Uniting After United

Asian Americans should use this episode to bring our communities around to standing against injustice every time we see it

by John C. Yang

On April 9, 2017, a passenger on a United Express flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, was asked to disembark the plane in order to make room for United staff. When the passenger refused, security was called. Three uniformed officers yanked him out of his seat, banging his head on an armrest, and then dragged him by his arms off of the plane. The altercation was caught on camera and shared online by several passengers who witnessed the event. While United’s chief executive has now issued a formal apology, he first defended the crew’s conduct and evaded commenting on the violence employed in removing a paying passenger from an aircraft.

The responses across social media were immediate, expressing horror, dismay, frustration, and exhaustion with yet another case of unwarranted and excessive violence. Some have responded saying that they will no longer fly with United, and are encouraging others to do the same.

Although United cited its policy that passengers randomly selected based on an algorithm would be forced to leave if there were not enough volunteers, there has been speculation (on social media and apparently by David Dao, the passenger forcibly removed) that the airline might choose to eject people who they would expect to be less resistant, including women and Asian Americans.

While we can neither confirm nor contradict United’s assertion, it’s not hard to see why people would believe the choice might be explained partly by the man’s ethnicity, especially given the recent history of airlines using racial stereotypes and discriminating against South Asian and Muslim passengers. Since the presidential campaign introduced a steady stream of xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric into our airwaves, our country has seen an incline in the number of hate crimes and racially and ethnically-motivated harassment — including towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Seeing this trend, Asian Americans Advancing Justice launched a hate tracker site to understand better the climate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are living under an administration that has made a Muslim ban and a border wall among its first priorities. Since the launch of the site in January, we’ve seen reports from across the country: from California to New York, Florida to Maine, and many places in between. Asian Americans in every part of the nation know how it feels not to be considered American, and to be treated differently as a result.

Asians and Asian Americans might also be quick to believe stereotypes are at play when the media environment we live in tells Asian Americans that we are either these stereotypes, or we don’t exist. The repeated, aggravating examples of white-washing and race-bending that co-opt or erase our stories tell us that we can exist only in certain forms: a small, submissive female sidekick, a scary karate-chopping foreigner, or an asexual, unathletic man played for laughs. If the only media Asian Americans are represented in support the idea that all Asian Americans are docile and quiet and too respectful to rock the boat, maybe they would make a good “volunteer” to leave an aircraft they’ve already boarded.

Sure enough, Asians and Asian Americans are speaking out. Asian American leaders are also making sure to point out that while a member of our community suffered violence and indignity in this latest episode, other communities are the constant targets of similar violence and trauma, often with more serious consequences. The grim truth is that a Black man in the same circumstance likely would have suffered a worse fate. The media smearing of passenger David Dao is a process of dehumanizing a victim as a way to explain away police brutality, a tactic that is all too familiar to Black Americans. Fulfilling the traits of a “model minority” does not matter when it comes to systemic racism and victim-blaming.

Undoubtedly, there will be people who are incensed now who have not previously lent their voices in support of efforts to challenge police brutality, or to protect Black lives. For those members of our families and friend groups, this is a moment to learn, and to build empathy. The manhandling of this 69-year-old doctor who declined to vacate his seat can help our communities understand why we must stand up every single time any person is targeted and harmed by unfair systems.

The fact that the victim is Asian American and from a distinguished profession should only further prove to Asian Americans that we all have to be part of this broader coalition against hate, police brutality, and disparate treatment of communities of color and other marginalized communities. We must all come together and stand up against hatred that affects vulnerable communities — every time we see it.

John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.