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Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay, and who owns a tragedy
Jay explains why a predetermined focus on race fails to tell the whole story of gun violence
After every mass shooting that involves a marginalized group in America, there’s a sickening, unctuous moment of anticipation that starts when the first news pops up on phones and television sets and only ends when the shooter is fully identified. In the interim, as time passes without a description, the anxiety bulges into an almost animate being that lumbers towards one narrative or the other. The two possible stories are more or less folklore at this point, not just in their familiarity to the broader public, but also in how they do not change in the same way that the story of the Tortoise and the Hare does not change. If the shooter is white and has visited some unsavory websites, the shooting becomes an act of white supremacist violence. If the shooter is not white and comes from the same racial background as the victims, the shooting becomes yet another senseless tragedy.
Early Sunday morning, as news of the killing of eleven people at a dance hall in Monterey Park, California, began to circulate, the description of the shooter offered up by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department consisted of one word: “male.” Within this undefined space, the anxiety grew. I felt it, myself, and began to search around the Internet for any clues – social media posts, irresponsible news posts, anything – that might let the air out of the bag and let me settle into one path or the other. The news that this was, indeed, an “male Asian,” felt almost deflating. The feeling wasn’t quite as monstrous as relief, but more like resignation that this was not, in the parlance of law enforcement, a crime motivated by hate.
Had it been a hate crime, a familiar machinery would’ve kicked in and produced the sorts of responses that while arguably necessary, have also begun to feel a bit rote. We would’ve heard about the rise of anti-Asian hate, we would’ve read several pieces on the long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, we would’ve once again run through the phrases that accompany these moments: perpetual foreigner, model minority myth, and the increasingly strange and almost abstract “A.A.P.I.,” a relatively modern acronym that asks us to think of all immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands as one entity. These responses form a kind of scaffolding that allows well-wishers and the curious to process what, exactly, may have happened. But they also can have an obscuring effect because they insist that every hate-ish incident of violence receive roughly the same response, whether massage workers massacred in Atlanta or an elderly man in San Francisco who is attacked on the streets. When yet another tragedy takes place, we simply wheel the scaffolding from one spot to the next.
Even if the shooting in Monterey Park were motivated by “hate,” how would that change what’s already known about racial violence in America? There is no official ledger of racialized violence, no threshold of massacres that will prompt the public or the government or whomever to finally put an end to all this. The only palpable difference between the stories is that the hate version will generally last two or three more days in the attention cycle than the senseless story, in part, because hate, at the very least, provides fodder for outrage. Taking an almost actuarial approach to these murders; saying, in essence, “see, this proves what we’ve been saying all along,” requires not only the faith that there is a party out there who isn’t already fully convinced one way or the other on the question of racialized violence, but also a belief that this time it will be different and things will change. What in recent history would give people that hope?
But such cold, rational thought also has its limits. At some level, people are simply responding to their worst fears. If, for example, you cannot understand why a person would assume the worst when they read a headline about twenty people being shot in a very identifiably Asian American suburb of Los Angeles, I imagine that you have not spent much time as an Asian American over the past three years. And whether reasonable or not, mass shootings now double as referendums on how America views your people, and by extension, you. Has there been enough news coverage to show that people actually care? Is your timeline filling up with approximately the same number of posts expressing shock and horror as the last mass shooting? Or is the public – the same public who responded with condolences and limp, political posts about the need for gun control or whatever during the last mass shooting – blithely tweeting about the NFL playoffs or some silly media controversy? If so, does that mean that this slaughter just isn’t as worthy of feeble condolences as the last one? What does that say about the value of your and your family’s lives?
The question that remains is whether this monomaniacal focus on the race of the shooters, the ornateness of the scaffolding we move around from tragedy to tragedy, and the almost rehearsed grievances take public attention and appropriate national grieving away from the mass murders that do not fit the narrative. Does the deflation that’s felt when the words “male Asian” are announced create, however unwillingly, a hierarchy of violence in which the loss of life at the hands of a racist, white shooter is somehow more worthy of attention than what happened in Monterey Park? I do not believe that the vast majority of people who hold up this narrative scaffolding actually believe that one mass shooting is worth more than the other, nor do I believe that they stop grieving once they realize their advocacy might not be entirely relevant. Nobody is quite so cynical. But I also find it impossible to deny that the hierarchy, however intentionally built and maintained, does exist.
We all know, at this point, exactly what happens when our worst fears are confirmed. We can hear the scaffolding being wheeled out, we know its vocabulary, we know its grievances by heart, and we can see the line of people who want, in good faith, to explain why this has happened to the world. But what of the other path? What do we know about it at all? What resources have been marshaled towards it; what hashtag campaigns, celebrity drives, or non profit dollars have gone towards the other narrative? This doesn’t mean that path is empty – there are people within the community of Monterey Park and the outlying San Gabriel Valley who will change their lives to try to prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again, but their labor will be performed without much publicity, support, or immediacy. For the greater public, that other narrative is still a void.
Less than twenty-four hours after Monterey Park, another mass shooting took place on two separate farming sites around Half Moon Bay, Ca. This time, there was much less ambiguity about the shooter because there was video of the police pulling an elderly, Asian man out of a car and wrestling him to the ground. The coincidence – and I do think coincidence is the proper word – demanded some explanation. When asked by a Twitter user what was happening, the writer Jeff Yang replied, “I genuinely worry that the reason for this string of Asian male immigrant senior citizen mass shooters is ‘guns + WeChat.’” This explanation comes out of a growing body of scholarship that says Asian-Americans, particularly Chinese immigrants, have been targeted by “disinformation campaigns” on social media apps that push them towards right wing politics, and, apparently, mass murder.
Yang has since apologized for the glibness of his tweet, but the thinking behind it still highlights the limitations of the scaffolding and how, even in instances where it should not apply, it still finds its way into the public discourse. Rather than placing two mass murders within the context of a seemingly interminable gun violence epidemic, one that has touched nearly every community in this country, the racial/cultural explanation forces us back into some mangled, and frankly deeply offensive logic that there must be something dysfunctional about the people, themselves, that leads them to pick up a gun and start shooting indiscriminately. Or, at the very least, that these immigrants must be so weak of mind that they can’t tell what’s right from wrong on social media and then go out and act out the wrong in public. The simplicity and clumsiness of the “white supremacy” explanation has just been replaced with a variant that relies – ironically enough – on stereotypes of Asian immigrants as thoughtless, robotic foreigners who can be easily manipulated by a WeChat post. There are over one billion WeChat users in the world. The racial/cultural explanation would have us believe that it was responsible for two people – neither of who are even known to have used the app – going on murder rampages.
We can do better, but doing so requires a great deal of sensitivity. It is useless to ask Asian Americans to not assume the worst when they hear about a shooting in a place like Monterey Park. It is scoldy and counterproductive to police social media to make sure that nobody’s jumping to conclusions. But I do think there must be some separation between the very real and human anxiety one feels when they hear about their own being shot and killed — one I felt as well on Sunday morning — and the quick rush to lacquer everything in culture and race. We should, I believe, suppress the impulse that says that because this happened to people who are my people, the tragedy is mine to bear and explain in whatever way I see fit. Eleven dancers were killed in Monterey Park. Seven farm workers were killed in Half Moon Bay. In a country where such occurrences take place nearly every day, there is no need to make them exceptional or more worthy victims than anyone else, nor is there any cultural narrative we need to tell to humanize them beyond who they were in life. The never-ending bloodshed is enough.
Thanks for reading. We also discussed these dynamics on this week’s episode.