Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Trouble With the Alphabet Left
On racism that won't go away
A strange bit of racism came to the New York City Council last week. It made headlines only in New York—it was nothing like the scandal that engulfed Los Angeles—and was strange less in what was said than what it revealed. The words themselves, delivered by a volunteer for a progressive nonprofit, were banal enough if you’re schooled in the racism that percolates in the five boroughs. What was more notable was how little the politicians in the room cared and how the organization itself decided to condemn the remarks.
It began on Thursday, when the City Council was holding a hearing on a bill that would bar landlords from conducting criminal background checks on prospective tenants. The bill has floated around the legislature for a while and remains controversial. There’s a strong argument for the bill—ex-cons who served their time or anyone with a past conviction shouldn’t be forced into homelessness because landlords don’t want to rent to them. Housing should be a human right and New York isn’t a better city with people with felony convictions forced into shelters. Opponents of the bill, though, have a certain degree of emotional resonance on their side. Many tenants don’t want to live across the hall from people who cycled through prisons or jails. Landlords don’t want to struggle with potential complaints from neighbors. They crave reliability, a person who has never come into contact with the criminal justice system. Given the reality of the racism that pervades the courts, any law that permits criminal background checks will probably punish working-class people of color more than whites.
But Douglas Powell, the volunteer with the progressive advocacy group VOCAL-NY, did not make these arguments. Powell, a former felon himself, chose instead to target the Asian American activists who had previously testified against the bill. “This is not about felonies—it’s about race, it’s about Black people,” Powell said, referring to the prior testimony as “garbage.” “Did you see the Asian people just been talking?”
“I live in Rego Park now. That’s the most racist neighborhood I’ve ever been in, and it’s nothing but Asians in there,” Powell continued, referring to a neighborhood in Queens. “If you go into a store, they will follow you around like you’re getting ready to steal something. They don’t want Black people living in Black people neighborhoods. Because it’s not their neighborhood, because they’re from China, they’re from Hong Kong. We from New York.”
Powell’s remarks didn’t elicit any visible responses from the City Council members present. He was not condemned, censured, or reprimanded in any fashion. The city council member chairing the hearing, Nantasha Williams of Queens, did not rebuke Powell. Backlash only came later in the day when Powell’s remarks were posted to Twitter. Politicians, in prepared statements, began to belatedly condemn Powell’s words. It’s not their neighborhood is the tried-and-true big city racism heard across generations, from ethnic whites fleeing outer borough Brooklyn and Queens and later among various racial groups who lay claim to a particular place. Powell’s implication is clear enough: immigrants can’t be New Yorkers because they weren’t born here. He’d fit well with any generation of nativist, going back to the anti-Catholic zealots railing against the Irish in the mid-19th century or the anti-Semites furious that the Lower East Side and the Bronx was turning Jewish.
Penning a belated statement condemning Powell’s remarks is easy enough. Anti-Asian racism and hate speech is wrong and will not be tolerated, etc. But Williams, VOCAL-NY, and even the City Council speaker, Adrienne Adams, couldn’t quite do this. They had to work their rebukes through the language of the Alphabet Left, conforming to a blend of jargon born in academia and now popular among the left-leaning and the affluent, prized most in elite political spaces. It is a language that, in seeking to eradicate hierarchies, erects new ones, placing certain racial groups on top and others somewhere else. In 2020, at the height of the racial reckoning in the media, academia, and corporate America, this could not be said out loud, but now can be explored with some detachment two years on, the customs still lingering.
“In response to today’s hearing, the harmful language used is unacceptable and not representative of the values & mission of our organization. Prejudice is insidious and is a byproduct of structural racism and trauma that communities of color experience,” VOCAL-NY said in a statement. “As an organization, we are committed to & depend upon cross-cultural solidarity. We acknowledge the personal and collective education practices it takes to build and achieve that, and we apologize for the harm that today’s language has caused our siblings of Asian descent.”
