We Need to Put a Name to This Violence

In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a dedicated group of community organizers, activists and academics banded together to address what the press had called the “Black-Korean conflict.” Their work, which included a march through Koreatown demanding peace and the publication of several studies, aimed to tell a story of mutual misunderstanding and media distortion.


In “Blue Dreams,” the first in-depth post-1992 study of the Black-Korean conflict, John Lie, a sociologist, and Nancy Abelmann, an anthropologist, wrote that while the fissures between the two communities had a long history, “the situation is not simple; the responses are not singular.” For example, they noted, “There are Korean-American merchants who work hard to better community life by holding neighborhood picnics, sponsoring sports teams and offering scholarships.” By casting out a constellation of exceptions, the authors, who certainly were not alone in this type of work, attempted to show that underneath all the media hype, real people were still sharing real community.

社会学家约翰·李(John Lie)和人类学家南希·阿贝尔曼(Nancy Abelmann)在《蓝梦》(Blue Dreams)一书中写道,尽管两个社群之间的裂痕由来已久,“情况并不简单;反应也不是只有一种”。例如,他们指出,“有些韩裔美国商人通过举办社区野餐、赞助运动队和提供奖学金,努力改善社区生活。”通过剔除一系列的例外,两位作者试图表明(还有其他的研究人员也做了类似的工作),在媒体的种种炒作之下,真实的人仍然在共享着真实的社区。

One can certainly understand the desire to reduce tensions and provide some path toward mutual understanding, but many of these calls for unity, especially those expressed in the endlessly nuanced, overly caveated language of that era’s academy, read in hindsight like desperate attempts to paper over the immensity of the divide.


The commonly observed reality was much more straightforward. It took the form of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who, a year before the Rodney King verdict, was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner in an argument over a bottle of orange juice; the more than 2,000 Korean stores that were looted or burned to the ground during the riots that followed the verdict; the Korean men who carried rifles onto the roofs of their businesses in Koreatown and shot at looters who came near. And anyone who thought that the national news media had invented a race war out of thin air needed only to listen to Ice Cube’s 1991 song “Black Korea,” which warned:

广为目睹的现实要直截了当得多。它体现在拉塔莎·哈林斯(Latasha Harlins)身上,那是在罗德尼·金(Rodney King)一案的前一年,这名15岁的少女因为一瓶橙汁与人发生口角,被韩国店主用枪在背后爆头;在判决出来后,2000多家韩国人的店铺在骚乱中遭到洗劫或者焚毁;韩国人持枪守在韩国城商铺的屋顶,只要有打劫的靠近就开枪。那些认为全国新闻媒体凭空编造了一场种族战争的人,只要去听一听“冰块”(Ice Cube)1991年的歌曲《黑韩国》(Black Korea),歌里警告:

So don’t follow me up and down your marketOr your little chop suey ass’ll be a targetOf a nationwide boycottJuice with the people, that’s what the boy gotSo pay respect to the black fistOr we’ll burn your store right down to a crispAnd then we’ll see yaCause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea


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.


What’s different is the lack of clarity in the story. It’s still unclear what, exactly, is happening and even less clear why. This time, there is no easy line to draw from the history of a Korean merchant class setting up in Black neighborhoods to a girl lying dead on the floor of a convenience store; no buildings are being torched in retaliation.


What exists, instead, are videos that show Asians being attacked in cities across the country. Viral outrage usually requires sustained propulsion: One video usually isn’t enough because it can be written off as an isolated incident, but two videos released just days apart, both showing horrifying acts of violence, can create a narrative.


Two of the most widely shared of these involved elderly men in the Bay Area who were shoved to the ground by Black assailants. One of the victims, an 84-year old Thai man named Vicha Ratanapakdee, died from his injuries.

