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The “Asian exception” and the Scramble for Legibility: Toward an Abolitionist Approach to Anti-Asian Violence

What if anti-Asian violence is not reducible to “hate,” and is in fact a persistent, unexceptional presence in the long historical, Civilizational terror-making machine that is the United States?

Atrocity and Legibility

Atrocities targeting people and bodies we identify as our own tend to incite powerful feelings of exception.  A shared sense of singular vulnerability and violation circulates virally, and the epidemiology of toxic intimacy with violence is simultaneously social and personal. The sheer quantity of casualties matters less than the bare fact of unexpected cruelty. Singularity and exception yield to righteous outrage, communal mobilization, and militant demand on surrounding authorities. Something must be done now. A famous few may issue bounties for individual culprits, with no regard for the collateral consequences of such grandstanding. A larger narrative quickly forms, condensing in precious keywords:  hate, hate crime, justice, ignorance, safety, policing, prosecution, inclusion, education, criminal.

“Asian” positionality in the dense fabric of U.S. racial, colonial, and antiblack violence is generally illegible as such, despite the long histories of genocidal and proto-genocidal U.S. militarization against multiple peoples of the Pacific: colonial occupations and ecological attacks against Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands (Camacho 2011; Kauanui 2018), the decade-long genocidal conquest of the Philippines (Rodríguez 2009), atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and protracted war against civilian populations in Vietnam, among numerous other cases. While devastating obliterations of Asian and Pacific Islander land/life/being are virtually taken-for-granted as part of the global dimensions of U.S. nation-building, they also seem to be narratively and politically isolated from Asian/American encounters with a militarized white supremacist domestic front. 

(Here i will use “Asian/American” to refer to people who identify as “Asian American” as well as those who are racialized as “Asian” and reside in the U.S., but do not identify as “American” and often navigate migrant, undocumented, non-citizen, refugee, and/or criminalized positions. I do not conflate “Asian/American” with Pacific Islander peoples.)

The current moment thus reflects an Asian/American scramble for legibility that runs the risk of reproducing simplistic, compartmentalized narratives and explanations for the alarming increase in gendered racist anti-Asian violence since early 2020.  Many Asian/American nonprofit community-based organizations, celebrities, (aspiring) elected officials, media pundits, cultural workers, progressive activists, and academics seem to be caught up in—and in some cases resisting—a wave of compulsory liberalism that frames anti-Asian violence within commonly legible narratives of exceptional victimization at the hands of individual perpetrators. Such framings have induced a stream of militant Asian/American demands for “justice” that call on the state to increase police surveillance, validate the specificity of Asian victimization (via “hate crime” statutes), and criminally punish individuals who are demonstrably responsible for reprehensible acts of interpersonal exploitation, brutality, suffering, and fatality.

Yet, this dependence on state recognition (Coulthard 2014) and police/criminal justice responsiveness reproduces the very relations of power that have created the conditions for accelerated anti-Asian violence in the first place.  On the one hand, this mis-defined call for justice seeks the state’s (and broader institutional) validation of Asian/American suffering by amplifying the protocols of legitimated antiblack, colonial, class, and gendered state violence—criminalization, policing, prosecution, incarceration, civil expulsion, state punishment.  On the other hand, the  presumption that the police, criminal justice, and electoral/legislative apparatuses are remotely capable of resolving and repairing the crisis of “anti-Asian hate” posits an “Asian exception” to the otherwise densely normalized forms of racial, colonial, and antiblack state violence that define the United States as a global and national project. 

What if anti-Asian violence is not reducible to hate, and is in fact a persistent, unexceptional presence in the long historical, Civilizational terror-making machine that is the United States? 

The Problem with “Hate”

The misframing of anti-Asian violence has significant consequences, perhaps largely unintended but no less harmful.  Not only does the exceptionalist/“hate” approach tend to funnel Asian/American activism, consciousness raising, and mobilization into militant calls for “better” and intensified police action, (hate crime) prosecutions, and surveillance, but its naming of such violence as a problem of hate reduces the complexity of anti-Asian violence to a compilation of incidents in which culpability can be affixed to specific individual acts.

