context regarding Dr. King. Are both Officer Liang and Martin Luther King, Jr. people of color? Yes, and THAT’S IT. There are no other reasons to justify this comparison except in this superficial manner. Additionally, using Dr. King’s quotations at Officer Liang’s New York City protest totally misrepresents and disregards the deeper understanding of African American history. This misrepresentation is similar to saying to non-Chinese that they should choose inspirational sayings of Confucius to broadly define a person’s dutifulness for academic learning. Both of these historical figures should represent much more than misplaced quotations that is without an articulate historical context. I welcome Chinese Americans to study up on Dr. King’s history and all the history before and after the Civil Rights Movement in order to better articulate Dr. King’s words and actions rather than making a comparison that is so unjustified. A good start is to watch movie Selma, which offers a small glimpse of the struggle for civil rights in America or to visit an African American Museum in their own cities to observe African Americans’ rich history.

Some Chinese Americans have mistakenly felt that assimilation to the white American culture will shield them from trouble based upon a false assumption that this culture will blindly support Chinese American causes. The harsh reality that Officer Liang and others need to know is that we as Chinese Americans (or Asian Americans) have truly not assimilated in America. Officer Liang most likely had this false assumption that being a police officer would be enough for him to escape criminal charges like his fellow officers in the Eric Garner case or to the many other cases where police officers were not prosecuted for their actions. Another reality is that Chinese Americans today still fight the stigma as the “perpetual foreigner” in America. When people see us, they ask us “Where are we from?” or “Where are your parents from?” or the most insulting question of all “Where are you really from?” It is this stigma that makes Chinese Americans feel as though we are not fully or truly “American”. As Liang’s case has shown, we do not play by the same rules as those who benefit from the system of privilege and lighter skin color just because we have assimilated to American ideals and values. We are still unfortunately “foreigners” in the eyes of many Americans.

To my fellow Chinese Americans, I hope this begins the difficult conversation on race in America. Chinese Americans should also start contributing constructively to the conversation in our communities. It is through these conversations that we can have a clearer picture of our current racial history in America as Chinese Americans.

Official Joint Statement from Asian/Chinese American Organizations on the Sentencing of Former NYPD Officer Peter Liang

Asian Americans United, Philadelphia
Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Oakland
Asian American Resource Workshop, Boston
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, New York City
Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), Los Angeles
Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco
Chinese Progressive Association, Boston
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

We are outraged that Peter Liang has escaped accountability for killing Akai Gurley. For more than a year, Akai Gurley’s family has been courageously speaking out to demand justice for their loved one. Judge Chun’s sentencing decision today is an insult to Akai Gurley, his family, and all victims of police violence. Any amount of jail/prison time is a brief snippet of time compared to the lifetime Akai Gurley’s young daughters will have to live without their father. The sentencing sends the message that it is okay to kill innocent and precious lives, as long as it is done by a police officer.

Akai Gurley was only 28-years old when he was struck and killed by the bullet fired by Peter Liang who failed to provide necessary medical help or call the ambulance. Akai’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, remembers Akai as a good son and nephew, who joked and smiled a lot. He provided for his younger brothers and sisters and took care of Akaila and Kamiya, his daughters. Since the killing of Akai, his family has been suffering and mourning for their loss, as well as standing strongly together with the community to demand justice.

While the Chinese media and some Chinese leaders stood behind former Officer Peter Liang, as grassroots organizations working with Asian/Chinese Americans, we continue to stand with the family of Akai Gurley and other innocent victims of police killings to hold all police officers accountable, regardless of race. We continue to affirm that if we believe in true racial justice, we cannot excuse an officer for killing an innocent unarmed black man because Peter Liang is Chinese or Asian like us. We know that the strength of our power is fully realized when we stand together with those who also face injustice. We cannot forget when other communities of color stood with us against the police killing of Yong Xin Huang in 1995 and other incidents of police brutality and countless critical moments our communities were also hurt. We have a responsibility to protect our prosperity by protecting ALL families and that means also the family of Akai Gurley who has lost their loved one forever.

We can tip the scales to fit our needs, but it doesn’t mean we’ve reached justice. Our hunger for true justice, for a world where we all have a chance to thrive and grow old must be realized. We showed everyone and ourselves the political power we are capable of. We must challenge the abuse of power where it is most evident – where families are losing loved ones with no accountability of the officers who kill them. Nothing will bring Akai back, but we must hold all police officers accountable to continue to fight for violence-free communities and win change in our systems and institutions.