The past few weeks, I’ve been trying to make sense of the spate of attacks that appear to target Asian Americans, particularly in parts of California and New York. The reporting has been inconsistent and localized, the connections and motivations often seem circumstantial, and the fact the perpetrators tend to be Black complicates the telling in a country where discussions involving race are always fraught and taboo. The usual characters and set pieces we trot out — bad apples, no angels, etc — fail utterly while the water of structural racism we all swim in but refuse to acknowledge remains.
As I sought to understand just what was going on, I knew if there was one person who would be able to cut through, it would be Jay Caspian Kang. His piece for the New York Times today is a hard and necessary read and didn’t answer questions so much as force me to ask better ones.
Over the past month, as reports of attacks on Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American elders, have circulated, a new generation of scholars, writers and celebrities have tried to figure out not just what to do, but what exactly is even happening, and how to discuss it.
The public conversations, which have focused on rising xenophobia and what it means for a largely professional class of Asian-Americans, reflect, in many ways, the legacy of the scholarship following the 1992 riots. One can feel the understandable desire to reroute the conversation to safer and more familiar conclusions. The conversations also reflect a disconnect between the people on all sides who experience the violence — who are often working class — and the commentariat.
A generous and brilliant writer, I’ve found Kang to be a kind of snarky Virgil1 the past few years while I try to navigate the endlessly upending culture. It’s a role that he seems to often lament, particularly when it comes to, well, helping people like me understand the nuances of race in America beyond the simplistic stories we tell ourselves.
Kang sees a particular danger in what’s happening with these attacks, how they get talked about, what gets left unsaid in particular, and the opportunities our continual failings leave open for more Trumpian attack vectors. Reactionary nationalism may be an primary feature of white supremacy in America, but it’s by no means exclusive.
These are not sophisticated questions, but they are being asked over and over again. My fear is that these attacks will also accelerate a trend already underway. Roughly one-third of Asian-American voters supported Donald Trump in 2020, a figure that represented a seven point increase from 2016. As Asian-Americans once again ask themselves where they fit in the country, champions of law and order like Mr. Zhao will provide simple, compelling answers.
They will not care about the decades of efforts by courageous Asian, Black and Latino organizers to build solidarity between working-class people in the Bay Area and nationwide, nor will they care that the people who have been attacked appear largely to be from the working poor and will certainly bear the brunt of an escalation in racial conflict.
Electoral politics are not everything, nor should they be the basis for how we think about ourselves and how we relate to others. But these past months have also shown the limits of the rote progressive language about race and its assumption, in practice, of a binary between Black and white Americans.
As I consider why I’ve struggled to understand, or maybe contextualize, what’s happening with these attacks, I return (embarrassingly) to Baldwin. “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
I tolerate his Dave Matthews rhapsodizing for his very good college basketball opinions. ↩︎