Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Media's Sensationalization of Voicing Asian Injustice as a Threat of a "Fifth Column"

The incident involving police brutality against Dr David Dao, an Vietnamese-American passenger in the United Airlines flight in Chicago has sparked widespread outrage among the general public in the US.  The Asian-American community has especially been up in arms about the fact that the passenger in question may have been selected and roughed off because he is of Asian descent. Media outlets both in the US and across the world has been quick to cover the story, with several videos emerging out of the incident to evidence the level of what is perceived as unnecessary force by the police throughout the incident.

The author, for one, would like to start by giving the benefit of doubt to United Airlines.  The incident involved several passengers who were removed at random from the flight.  Current story shows that the first three who were asked to leave the flight were not Asian and did leave in peace without further hassle.  This very fact serve to illustrate that the idea of "Asian bias" in the incident is unfounded, and that the forceful removal may indeed have been related to Dr Dao may have indeed been, as many media articles suggest, due to persistent lack of cooperation from Dr Dao.

Of course, given the incident is as result of random selection of passengers, violence could have been avoided simply by selecting another passenger who is more cooperative.  In that sense, the Asian American community's particularly strong sense of anger is highly justifiable.  They may easily feel that such force and lack of flexibility were used because the passenger was Asian, and the same would not have been possible had the passenger been black and Latino.  This case, in this sense, illustrate the same level of American indifference toward Asian injustice as the case of Chinese-American police officer Peter Liang a while back.

The author, of course, is angered by the incident just as many in the Asian-American community, but for a slightly different reason.  His anger stems more from the coverage of the incident by the mainstream media.  Media outlets did cover the incident in detail, presenting concrete visual evidence to the level of brutality used, thereby drawing public sympathy toward the victim and outrage toward United, up to the CEO, for the sheer lack of concern for passengers.  The aftermath of the public relations disaster, in the form of United stocks losing value as well as reactions on social media and by other airlines, is well-noted.

However, the fact that the victim in question is of Asian descent is covered by mainstream media only in the context of netizens and potential customers of United in China.  Reputed outlets such as the New York Times and Bloomberg, insofar as the ethnicity of Dr Dao is concerned, only focused on reaction on Chinese social media, noting that from a business perspective, United may lose big as China is a big market for the airlines.  There was implied ridicule of Chinese netizens' blind nationalism given that Dr Dao is not even a Chinese national, and next to nothing was said about how Asian-Americans reacted to the incident.

This is classic piece of journalistic sensationalism for the general, non-Asian, public.  By making explicit connection between beating of Asian-American passenger with nationalistic reaction to it in China, these media outlets are putting a political undertone to the incident when there should not be any to begin with.  They are suggesting that for Asians to be angry based on the fact the victim is Asian is based purely on ignorance, one that can be manipulated by an irrational group of foreigners for political and economic leverage.  In other words, for Asians to be angry because of the victim's ethnicity is unpatriotic as Americans.

Indeed, such sensationalization attacks the Asian-American community where it hurts the most: the lack of a distinct Asian-American identity.  Unlike the black and Latino communities, the Asian community in America (and many other non-Asian-majority countries) have been largely unsuccessful in forging an identity that is separate from that of their ancestral homelands.  When non-Asians speak of "Asian culture" to their Asian-American acquaintances, they largely do not bother (and honestly, have no ability to) distinguish traits that are unique to the Asians growing up outside of Asia and those that are inherently carried over from Asia itself.

Thus, for most non-Asians read stories of how the Chinese Internet exploded in anger after Dr Dao was assaulted in Chicago, they see very little dissonance in the connection.  For them, all they see is that an Asian was wronged, so a bunch of Asians are angry.  It makes rational sense.  But for the Asian-American community, this connection presents a potentially painful dilemma.  If they are perceived to be agreeing with a bunch of "irrationally nationalistic" Chinese netizens, they may face scrutiny, as a community, of potentially acting as a "fifth column" for a potentially hostile foreign power.

In essence, the media's focus on how China reacted to the incident force Asian-Americans to choose between standing up to their ethnicity or standing together with the country.  And as far as mainstream media in the US is concerned, the choice has already been made for them: to show themselves as patriotic Americans, they ought to downplay the fact that Dr Dao is Asian and show their anger exclusively to the fact that the brutality happened.  They want Asian-Americans to take note that Dr Dao just happen to be Asian and the brutality can happen to people of any race equally.

This is a verdict that the author cannot agree with.  By portraying injustices suffered by Asian-Americans as something that essentially foreign in nature, mainstream media helps to entrench the non-Asian general public's insensitivity toward to the uniqueness of Asian injustice in America that is cannot simply by lumped together with other injustices suffered by all persons of color.  Any by throwing a political issue as sensitive as Sino-American relations into the mix, the media is basically telling Asian-Americans to show their patriotism by keeping their mouths shut about the victim's ethnicity.  Such mentality is no different from that landed the entire Japanese-American population in internment camps leading up to WWII.

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