Asian cop’s conviction seen as selective justice
By Clara Wang
Last updated 1:38 p.m. ET, March 4, 2016
After New York City police officer Peter Liang was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the November 2014 fatal shooting of a black, unarmed man in a housing project, thousands of Asians gathered near the Brooklyn courthouse on Feb. 20 to show support for Liang.
It wasn’t because the verdict was unjust. They were angry because so many white police officers involved in fatal shootings before him were let off. Liang, who is Chinese-American, is the first New York City officer in more than a decade convicted in a line-of-duty fatal shooting.
Racially motivated injustice is at play here. With several high-profile cases of cops killing civilians, the message was clear to managers of majority white police departments: Somebody has to take the heat. The next person who slips up must go. Who will take the loss without a fight? Asians, or those of Asian descent, are often seen as easily cowed and least likely to make a visible protest. Let’s leave an Asian out to the wolves.
To minorities, white employees appear to have an advantage in the workplace — an impression that grows even stronger in jobs where a good old boys’ network plays a huge role in how quickly people advance. It’s no secret that folks who become cops or firefighters can look to legacy connections to enter the field. That tradition of service can sometimes span multiple generations and be seen among siblings, cousins and childhood friends. On police forces in flashpoint cities throughout the country, Asians are the least represented minority. Asians made up only 5.5% of New York City’s police force in 2013, according to data from Governing magazine. Yet they are 13% of the city’s population.
Even in Silicon Valley, where Asian-American success is singled out among minority groups, Asians are under-represented in management, according to a 2015 study “Hidden in Plain Sight: Asian American Leaders in Silicon Valley.” In the analysis of employee data from Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo, white men and women are 154% more likely to be executives than Asians.
Bearing this data in mind, it’s understandable some Asians were frustrated with Liang’s conviction. Yes, it is a step in the right direction that a police officer got indicted for the shooting of an unarmed man. Liang was irresponsible as a cop, and his negligence cost a man his life. Yet, he was obviously singled out for his conviction. The fact that white officers get away with similar crimes exemplifies how racism is at play even in trying to correct a systemic wrong.
Liang is facing up to 15 years in prison, and rightfully so. He had fired his gun in a stairwell, and the bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit Akai Gurley. Liang, a rookie officer, said he had not been adequately trained in CPR at the police academy, and panicked and argued with his partner about calling for help. For a police officer in a tense situation — especially in New York City — there is no room for panic. His misconduct in firing a gun where people are living and failing to take appropriate action after realizing somebody had been shot, cannot be overlooked.
However, just months before the Liang incident, officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by choking him. Pantaleo got no prison time and was put on desk duty. In 2004, officer Richard S. Neri Jr. accidentally shot and killed an unarmed black man on the rooftop of a housing project under similar circumstances as Liang. A grand jury decided not to indict Neri. The officer was suspended for 30 days but continued to be employed by the NYPD. The victim’s family ended up being paid $2 million.
The Asian-American activists who are protesting Liang’s conviction include first-generation immigrants used to experiencing this brand of office politics. They are people like Liang’s mother, like my mother, who see in Liang the faces of their own children who grew up here. What if their child makes the same type of mistake that white kids get away with, but the hammer comes down on them? Both black and white activists misconstrue Asian activists as protesting Liang’s conviction. What they are really protesting is the fact that so many white cops before Liang got away with the same crime scot-free.
These protests won’t do much to bring previously unconvicted officers to justice. The point is not to have Liang acquitted. The frustration lies with an expectation of our silence on the lack of accountability for white police officers. However, at least the Asian-American community is choosing to have a conversation about race and police brutality. Now people know we’re not just the silent minority.
Clara Wang is a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.