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On Saturday, January 15, at 9:30 am, 40-year-old finance worker Michelle Go was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming subway train at the Times Square/42nd St. station in New York City. Speculation by investigators quickly turned to the rise in anti-Asian hate as a possible motive.

As a visibly Asian-American woman (my parents are from South Korea) walking around New York City and taking transit to work and to political and social events, I have felt on edge since the start of the pandemic. Even with the end of mask mandates, I’m careful to wear a mask indoors in public areas, especially when I have allergy symptoms. When President Trump called COVID-19 the “China virus”, I knew that these xenophobic and racist statements would have real consequences on the lived experiences of Asian/Pacific Islanders here in the United States. 

Public opinion polls showed that Americans expressed the highest levels of unfavorable opinions of China in 2020. My community in Queens, Jackson Heights, experienced the most severe outbreak of the virus in the early days. Soon, stories and statistics of rising anti-Asian violence began to trickle in, adding to feelings of hopelessness and isolation in those early months. According to one study, anti-Asian crime increased by over 150% in 2020, most of it concentrated in NYC and Los Angeles. 

China also played an important role in the 2020 Presidential elections. Trump blamed China for the pandemic, while Biden blamed Trump for being “too soft on China.” Ironically despite both candidates taking tough-on-China stances, voters were not convinced that either candidate would be effective in dealing with China. 

While the conditions of the pandemic have changed, especially with the widespread availability and use of vaccines, violence and crime against Asians and Asian Americans has not. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by over 300% in 2021 alone. Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks self-reported incidents of violence and crime against Asians, reported that according to their national survey, about one in five Asian Americans reported hate crimes between March 2020 and September 2021. The most commonly reported incidents were verbal harassment, which is unfortunately common in my experience as well.

Why public safety policy responses are not enough

A number of solutions have been touted by policymakers, elected officials, and members of the broader AAPI community on how to best deal with the problem. Unfortunately, seeing AAPI violence as a problem specific to the community fails to address the underlying problems of racist violence, thus obscuring the possibilities for the most effective outcomes. Racist violence is one outcome of racist ideology in the United States. This ideology plays an important role in perpetuating the competitive, anti-humanist, capitalist society that pits groups of people against each other and reinforces false narratives of scarcity. Thus, if we wish to challenge the roots of racist violence, I argue for both public safety-focused solutions and broader structural changes. We must fight for the immediate implementation of policies that enhance the safety of vulnerable individuals and also promote radical changes to our socio-economic structures and institutions.

As an anti-carceral socialist feminist and also a professor who teaches human rights and political economy at CUNY, I see myself as active in the fight against anti-Asian hate even though my work does not engage in mutual aid, self-defense, or participating in non-police community interventions to keep Asians safe. I canvass for socialist candidates who support Medicare for All, childcare for all, better-funded public transportation, free public university tuition, safer streets, universal childcare, strong rights for workers and unions, and renewable energy. I have been arrested with fellow organizers in support of building publicly-owned renewable energy in New York State, which currently has only 5% of its energy from solar and wind. I also had the privilege of joining many young people on the streets of New York City in June 2020 during the mass demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter and collective outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd. 

Yet while my organizing work is not primarily focused on criminal justice reform, I see my work in the broader socialist movement in NYC as actively helping to create safety and security for my community. I support the efforts of organizers who do primarily put their time and resources into such efforts but I see both kinds of work as necessary and complementary. 

While I have empathy and respect for members of the AAPI community whose immediate response is to call for more policing and stronger criminal penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes, this is not a position that I favor. Centering carceral, community-specific, and exclusionary policies will not address the root of the problems, and leaves our community vulnerable to continued dehumanization. Policing and additional police presence cannot challenge racist ideologies that justify violence against members of our community. Rather, I urge fellow members of the AAPI community to consider solidaristic, socialist, and transformative policies that can best serve our interests- both in terms of public safety and our broader well-being. 