“The hearing in question gave space to anti-Black language that is also a part of this story. We believe accountability must include owning faults and learning from them, and VOCAL-NY is committed to reflecting on—and unlearning—the prejudices that hold us all back.”
The first, second, and third sentences do not mention specifically that a volunteer for their organization—wearing their shirt at a hearing—stereotyped Asian Americans and viciously railed against them. Instead, VOCAL-NY defaults to the kind of throat-clearing popular among elites, not taking the suffering of working-class Asian Americans seriously. The hierarchy is laid bare. Powell himself can’t be responsible for his remarks. Structural racism and trauma are to blame for his apparent hatred of Asian Americans. Perhaps. But how exactly would education proceed under such a rubric? If Powell is not responsible at all, how can he be instructed on better behavior in the future? Rather, he can continue to proclaim Asians are not truly New Yorkers because he is a victim of systemic racism; since the systems will never crumble, what incentive does Powell have to repent at all? Any Asian who has been the victim of hate speech can read this statement from VOCAL-NY and conclude the racism they endure does not truly matter. It is not worth the first or second sentence. It is to be equivocated over. All lives matter was the rebuke deemed racist to Black Lives Matter, but it’s VOCAL-NY performing the same trick, invoking the prejudices that “hold us all back” and referring specifically to “anti-Black language” in a statement that is supposed to be, in theory, about a representative of their own organization spewing racist language aimed directly at Asians.
Williams, the City Council member, released a similarly circuitous statement. “In reference to yesterdays [sic] hearing on fair chance for housing: Racism and discrimination hurt us all in different ways and responding to them with similar rhetoric is never the solution,” she tweeted a day later. “As a Black woman, a member of one of the most hated and disrespected demographics on the planet, I know personally how deeply hurtful language can be to our progress as a people and one’s personal safety. The prejudice against both Asian communities, Black communities, and justice-involved folks is a product of systematic racism that we must stand against … Our liberation is rooted in each other’s freedoms, that is why I denounce any hateful comments directed towards any community.”
Herein lies one frustrating paradox of the identity-first movement of the last few years, what is so often described as—or dismissed as—the “woke” turn in politics. Race is to be endlessly dissected, but not when it impacts groups who are, for a variety of reasons, less fashionable in progressive spaces. Had an Asian American volunteer for a nonprofit come to City Hall to denounce Black New Yorkers, using language that is unequivocally racist, politicians and liberal NGOs would not be releasing long-winded statements centering anti-Asian hatred and bemoaning, on a grand scale, systemic injustices. They would be, without question—as they should be—homing in on anti-Black racism. VOCAL-NY said it would not cut ties with Powell, declaring that “we do not throw people away or cancel them because of their mistakes—we work with everyone so we can create a future that works for all of us.” This is, overall, a healthy approach. But would VOCAL-NY say the same if a volunteer delivered an anti-Black tirade at City Hall? If the volunteer said Black New Yorkers weren’t truly from here? It is hard to imagine such a person surviving in the organization or anywhere else.
There’s been, in recent weeks, a renewed focus on why so many Asian American New Yorkers, once reliable Democrats, are now voting for Republicans. Many explanations abound, from the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes to the past insistence from some Democrats that standardized tests for specialized public high schools should disappear. If there is an overriding theme to the growing Asian discontent with the Democratic Party, it’s that left-leaning Democrats simply don’t value the fastest growing demographic in New York City in the way they probably should. There are the political issues, of course, but there is the greater feeling of disrespect, of being disregarded as life grows precarious. Imagine a first or second-generation Asian American watching Powell’s testimony and the lack of reaction from Democrats who purport to fight for the oppressed and marginalized. Imagine being told, once the statements roll in, that your pain is secondary or tertiary. Your individual experience simply doesn’t matter in the same way. Once the days pass and you consider how you’ll participate in future local elections, why would you vote for any Democrats at all? Why bother when their politicians and institutions treat you this way? The Republicans are often snake-oil salesman and their politics, by default, favor the inordinately wealthy, but they’ve managed to speak with clarity to the unease and fear in the Asian community. That will count going forward.