The individualization of anti-Asian violence distorts its institutional, cultural, and systemic dimensions while ignoring its complex historical relation to chattel slavery, antiblackness (Vargas and Jung 2021) colonialism (within and beyond the U.S. proper), imperial war, heteronormativity, white supremacist patriarchy, and racial capitalism (Robinson 2000). Further, mobilizations that fixate on “stopping Asian/AAPI hate” encourage superficially performative “solutions” that seek to neutralize, educate, or otherwise fix (hate-inducing) ignorance, ideological/rhetorical extremism, and toxic anti-Asian feelings.  By way of contrast, a focus on the complexity of violence (rather than hate) gestures to the vibrant scholarly, artistic, activist analyses and counter-narratives that situate specific Asian/American people and communities in complex relation to gentrification, redlining, deportation, and the criminalization of sex work, gangs, informal economies, and undocumented status, among other forms of displacement, state violence, and systemic vulnerability.

Thankfully, organizations like Red Canary Song, AAPI Women Lead, Butterfly, and Asian Prisoner Support Committee are generating critical framings and activist narrations of anti-Asian violence that bring clarity to this historical moment.  Centering sex worker justice, radical feminist, Black solidarity, migrant/refugee focused, and anti-carceral approaches, these and other Asian/American collectives demonstrate a vigorous, shared commitment to study, discussion, and debate as primary scholarly activist practices.  Such work amplifies the insights and grassroots power of abolitionist approaches to justice (Kaba 2021) that have grown exponentially over the last twenty-five years and equip a more rigorously radical conceptualization of recent U.S. based anti-Asian violence. 

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Contrary to the Biden White House’s portrayal of anti-Asian violence as a horrible though momentary deviation from the normative racial script of the U.S. nation-state, an abolitionist analysis suggests altogether different premises for understanding the significance of such gendered racist atrocities as what took place on March 16, 2021 in Atlanta.  These and other “incidents” of anti-Asian violence must be aggressively, rigorously deprovincialized, de-isolated, and recontextualized as part of a dynamic, expanding condition of domestic white nationalist warfare (James 2007) that has accelerated since November 2016 but is in no way unique to the current period.

A Domestic Warfare Totality

Anti-Asian violence is the logical expression of a militarized, persistently war-waging white nationalist, domestic warfare totality (Rodríguez 2021) that increasingly solicits diverse, multiculturalist (“nonwhite”) participation.  Regardless of the racial identity of individual perpetrators, anti-Asian violence cannot be framed as a problem of individual animus or hate because the white nationalist totality is a) cold-blooded as fuck, and b) doesn’t give a shit about individuals in-and-of-themselves.

The primary, normalized (if generally undertheorized and misperceived) mode of this totality is best understood as asymmetrical domestic warfare:  the modus operandi of the warfare totality is to constantly (mis)identify targets, invasively occupy new and old sites, and accumulate more layers of atrocity.  For example, while specific incidents of “Black on Asian” violence have attracted significant attention across media platforms and political persuasions (and play especially well to the antiblack scripts of conservatives and far right wingers), such antagonisms are not reducible to either anti-Asian animus among Black people or virulent antiblackness among Asians.  The white nationalist totality, as a historical state of normalized, asymmetrical domestic war, encourages as it actively produces the material and ideological conditions of such violence. 

For these very reasons, the current historical moment is conducive to an abolitionist approach to anti-Asian violence that engages in collective practices of revolt, solidarity, creativity, and mutual aid that de-prioritize condemnation of individual perpetrators (Black, Brown, and otherwise) and cultivate infrastructures of accountability to other communities, organizations, and movements struggling for liberation from antiblackness, colonial domination, and asymmetrical domestic war.

What happens when anti-Asian violence is substantially, intentionally, and publicly narrated in continuity with (rather than in exception to, or in political competition with) white supremacist, antiblack, and settler colonial violences in their episodic, systemic, and long historical forms?  How do the events of January 6, 2021 (the seizure of the U.S. Capitol), May 25, 2020 (the police street murder of George Floyd), and March 13, 2020 (the police home invasion murder of Breonna Taylor) create the conditions of possibility—if not likelihood—for March 16, 2021?