In NYC, for example, where there have been many high-profile violent attacks, older community leaders and business groups have asked for more policing, while younger groups are reluctant to call for the same. The Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, for example, requested additional policing in response to increased violence, but younger Chinese and Asian activists have pushed back against this demand. Incidentally, recent polling shows that Asians do not support policing in recent years more than other ethnic groups. Thus, when politicians, especially those on the right or “law and order” type Democrats, tout more policing as the solution to anti-Asian violence, they reduce the struggles of the AAPI community into a political tool, without real interest in promoting our safety.

The system and the problems

As a 42-year-old woman who works in midtown Manhattan, the subway death of Michelle Go struck me to the core. Additional police presence (or bail reform) would not have saved or protected her. The man who shoved her to her death was well known in the public medical system and shelter system as someone who was angry that he was discharged from a hospital before he felt well enough to be on his own. Martial Simon, a former cab driver who suffers from schizophrenia, was homeless and in and out of public hospitals for many years. He even told a caregiver several years earlier that he would likely push someone onto the tracks. Because of his high needs, he was rejected from a hospital and instead given appropriate treatment. 

Michelle Go’s death was a double tragedy: the failure to protect her life was the result of the failure to value the needs of her attacker, due to decades of underfunding of public mental health services.

Thus Michelle Go’s death was a double tragedy: the failure to protect her life was the result of the failure to value the needs of her attacker, due to decades of underfunding of public mental health services. Any fight against anti-Asian hate must necessarily include a fight against austerity, a fight against capitalist dehumanization of human life, and a fight against social and economic oppressive systems. It must also include a fight for the mental health services that meet people’s needs, regardless of their ability to pay.

The harm of the model minority myth

A skeptical person might point out that Asian Americans often do well economically in the US, so why should we fight to dismantle a system that benefits so many members of our community to make us safer? This model minority narrative is a harmful one, one that young Asian Americans (and not-so-young second-generation Asian Americans such as myself) should work hard to challenge. Historians and other scholars have documented the role that the model minority myth played to justify a racist society and explicitly created to differentiate the Asian and Black communities. While the struggle for Civil Rights for both communities has been intricately linked, as early Asian labor migrants faced discrimination and legal barriers to entry, and thus were stripped of their humanity in different ways than the Black community, expressions of solidarity were common. The model minority myth, created by white racists seeking to undercut the Black Power movement, and often supported by Asian community leaders, created a wedge between the two communities. Asian Americans were supposedly evidence of the power of the American Dream, and thus provide a convenient argument in support of continued racism, exploitation, and inhumaneness of our competitive capitalist society. 

Yet some media depictions of the Asian community focus on how Asian Americans want to protect their privileged position within our supposed meritocratic system. Certainly, a vocal minority that wants to uphold systems, such as the test-based system of entry into New York City public schools, gains a lot of attention, including from elected officials. But just as the model minority myth falsely creates a monolithic view of Asians as high-income high achievers—in fact, there is great inequality within our community, and the lowest earning Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have not enjoyed economic gains in recent years—so too does the dominant narrative hide the fact that Asian Americans even in New York have diverse views on our elite public high schools. In addition, Asian Americans are often seen as conservative actors who fight against affirmative action, but in fact, survey data shows that most Asian Americans support affirmative action in college admissions and want greater opportunities for Latinx and Black students. 

However, a vocal minority within the AAPI community that claims to be hurt by affirmative action gets the most attention. 

More than a domestic issue: anti-Asian sentiment and our global economy

In addition to challenging racist capitalist ideas at home, it is important for us to challenge racist capitalist ideas that relate to the global economy. I teach a class on global political economy to undergraduates in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the great public university system City University of New York. This is often the first time students learn that the US and the trading systems dominated by western countries explicitly made decisions to normalize trade relations with China beginning in the 1990s. The US Senate voted to give China Permanent Normal Trade Relations status over the concerns of trade unions and human rights activists, because political leaders wanted to gain benefits of imports made by cheap Chinese labor. Never in the discussion about the origins of the COVID epidemic was a single mention of the US’ culpability in integrating China into the world economy. As an undergraduate in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was fed a steady diet of the “inevitability” of globalization, a rising tide that would lift all boats, the inevitable result of the victory of liberal capitalism over all alternative forms of social and political organization. One only needs to look around at the political and social conditions around us, from the rise of the right in Europe and United States, to wars instigated by illiberal states such as Russia, to see what a failure neoliberal globalization has been in terms of solidifying the global democratic project.

