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.
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.