Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2021
We write to express our sadness at the death of eight human beings, six of whom were Asian American women, in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. We pronounce their names:
We also write to extend our condolences to the victims’ families and communities and to all those who feel kinship with them.
The loss of any life necessarily incites sadness and compassion, both for those whose lives were lost and for their family and community members who remain. The murder of multiple people in multiple locations from a single racial, gender, and occupational category and in this case arising also from a single perpetrator and a single incident, additionally incites anger, fear, and confusion—perhaps especially among social scientists—about why. One of the American Evaluation Association’s Guiding Principles is to contribute to the common good and advancement of an equitable and just society, and incidents such as this tragedy call us to live those principles with greater fortitude. We hope it further incites individual and field-wide action to strengthen our ongoing efforts to educate ourselves about the larger context underlying the murder—including evaluation’s role within that context—and to subsequently approach our work in ways that may decrease or prevent the future unnecessary and unjust loss of life. AEA board and staff aim for this message to remind us all that we can and should contribute to those efforts and to help us do so.
AEA and evaluation more generally have increasingly called for greater diversity, cultural competence, and inclusion in evaluation. Beyond reporting on disparities and disproportionalities, however, we have as a field omitted in-depth understanding of systemic oppression and racialized poverty, violence, and disease in our degree-granting curricula, professional development opportunities, conference presentations, and journal articles. As a result, many of us are unaware of the origin stories underlying the disproportionalities and disparities that we regularly report on by race and ethnicity, and the racial and ethnic categories themselves. Those of us who are unaware find ourselves surprised by this murder and other results of patterns whose outcomes were predictable and in fact predicted. It is our duty to call upon our friends, colleagues, and others to reject a tendency to stay on the surface of issues that matter—to deepen what we know and how we know it. Read more to do so.
To take direct action:
The specific nature of the Atlanta murders is the most recent in a litany of attacks against Asian Americans not only during COVID-19—during which time they have increased by 150 percent, disproportionately against women—but rather for generations. While the value of classifying racially motivated crimes as hate crimes is contested, because of its potential to strengthen the carceral state (in which communities—particularly racially otherized communities—live under constant surveillance and punitive control), crimes against Asian Americans are less likely to be categorized as hate crimes than similar crimes against Black and Latine victims, even when the perpetrator explicitly invokes their race. This tendency arises from the simultaneous erasure and hypervisibility of Asian Americans as white-adjacent—but never white—when politically expedient, and as foreign when politically expedient.
As with disparities and disproportionalities in rates and types of violence against African, Latine, and indigenous diasporic communities, violence against Asian diasporic communities arises from racially and ethnically particularized narratives. The narrative of Asian Americans is the myth of the Model Minority—constructed in deliberate and explicit contrast to African Americans to do both groups and all those fighting for structural change a disservice by denying the existence of structural racism and promoting competition among otherwise unitable groups. This is an extension of the narrative of the perpetually foreign Asian, with “strange” names, clothes, foods, and spiritual traditions. No matter how many generations in the USA, and regardless of citizenship or documentation status, Asian Americans are perceived as alien threats to national security in ways that have always linked sexuality, disease, the economy, and war. This explains not only recent rhetoric about the China Flu but also Islamophobia and the related characterization of South/ Central/ West Asians and North Africans as terrorists, suspicion of Wen Ho Lee, murder of Vincent Chin, incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and Chinese Exclusion Act, for starters. While this narrative is distinct from that of African Americans and indigenous peoples, it is deeply intertwined with both and all three co-constitute each other.
Race and ethnicity are gendered, sexualized, classed, and ableized. As with violence against African American and indigenous women—particularly those engaged in gendered, sexualized service labor, even if not necessarily sex work—the Atlanta shooting and media coverage of it also arise from racially and ethnically particularized narratives of gender, sexuality, and class. The interlocking systems of white supremacy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and class oppression—inflected by histories of US imperialism and militarism in Asia and the Pacific—impinge on Asian and Asian American women’s bodies in ways that reflect, rationalize, and reinforce narratives of submissiveness and exoticism.
Like the racialized categories of African American and Native American (and unlike the condition of indigeneity, which can be to any continent and varies phenotypically), the racialized category of Asian American is artificial, because race is artificial. It is a political alliance (at its best) of multiple phenotypes, nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, languages, spiritual traditions, socio-economic classes, gender identities, and ability statuses—formed over time in response to overlapping but not identical experiences of oppression.