其中两个流传最广的视频里,都涉及旧金山湾区的老人被黑人袭击者推倒在地。其中一名受害者、84岁的泰国男子威差·拉达那巴迪(Vicha Ratanapakdee),因伤势过重死亡。

It is difficult to put these videos into a context that makes sense of them, leaving us with several unsatisfying interpretations. And not even the videos themselves are reliable — images of what was described as an attack on a second elderly Asian man, released shortly after the shoving of Mr. Vicha, prompted another round of outrage, including a $25,000 reward from the actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu for information that would lead to the capture of the assailant. It turned out that the victim, a 91-year-old man named Gilbert Diaz walking in Oakland’s Chinatown, is Latino.

很难把这些视频置于一个有意义的背景下,这留给我们一些让人难以满意的解释。甚至视频本身都不可靠——在威差被推倒后不久发布的,据说是第二位亚洲老人遇袭的画面,引发了新一轮的愤怒,包括演员金大贤和吴彦祖在内,悬赏2.5万美元,征集可以抓住袭击者的信息。结果后来发现,受害者是一个名叫吉尔伯特·迪亚兹(Gilbert Diaz)的91岁拉丁裔男子,当时他正走在奥克兰的唐人街。

There are claims of a huge national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, but they largely rely on self-reported data from organizations like Stop AAPI Hate that popped up after the start of the pandemic. These resources are valuable, but they also use as their comparison point spotty and famously unreliable official hate crime statistics from law enforcement. If we cannot really tell how many hate crimes took place before, can we really argue that there has been a surge?

据称,全美范围内针对亚裔的仇恨犯罪激增,但它们采信的是疫情开始后突然出现的Stop AAPI Hate等组织的自我报告数据。这些资源很有价值,但他们也使用执法部门的官方仇恨犯罪统计数据作为比较点,但这些官方数据质量不稳定,是出了名的不靠谱。如果我们不能确定以前发生过多少仇恨犯罪,真的能说仇恨犯罪数量出现了激增吗?

There have also been reports that suggest that these attacks be placed within the context of rising crime nationwide, especially in large cities. What initially appears to be a crime wave targeting Asians might just be a few data points in a more raceless story.


There have also been condemnations of Donald Trump and how his repeated use of the phrase “China virus” to describe the coronavirus and his invocation of white supremacy might be responsible. But how does that explain the attacks by Black people? Were they also acting as Mr. Trump’s white supremacist henchmen? Do we really believe that there is some coordinated plan by Black people to brutalize Asian-Americans?

还有人谴责唐纳德·特朗普(Donald Trump),认为他多次使用“中国病毒”的说法来描述新冠病毒,以及操弄白人至上主义,可能是罪魁祸首。但这又如何解释袭击者为黑人呢?难道他们也是特朗普的白人至上主义的追随者吗?我们真的相信黑人有一些残忍对待亚裔美国人的协调计划吗?

And there are writers who argue that Asian-Americans fall outside the accepted discourse about race in this country — that there’s just no available language to discuss bad things that might happen to them.


This last point is only partly true. There are plenty of words to describe discrimination at the hands of white people: white supremacy, microaggressions, the bamboo ceiling, Orientalism. What doesn’t exist now, or for that matter, didn’t exist in 1992, is a language to discuss what happens when the attackers caught on video happen to be Black.

最后一点不全对。有很多词可以描述白人的歧视:白人至上(white supremacy)、微侵犯(microaggressions)、竹天花板(the bamboo ceiling),东方主义(Orientalism)。现在不存在的,或者说在1992年还不存在的,是一种当视频记录下攻击者恰好是黑人时用于讨论的语言。

And so, we are left with the videos, which transcend language and cultural barriers and exist in a space outside mediation and intervention. They have been viewed thousands, or even millions, of times by a people who are not really a people at all. There is no shared history between, say, Thai immigrants who saw images of one of their own attacked in San Francisco, and the Chinese-American population of Oakland alarmed by the assault in Chinatown.


