Chun: Carceral solutions won’t protect us

Alex Chun, Opinion Editor

The shooting in Atlanta on March 16 was the latest tragedy in a year filled with about 3,800 reports of anti-Asian violence, with countless more unreported. I’ve become less and less shocked with each report of violence, but I hesitate to even regard this past year as a “rise” of anti-Asian hate. The hate has always existed, and following the example of a blatantly racist president and an incessant need to scapegoat Asian Americans as the harbingers of viruses, people are feeling more emboldened than ever to turn that hate to violence.

In response to the recent reports of anti-Asian violence, many Asian American activists have turned to carceral solutions, namely calling for anti-hate crime legislation and task forces. To some extent, their calls have been answered. In late March, the New York Police Department announced a new initiative to combat anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City. In addition to expanding its hate crimes task force, the police department has begun deploying more “plainclothes officers” to police the streets.

Anti-Asian hate has deep roots in American history, and it needs to be addressed. But an effective response to that hate is contingent on racial solidarity, and through these carceral responses, I wonder how effective it is to quell violence with more violence. I wonder how those actions might be feeding the White supremacy we are so intent on dismantling.

Many Asian Americans are obstructed from realizing that we cannot combat violence by clinging to the false safeties offered by a carceral state intent on upholding White supremacy. In doing so, we only perpetuate more violence against communities of color.

In response to NYPD’s newfound investment in their hate crime task force, the Asian American Feminist Collective wrote an open letter denouncing the carceral expansion, saying, “We do not support any initiative that expands the power of police nor do we believe in carceral responses to address racist violence.”

The letter cited NYPD’s history of racist violence against Asian Americans. It mentioned the mid-1990’s, when CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities reported that in over 70 cases of anti-Asian violence, police officers were the primary perpetrators in nearly half. Police officers also disproportionately target sex workers and immigrant communities, meaning that an expansion of law enforcement would only subject the very communities we are trying to protect to even more violence.

Additionally, “tough on crime” legislation, such as anti-hate crime laws, do little to actually deter crime. In fact, studies show the opposite. This legislation is often used as a tool to target Black and brown Americans and expand the prison-industrial complex. It’s a capitalist business in which White supremacy profits off the incarceration of non-White Americans.

The Marshall Project reported that in 2019, Black Americans were accused of nearly 24 percent of hate crimes by law enforcement, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. White people, making up over 60 percent of the population, were accused of fewer than 53 percent of hate crimes.

Anti-Black violence resulting from Asian Americans’ failure to reject pervasive White power structures that seemingly promise safety is nothing new. In fact, Asian and Black American conflict is a deliberate product of White supremacy.

Asian Americans are uniquely racialized — posited between a construction of White and Black in America. Because of this, Asian Americans have often been used as a political tool to further marginalize Black Americans and uphold White supremacy.

In her essay “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” political science professor Claire Jean Kim explains that this racial triangulation is the product of two deliberate, linked processes. First, the dominant racial group (White Americans) valorizes a subordinate group (Asian Americans) relative to another, (Black Americans) while simultaneously ostracizing that subordinate group as “immutably foreign and unassimilable with Whites.” Thus, Asian Americans become a “model minority,” capable of proximity to Whiteness but unable to ever truly reap the benefits of being White. They also become display items — examples of how non-White Americans ought to be.

So how does this relate to carcerality?

By ingraining in Asian Americans the belief that White power structures, such as the carceral state, protect and benefit them, Asian Americans unknowingly buy into a system that only serves to disenfranchise non-White Americans.

In “Asian-American Studies in the Age of the Prison Industrial Complex: Departures and Re-narrations”, Dylan Rodríguez expands on this line of thinking in his explanation of how the model minority myth has grown the prison industrial complex by criminalizing Black Americans and decriminalizing White Americans. Rodriguez explains how the model minority myth manufactures a “white-Asian alliance that manifests conspicuously in such instances as the 1980s and 1990s neoconservative movement to end affirmative action policies and the post-1992 rapprochement between the stubbornly brutal Los Angeles Police Department and the prominent Korean/Asian American community leaders.”

When Asian Americans subscribe to the model minority myth, they cling to a system that values them based on their proximity to whiteness and behavior as “good” Americans. And this whiteness feeds the prison-industrial complex. When turning to hate crime legislation and carceral solutions, Asian Americans look for illusory comfort in a system that isn’t interested in protecting them. Ultimately, hate crime legislation, and even the phrase “hate crime,” fails to acknowledge the capitalist, racist systems that led to the production of violence in the first place.

In “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us”, a collection of essays written by abolitionist Mariame Kaba, Kaba explains, “Even if the criminal punishment system were free of racism, classism, sexism, and other isms, it would not be capable of effectively addressing harm. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.”

Punitive justice does little to stop systemic issues where they start, deflecting blame onto the individual rather than the oppressive systems that put them there. And this punitive justice has disproportionate consequences for Black Americans and other non-white Americans.

So how do we move forward?

We need anti-violent infrastructures that aren’t replicates of the carceral state. We have to learn to turn to each other for support. We have to support local and national groups that work to address the harms of police violence. Find resources. Donate. Start conversations.

I’ll be honest. Non-carceral solutions to violence existing in a carceral system are hard to come by. They exist in inherent discord with our present society. Abolition is a long-term movement that few of us will be around to see. But Mariame Kaba writes about the importance of hope and how “hope is a discipline.

“It’s work to be hopeful. It’s not like a fuzzy feeling,” Kaba explains. “But it matters to have it, to believe that it’s possible, to change the world. We don’t live in a predetermined, predestined world where like nothing we do has an impact. We’re constantly changing. We’re constantly transforming. And so, because that’s true, we have an opportunity at every moment to push in a direction that we think is actually a direction towards more justice.”
Project NIA
Chicago Freedom School
Survived and Punished
Chinese Mutual Aid
Mira Chicago
Rogers Park Solidarity Network
FTP Chicago
Action Now Institute

Alex Chun is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.