In fact, among racially otherized groups, Asian America encompasses the widest range of income and wealth levels. However, the experience of all Asian Americans on what is now US soil is shaped by exclusionary immigration, trade, and labor policies that are justified by Orientalist ideas about “the East” (relative to Europe, of course) as an alien threat deserving military aggression abroad and more tightly controlled, rationed immigration—including deportation—domestically. All African Americans’ experience on this continent is similarly shaped by US policies to enslave African labor, which it justifies with ideas about blackness as property. The experience of all those indigenous to this continent is similarlly shaped by US (and Spanish and French) policies of genocide, which it justifies with ideas about the noble savage. Imperial war, enslaved labor, and extracted land built US wealth, the distribution of which is now sharply racialized for a reason. Together, exclusionary immigration policies, mass incarceration, and ongoing genocide continue to artificially produce a white voting majority.
Violence against differently racialized women—whether state-sponsored or state-sanctioned—also varies by narrative but consistently serves the interests of racial capitalism: The hyper-sexualization of Asian women justifies military aggression in Asia as “white men saving brown women,” whereas the hyper-sexualization of enslaved African women reproduces slave-owners’ wealth under the one-drop rule and the hyper-sexualization of indigenous women furthers genocide under rules about blood quantum. Because race is an artificial construct, its rules operate differently with different groups but always uphold white supremacy: Lighter skin may mean more privilege for many groups but it means erasure and disappearance for others.
The boundaries are blurry. In some situations, African immigrants and refugees share more experiences with Asian (recall the attacks during the Ebola epidemic) and Latine immigrants and refugees; in others, they share more with African Americans (recall the police killing of Amadou Diallo, among others). Africans and Latines also experience imperial aggression. Latines, like Jews, may be of any phenotype and racial category including white—although both identities are racialized. Latine identity formation—distinct from the Hispanic demographic category produced from the perspective of marketing—is similarly coalitional in that all Latines’ experience is shaped by colonization by the Iberian Peninsula. Because Latine is an ethnicity that can inflect all racial categories, the logic used to justify Latine oppression includes exploited labor, extracted land, and military aggression.
Like Asian Americans, Latine vary in their political dispositions in ways that are linked to their countries of origin—which may include what is now called the USA—their associated experience with communism and capitalism, and their generation and circumstances of migration. This complexity varies in ways captured by the notions of border-crossing and mestizo (literally “mixed”), which Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa famously reclaimed in the 1980s to encompass their embodiment of multiple, overlapping, interlocking, and sometimes conflicting identities as simultaneously colonizer and colonized, male and female, “first world” and “third world.” Moraga and Anzaldúa used these metaphors to bring differently racialized women together and describe the nearly universal experience of having necessarily internalized one’s oppressors, literally and figuratively, into one’s body. Their work remains helpful when we think about building intersectional solidarity.
This intersectional understanding of race—not just between race and other dimensions of difference but also within it—offers an alternative to the binary, hierarchical understanding of race (and gender, sexuality, etc.). It calls attention to structural forces shaping lateral relations under white supremacy. While specific migration and labor histories vary, many Asian Americans have also experienced displacement, exploitation, and forced assimilation through imperial wars and subsequent transnational adoption. As such, the middle-class, suburban upbringing of a transnational adoptee, for example, may look like advantage if the psychic and spiritual traumas of commodification, displacement, and unknown history—traumas unfortunately common across racially and ethnically otherized groups—go unacknowledged. Acknowledging shared traumas does not negate the need for reparations specific to African Americans and peoples indigenous to this continent. It simply puts the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Manifest Destiny in the worldwide context of the Doctrine of Discovery.
Similarly, defining “proximity” and “adjacency” to whiteness in racial and ethnic terms rather than in situationally and materially specific terms reifies race and ethnicity, resulting in data about Asian American communities not being collected or disaggregated. Asian Americans are erroneously assumed to be doing fine—“even better than whites”—and the narrative is self-perpetuating. The assumption rests on an understanding of oppression that is limited to absolute values of income and wealth—as opposed to economic relations of exploitation—at the expense of other mechanisms of oppression. In that sense, it is similar to the failure to recognize anti-Semitic and homophobic/ cis-heteronormative violence and cultural imperialism perpetrated against Jews and gay men. Furthermore, it rests on a failure to account for educational level, number of earners within a family, number of family members in a household, and choice in migration—masking wide economic disparities and disproportionalities between Asian Americans and whites. This is especially important because the 1965 change in immigration laws, which opened US borders to Asian migration and naturalization after nearly a century of exclusion, required that they have professional degrees in math or science and preferred that they be two-parent households. Finally, it serves as a ploy to deny the need for structural change.