Asian-American identity is fractured and often incoherent because it assumes kinship between people who do not speak the same language, and, in many cases, dislike one another. Solidarity between these groups is rare — the burning of Korean businesses during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, did not produce a mass response from Chinese- or Japanese-Americans. But because the recent attacks seem aimed at anyone who looks Asian, they have translated across the language, country-of-origin, and perhaps most important, class lines that usually separate one group of Asians from another.


For better or worse, a collective identity can emerge from these moments. Amid the outcry, a new form of Asian-Americanness has begun to stand up, unsteadily, on its legs, still uncertain of where it will go. In private conversations, the foreign language press, and messaging apps like WeChat and KakaoTalk catering to the Asian diaspora, a central question is being asked: Why does nobody care when our people get attacked and killed in the streets? Where is the outcry for us? Do our lives not matter?


This is not to say that all Asian-Americans believe that these attacks are racially motivated, nor does it mean that some silent majority now believes that Black people are waging a race war against them. But the answers to the question “Why does nobody care?” has unearthed a series of contradictions that always lurked right beneath the surface, unmentioned in polite company: We are not white, but do we count as “people of color”? (Not according to the newer literature around school equity, which increasingly doesn’t include Asians when discussing diversity.) When people say “Black and brown folk” do they also mean yellow? (Probably not.)


These questions are not new, but the attacks have placed them in a discomforting, sometimes maddening, context and heightened their urgency. The videos of the two assaults in the Bay Area, for example, coincided with national scrutiny over the place of high-achieving Asian students in public schools.


The San Francisco Board of Education recently voted to end merit-based admissions to Lowell, the city’s premier public high school. The ostensible reason for the change is to address equity concerns within the school system and to make Lowell more representative of the city at large. Like most of the public schools with merit-based admissions that have come under fire over the past few years, Lowell is predominantly Asian, with many students coming from Chinese working-class families.

旧金山教育委员会(San Francisco Board of Education)最近投票决定,终止该市首屈一指的公立高中洛厄尔中学(Lowell)的择优录取制度。这一改变表面上的原因是为了解决学校系统内部的公平问题,并使洛厄尔更能代表整个城市。和过去几年受到抨击的大多数实施择优录取制度的公立学校一样,洛厄尔以亚裔学生为主,很多学生来自华裔工薪阶层家庭。

For some Asian-American families in San Francisco, the change amounted to discrimination, not from right-wing politicians or white supremacists, but from the liberals who were supposed to be on their side. This change, juxtaposed with the recent attacks, expose, in microcosm, the deep, discomforting tension that sits at the heart of progressive politics around race: Why would we give up our spots at selective schools to benefit the same people who attack us in the streets? And more broadly: If we are the natural enemy of equity and racial progress, then why should we support it? Is the pursuit of a more equitable America a zero-sum game?


The relative truth of this tension can be excavated, debated and examined. The usual explanations, invoking the history of this country, the model minority myth, and the need for solidarity against white supremacy, can be forcefully stated. All these are true and necessary, but they do not tell us why nobody seems to care when Asian people get attacked.


In the fall of 2018, I spent a few days with Yukong Zhao, a Chinese immigrant businessman who had worked on several Asian-American activist campaigns, whether protesting Jimmy Kimmel’s show or supporting Asian anti-discrimination initiatives against prestigious universities.

2018年秋天,我和华裔移民、商人赵宇空(音)在一起待了几天。他曾参与过几次亚裔美国人的活动,包括抗议吉米·基梅尔(Jimmy Kimmel)的脱口秀,以及支持亚裔针对名牌大学的反歧视倡议。

At the time, it seemed that Mr. Zhao was part of an ascendant Asian-American conservative movement whose main appeal came from upending the carefully constructed, nuanced narrative about the place of Asians in the American racial hierarchy. Mr. Zhao, who voted for Donald Trump and made a losing congressional bid as a Republican in 2020, has fashioned himself into an evangelist of pure meritocracy and self-reliance. He believes that Asian-Americans should be politically active like right-wing Cuban-Americans in Florida.