Anti-Asian sentiment has long been tied to anxiety around economic dominance. The US created the rules of trade and finance, and Japanese dominance in the 1980s led to anti-Asian violence in the US as well. However, as Japan has experienced stagnant growth in recent years, it is no longer the focus of American anxiety. China is now the cause of concern, and “unfair” trade with China has long been a focus on American presidents and politicians. President Obama famously would travel to China and accuse the premier of unfair “currency distortion.” Without getting too into the weeds of international finance and trade, the US supports its “strong dollar policy”, even if it hurts the competitiveness of US exports, and now conveniently blames China and other countries for our manufacturing woes.

Perhaps no other case of anti-Asian violence, driven by fears of Japanese dominance, illustrates the link between racism and diminishing economic prospects than the death of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two Detroit area autoworkers, a Chrysler supervisor and his laid-off autoworker son-in-law, who wrongly believed he was Japanese, on the night of his bachelor party. Ironically, Chin also worked in the domestic automobile industry as an engineer for an auto parts supplier. Chin was beaten to death in front of a crowd that included two off-duty police officers. The subsequent trial led to a fine and probation for the two perpetrators, but no jail time. Clearly the criminal justice system could not create justice for Vincent Chin. Despite the evolution of civil rights laws, the criminal system continues to fail vulnerable Asian Americans and people’s economic concerns continue to rise.

New solutions for old problems

So what’s the answer? 

I don’t have an easy solution to the problems of economic anxiety, racism, Sinophobia, global inequality, and the problems with our criminal justice system. However, I know that the current system, one that pits groups of people against each other, cannot continue if we value human dignity and equality. Only when people get together to reject the competitiveness of American meritocratic ideology, the ruthlessness of our test- and assessment-based education system (that political scientist Robert Putnam correctly argues intensifies, rather than equalizes, social inequality), a broken mental health system that makes mental health services a scare luxury, rather than a basic human necessity, and an economic system that is destroying our planet- can we talk about ending racist violence and hate against AAPI and other vulnerable groups in our society. Young people, who are the most progressive, anti-capitalist demographic, and who embrace diversity and an interventionist government, provide a source of hope and possibility during difficult times. 

I want to end with a story that has become recently popularized as the result of a controversial Netflix documentary on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the documentary series, Emmy-award-winning actor Nicey Nash depicts Glenda Cleveland, a Black neighbor of Jeffrey Dahmer who tried with her daughter and niece to get the police to intervene and stop his killings. The series re-enacts a tragic incident in 1991 when Cleveland’s daughter and niece, Sandra Smith and Nicole Childress, found 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone—an immigrant from Laos—drugged, naked and bleeding, fleeing Dahmer’s apartment. The women tried to get the police to investigate Dahmer. Instead, Dahmer convinced the police to return Konerak to him, as Dahmer told them that it was just a lover’s spat. The women tried to stop the police from returning the boy to Dahmer, but they were threatened with arrest. Had the police checked Dahmer’s ID, they would have seen that he was on probation for child molestation. 

Thirty minutes later, Dahmer killed Sinthasomphone. 

Later, all of these events would come to light in a civil suit against the city of Milwaukee. The police officers responsible for returning the bleeding, naked Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer were initially dismissed from their jobs as policemen but later were reinstated. One eventually became the president of the police union.

I don’t tell this gruesome story about the preventable tragic death of young Konerak Sinthasomphone lightly, but instead to illustrate my key point. Police do not keep us safe. Myths of model minorities do not keep us safe. Reaching for high levels of academic and career achievements does not keep us safe. Only interracial, human solidarity and care for each other, both in our everyday actions and embedded within broader political, social and economic systems, will keep us safe.

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Susan Kang is an associate professor, socialist organizer, and mother of two living in New York City.