Because Asian Americans’ status is simultaneously perpetually foreign and “white adjacent,” its perspective as a community is omitted even from efforts focused on people of color in evaluation. Violence against Asian Americans is not considered racial. Asian Americans are often told not to take up space, even when they are the victims of violence or discrimination. And in an attempt to belong, including among communities of color, many Asian Americans respond by not drawing attention to themselves. As a result, the erroneous narrative that Asian Americans do not experience racialized oppression self-perpetuates. And that’s why we need to explain the attacks on Asian American women in Atlanta as part of a much longer history and global context of white supremacy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and military aggression as opposed to anything random or particularly shocking.
As much as members of racially otherized groups have inevitably internalized racially particularized narratives about each other and continue to participate in each other’s oppression under white supremacy, they also have ongoing histories of forging intersectional solidarity and waging collective campaigns against racially stratified structures. Despite being labeled as complicit, Asian Americans have an ongoing tradition of organizing against unjust policies and conditions and of doing so in solidarity with differently otherized communities, Similarly, the Black Radical Tradition has always connected U.S. militarism abroad with U.S. racism at home, most famously encapsulated in Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to fight in Viet Nam. These histories of Asian American agency against white supremacy and multiracial solidarity are erased to reinforce racially particularized narratives and foment competition for resources that are painted as scarce.
This intersectional analysis of race and ethnicity is often but not universally further inflected by internal systems such as colorism. It is specific to the USA and not necessarily applicable to other settler colonies like Canada or South Africa. Nor is it necessarily applicable to other systems of oppression, such as caste, and other inter-group violence, such as tribalism—both of which predate but are exacerbated by imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. Unless we work intersectionally to break all three pillars, we will never topple white supremacy.
Action to advance a more equitable and just society
Race—like gender, class, sexuality, and ability status (and the word status is important)—is an inherently structural concept. Racially particularized narratives were created to justify relations of dominance. They hinge on distortions of culture. Despite disparities and disproportionalities being racial rather than cultural, evaluation’s prevailing discourses focus on cultural difference. This focus on culture is distinct from groups who experience cultural imperialism reclaiming cultural continuity and indigenous knowledge in the interest of self-determination. While racialized, it obscures structural forces. It risks feeding the comparison of culture among and between racially otherized groups and whites. It reinforces the normativity of whiteness by failing to name or question the culture of US systems, including evaluation. And it subsequently hinders structural change based on intersectional solidarity.
The failure of recorded data to reflect experiences and the self-perpetuation of cycles based on the type of data that feed back into a system are evaluation problems. Transformative justice says that to account for evaluation’s contribution to the present situation, in which whiteness is constructed as the American norm—the extreme manifestation of which is white nationalism—we take action to save lives that may otherwise be lost. From a place of urgency and hope, AEA board and staff offer three ways that we can play that role, collectively as a field and as individual evaluators and human beings:
This statement will likely, and rightly, be compared with others and with AEA’s previous statements—particularly that which condemned the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 and that which was written after the mass murder of mostly Latine victims in El Paso in 2019 (during which the killer invoked a “Hispanic invasion”). AEA, like many of its members, has worked to increase its racial literacy. And, like many of its members, it is on a continuous journey. In the spirit of our action items, we welcome active engagement on the ideas presented in this statement through meaningful exchanges in our AEA365 blog series, conference presentations, and journal publications.
Written by Dr. Vidhya Shanker, Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Working Group on behalf of the Board of Directors with contributions from board members Wanda Casillas, Guili Zhang, Xiaoxia Newton, Libby Smith and Veronica Olazabal.
Suggested citation: Shanker, V. (2021). Statement from the AEA Board of Directors Regarding Racism and Inequality in our Society. American Evaluation Association. Available at https://www.eval.org/Full-Article/statement-from-the-aea-board-of-directors-regarding-racism-and-inequality-in-our-society.