当时,赵宇空似乎是正在崛起的亚裔美国人保守运动中的一员,该运动的主要吸引力在于,它颠覆了关于亚裔在美国种族等级中所处位置的精心构建、细致入微的叙事。赵宇空曾投票支持唐纳德·特朗普(Donald Trump),并在2020年以共和党身份参加国会竞选,但以失败告终。他把自己塑造成唯才是举和自力更生的宣传者。他认为亚裔美国人应该像佛罗里达州的右翼古巴裔美国人那样,在政治上更加活跃。

Instead of the capitulations and endless contextualizing offered up by progressive, second-generation Asian-Americans, he and his fellow activists simply asked: What about us? Why does it not count when we’re discriminated against? Toward the end of our time together in his home in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Zhao told me he wished Asian-Americans could unite to fight for their own and persuade Americans to protect them in the same way the Black community does.


I disagree with Mr. Zhao on almost every possible substantive point. I do not think America protects Black lives, I support affirmative action, I reject all forms of self-interested, racial chauvinism. But I recognize that in this time of crisis for Asian-Americans, this message of nationalism and self-protection, with all its implied calls for law and order and incarceration, will be heard by millions who are still trying to figure out what “Asian-American” even means. Who will sound like the truth-teller, and who will sound like the out-of-touch liberal who talks vaguely about the need for unity?


Last year, a few weeks before the pandemic shut down San Francisco, a video made the rounds on social media. It captured a 68-year-old Chinese man in the Bayview neighborhood in a confrontation with a handful of Black people. The man, who made his living collecting cans, was being harassed and humiliated. The cart he used to carry the day’s haul had been taken away from him. His grabber had also been snatched and a Black man was swinging at him with it.


In the video, you can hear a woman off-camera ask the person filming the encounter to help the old man. He responds: “Hell, no, I’m not helping this [expletive]. I hate Asians.” As the Chinese man begins to despair and cry, the man filming shoves the camera in his face and mocks him.


Asian-Americans in the area demanded justice from San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin. Mr. Boudin, who is among a new breed of prosecutors who favor restorative justice over jail whenever possible, dropped charges against the 20-year-old man who filmed the attack, citing the wishes of the victim. The decision prompted people to raise the well-worn questions asked by Asian-Americans conservatives like Mr. Zhao: What would have happened if the attackers were Asian and the victim was Black? Do hate crimes count only when they run one way?

该地区的亚裔美国人要求旧金山地区检察官、进步派的博彻思(Chesa Boudin)主持正义。他属于偏好修复式正义而不是刑罚的新一代检察官。博彻思以受害者的意愿为由,撤销了对拍摄袭击过程的那名20岁男子的指控。这个决定促使人们提出了像赵宇空这样的亚裔美国保守派人士的老生常谈:如果袭击者是亚裔,受害者是非裔,会怎么样?仇恨犯罪难道只是单向成立的?

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.


There is an opportunity to reshape that language to address the contradictions inherent in the lives of millions of immigrants and to create a reality that acknowledges the size of the rift between Asian and Black Americans, but does not fall into a zero-sum game in which everyone loses.


These questions and contradictions must be taken up before the narrative around these attacks calcifies into something more sinister. Foot patrols have already formed in Asian neighborhoods around the country. Those of us who, like Mr. Boudin, believe in non-jail solutions to crime, must not bury these concerns about the simplistic way in which race is discussed and then acted upon with a fog of platitudes about white supremacy and Donald Trump.


It has become increasingly clear that in the coming months, the climate of fear and the unsaid conversations could lead to vigilantism or a false accusation against a Black defendant. A militant response, which takes, at least in part, its inspiration from the images of Korean shopkeepers patrolling their rooftops with guns during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, seems possible and should not be dismissed. If left to fester, this reactionary anger will only harden into a reactionary nationalism that will threaten vital community and organizing work and turn one race against another.


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