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Officer Peter Liang Highlights the Asian American Identity Crisis

White power and the 'model minority' myth

Since the 1960s politicians like Ronald Reagan have loved to describe Asian Americans as exceptional. In a speech in 1981 he stated, “Overcoming great hardships, [Asian Americans] have lived the American dream, and continue as exemplars of hope and inspiration.” The implications of this are profound. It implies that a meritocracy truly exists in this country. It implies that the “success of Asian Americans” proves that we are a post-racial society. It implies that all of the inequities that exist between white Americans and Black Americans are not a result of racism, but a result of the failure of Black Americans to work hard and improve their own lives.

This model minority myth is so powerful that even Asian Americans have internalized it. I'm shocked at the number of Asian Americans that have told me that they don't think racism against Asian Americans is an issue in their workplace. What doesn’t shock me is that they are usually young, born in the US with native English skills, East Asian (usually Chinese), and have at least a college degree. They are uniformly naïve. They are Asian Americans blinded by their own privilege.

The Peter Liang case is particularly upsetting because it breaks the tacit agreement that privileged Asian Americans and white Americans have:

Asian Americans will behave as model citizens. They will work hard and assimilate into white dominant culture by adopting the way the majority class speaks, dresses, and behaves. They will maintain their Asian identities only to the extent that it does not make the majority class feel threatened. They will be happy to share their culture and food as exotic examples of diversity but confine it to specific neighborhoods and foods that are comfortable to the majority palate. Asian Americans will even make jokes about the model minority and perpetuate this myth themselves through publications such as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. They will be Asian Uncle Toms without even knowing it.

In return, white folks are supposed to treat Asian Americans like they are not a racial minority.

The conviction of Peter Liang breaks this covenant.

However, the reality is that this covenant has never been followed. Asian Americans make up 21.5% of the scientists at the National Institute of Health but only 4.7% of lab or branch directors. A survey done in 2009 found that almost 10% of Americans would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian American for president. The percentage that felt uncomfortable voting for an African American candidate was 4%.

The sense of security that some Asian Americans feel is superficial and misleading. And in the process of believing it, they’ve turned their backs on their less privileged Asian brother and sisters.

So what about Peter Liang?

It's upsetting that Peter Liang is getting treated differently than his white counterparts. White police officers kill unarmed Black citizens all the time and go without punishment. Frequently, they are not even charged! It is absolutely because of his race that he was convicted. However, just because white police officers are going unjustly unpunished for murder doesn't mean that Officer Liang should too. As Ta-Nehesi Coates lays out in in his recent book, people of color pay more for their mistakes.



story | by Dr. Radut