23 February 2016

On Liang, Gurley and the fragmentation of identity politics

The recent conviction of Peter Liang, formerly of the NYPD, in the wrongful shooting of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, has – unfortunately – provoked a storm of protest. The bare facts of the matter, and the verdict reached, are pretty straightforward: Liang had his gun out when he should not have. His gun discharged when there was no clear present threat. And an unarmed father of two, innocent of any crime, is dead as a result. Liang may not have intended to shoot to kill, and there is no evidence to show that he did. But negligence can still be criminal. Any civilian would be held accountable under the law, when an accidental discharge of his weapon results in a death. Liang deserves the penalty meted out to him for second-degree manslaughter. Moreover, the decision is important as a precedent in convicting on-duty policemen who abuse their authority or behave in an unprofessional way.

But the matter is not left to rest there. Liang is a Chinese-American, and many of his fellows suspect that Liang was convicted, where a white policeman would not have been, simply on account of his foreign heritage. As a result, Chinese-Americans are insisting that Liang has been made a ‘scapegoat’ of the American justice system. They are indeed right to point this out. But it is very wrong to go further and to demand that the verdict – handed down, notably, by another Asian-American judge, Danny K. Chun – be reversed, or for District Attorney Ken Thompson to be thrown out of office. The complaint that because white police officers were not similarly brought to justice on account of wrongful deaths, that Peter Liang should not be either, is not motivated by an interest in impartial justice. Instead, it seems to be an effort to secure for Asians the illusory benefits associated with the ‘model minority myth’, benefits to which black (and working-class white) Americans have never been entitled. Those who want Peter Liang to be let off are not (as they are claiming, even as they use all the available campus-radical buzzwords of structural oppression and microaggression which are the reigning protest fashion) kicking upward at the injustices in the system they are claiming to oppose, but instead downward at wrongful and disproportionately-black deaths-by-cop. Those who are calling to overturn the verdict are not seeking a much-needed reform of the justice system, but instead seeking a special race-based exemption from that system – a legal reinforcement, as it were, of their status as ‘model minority’.

I do actually sympathise far, far more with the Asian-American protesters’ worry that Liang will receive a sentence disproportionate to his crime. There, possibly, the charge that the criminal justice system is ‘scapegoating’ him might have some grounds in reality. But the problem is that these protests – wherein protesters use SJW-speak to white journalists, but turn around and hurl racist epithets in Chinese at black counter-protesters – are playing, whether deliberately or not, into an age-old strategy of racial division which precludes even the concept of a common good. The ends of the fragmentation of identity politics, which is being accelerated by certain elements of culture-and-lifestyle liberalism (and whose language has been eagerly appropriated in this case), never serve justice. And without a concept of the common good, there is no chance of a just verdict or a just sentence being reached.

David Lindsay (whose writing I respect and admire) says occasionally, ‘identity politics (as if there could be any other kind)’, but he also notes that they can and should be appropriated and transcended. Whether the Asian-American community of New York City likes it or not, they have the legacy of the ‘model minority’ behind them, and are now in a good position to use that legacy to show some generosity to and solidarity with the family of the victim, that goes beyond the cheap talk of condolence. These protests – at least, until they can get on a consistent message and behave themselves with courtesy and respect to the bereft – don’t seem to be the way to go about it.

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