Undertaking collective responses to these and similar questions can productively reshape and redirect Asian/American activisms in dialog with already existing movements for freedom, self-determination, and grassroots power.  A growing accountability to such movements has led some prominent Asian/American community organizations to develop platforms, strategies, and public statements that reflect abolitionist principles—such a shift shows the potential to dislodge stubborn ideological loyalties to dominant, narrow, and ultimately oppressive definitions of justice that rely on police power, criminalization, and the authority/prestige/endorsement of elected officials, celebrities, corporate/university/philanthropic foundation administrators, and social media influencers.

Five Working Principles

For now, i hope it will be helpful to offer some working principles for collective work across different pedagogical, organizational, artistic, scholarly, and other activist contexts.  Here, i am echoing the generous insights of people, movements, and communities cited throughout this piece, while also drawing from more than two decades of humble, privileged participation in multiple projects shaped by Black radical, anticolonial, abolitionist, and radical queer, feminist, and trans* frameworks: 

1. Framing anti-Asian violence through the language and cultural politics of “hate” and “stopping hate” is inadequate, misleading, and (unintentionally) trivializing.  Fixating on hate as the foundational, if not exclusive cause of such violence drastically underestimates the scope of life-or-death vulnerabilities experienced by specific Asian populations in the U.S. context.  

2. Seeking peace, respect, and justice through the criminal justice system, increased police capacity, and enforcement of hate crimes legislation expands and sustains anti-Asian violence rather than slowing, repairing, or ending it.  Anti-Asian violence is an expression of the white nationalist domestic warfare totality, not a momentary exception to it.

3. While anti-Asian violence partly manifests in individual acts, it is a dire mistake to individualize the conditions, causes, and cultural contexts of anti-Asian violence. In the context of normalized domestic war, interpersonal violence proliferates and creates casualties within and between the very communities that are unevenly targeted by state and state condoned violence.  Such casualties are not reducible to despicable individual acts. To the contrary, these acts are inseparable from conditions that actively foment interpersonal violence, including but not limited to systemic housing/health/food insecurity, asymmetrical (antiblack) policing and incarceration, the culture of gendered sexual violence, militarized white supremacy, and everyday experiences of economic precarity and institutional exclusion.

4. Diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalist approaches are not only inadequate to the task of addressing the roots of anti-Asian violence, but also tend to reproduce the cultural logics of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and patriotism that catalyze such violence in the first instance.  Such approaches often implicitly treat anti-Asian violence as a temporary crisis to be addressed through piecemeal institutional responses:  public statements, town halls, webinars, task forces, mental health triage, employee and student trainings, and mandated/recommended curricula (Asian/American texts, films, cultural events, etc.). The problem, however, is that anti-Asian violence may be caused, sanctioned, or otherwise reproduced by these institutions themselves. It is necessary to address whether and how specific institutions—whether university campuses, K-12 school systems, corporations, city councils, police departments, arts organizations, nonprofits/NGOs, religious establishments, etc.—contribute to the condition of domestic warfare (and thus anti-Asian violence) as a matter of their normative, everyday operation.

5. This is a crucial historical moment to create on-the-ground solidarities across neighborhoods, organizations, and communities that de-provincialize “Asian American/AAPI” spaces.  Mutual aid models provide an immediate and accessible way to undertake this difficult work, and collective study of specific present tense examples reveal the long histories of antiracist, Black liberation, and anticolonial movements in and beyond the United States.  Crucially, mutual aid creates the possibility for autonomous, accountable, self-determined approaches to addressing interpersonal as well as intra/inter-community antagonisms that frequently result in exploitive, opportunistic, and mutually destructive forms of violence. Intentional, well-planned proliferations of mutual aid projects drawing from the abolitionist, Indigenous anticolonial, migrant refugee, and Black feminist/queer/trans radical traditions can create sustainable infrastructures of solidarity that hold the capacity to reshape social landscapes and relations from the scales of the interpersonal to the regional.  This will be among the best strategies to slow and ultimately stop specific forms of depersonalizing anti-Asian violence.

6. A shared, dynamic embrace of scholarly activist study can enrich, transform, and creatively accelerate collective approaches to resisting and abolishing anti-Asian violence.  If we acknowledge that the condition is one of white nationalist domestic war, then it is imperative to conceive of—and operationalize—methods of movement, community, and sociality that attempt to do more than merely survive it.

For references please go to the original article: References