by Garrett Dee
Photo Credit: Screenshot
UNITED AIRLINES probably did not anticipate that its decision to forcibly remove Vietnamese American doctor David Dao from its overbooked flight on Monday in Chicago would ignite an international controversy on the subject of American racism and corporate privilege. The news story and the viral video which accompanied it showing Dao being violently ripped from his seat and dragged down the aisle bleeding profusely have struck a deep nerve with many viewers both inside and outside of a nation already deeply splintered among racial and ethnic lines. That the story has exploded so wildly on the global internet and prompted such a fierce reaction before even the man’s name or ethnicity had been released is a fact worth reflecting on, and reveals a growing trend in the global perception of American society.
Media outlets have been quick to point out that United could have avoided this incident had viable alternatives been pursued in lieu of the unjustifiable use of excessive violence, not the least of which is the idea that airline could have continued to raise the ante of its proposed compensation to a customer willing to give up their seat voluntarily, even if this compensation far exceeded the price of the original ticket. Though the airline might have lost money on one ticket, economic probability dictates that at some point they would have found a customer for whom the compensation they were offering exceeded the opportunity cost of missing that particular flight, which it did not for the particular doctor in question. In this way it could have resolved the dilemma peacefully by allowing its employees to board the flight while in reality probably not losing any significant amount of profit. The fact that United remained so steadfastly unapologetic about the assault until well after the incident adds an even more unsettling aspect to the company’s behavior.
Airlines routinely overbook their flights in order to hedge against the possibility of passengers not arriving and therefore flying with empty seats, a practice that in and of itself is subject to criticism. Though some point out that United is within its legal boundaries to request police to remove a passenger in case of that passenger’s unwillingness to disembark from the plane, questions remain as to why exactly a corporation has the right to the access of state violence against a paying customer when no crime has been committed. As the man in question had not committed a crime by refusing to give up his seat, the use of such excessive force merely as a way to ensure the company’s profits calls into question the ethics of airlines’ standard operating procedures and the need for reforming the regulations governing these companies’ privileges. The Chicago Department of Aviation has released a statement stating it does not condone the actions of the officers involved, who have been placed on leave, further complicating the legality of United’s decision.
Social media users have also compared this incident with several other high-profile incidents of violence against Asian-Americans both recently and in the past, including those also directed elderly members of the community both by police officers and civilians. There has been gathering momentum within the United States in recent years for society to address anti-Asian acts that often receive almost no attention within the mainstream media. For decades the Asian-American community has been beset by the harmful “model minority” myth, a belief which often supposes that people of Asian descent fit seamless into US society and glosses over many of the challenges they face in a predominantly white-dominated country. This myth perpetuates a host of damaging stereotypes about Americans of Asian descent, not the least amongst them the erroneous idea that Asian-Americans are docile and obedient members of society that do not experience the same kind of violence or persecution as do other groups of people of color.
In fact, however, there have been several recent notable instances of harassment of Asian-Americans recently which dispel this notion. The removal of the name tags of students of Asian descent in a Columbia University dormitory by an unknown vandal and the denial of a woman of Asian descent to rent an Airbnb explicitly based on her race because of the renters’ support for Donald Trump’, a decision which left the woman and her companions stranded in a snowstorm, were two high profile cases recently highlighting the discrimination Asian-Americans face within the US. Notably, initial reports on the United incident by Taiwanese media was quick to link that event with the discrimination faced by the Airbnb customer, as well as speculating whether this man would have received similar treatment had he not been of Asian descent, indicating a pre-existing awareness of this narrative both within Taiwan and Asia at large.
Additionally, the notion that the type of violence which was on display upon the United flight is not directed against Asian-Americans is inaccurate. Though violence against people of Asian descent can be traced as far back as the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act of the nineteenth century, more modern day examples such as the murder of naturalized Chinese-American Vincent Chin in 1982 at the hands of a white factory supervisor angry at the lost of jobs to Japanese auto manufacturers link the United incident with the violent xenophobia direct against persons of Asian descent in the US. Violence against Asian-Americans, and in particular an ugly strain of violence direct against elderly members of the community, has also seen a resurgence over the past year. The security guard slaying of an unarmed elderly Asian-American man who was sitting in his own vehicle playing Pokemon Go in Virginia or the seemingly random street assault of an elderly Asian-American woman by an unidentified young white female shouting “white power” on the streets of LA’s Koreatown had been precursors to the event which occurred on the United flight, although neither of them received the same amount of media attention. It should be noted that this kind of violence does not only occur to member of the East Asia community, as evidenced by the killing of the Sikh man in Washington state by a man yelling “go back to your country”.
The ripple effect of this event went far enough to create a petition sent to the White House website asking for a federal investigation into United’s actions, a petition which garnered over 27,000 signatures and generated the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter. The wording of this petition is seemingly meant to mirror the Black Lives Matter movement which has gained momentum in the United States to bring attention to the prevalence of institutionalized racism in all aspects of US society and the crisis of police violence perpetrated against Black individuals. This in and of itself has fallen under criticism by some prominent Asian-American activists, however, as some point to the lack of a display of similar solidarity with the Black community on the part of Asian-Americans. Furthermore, the wording of the petition only specifically refers to Chinese lives, not Asian lives in general, reflecting the erroneous belief that Dao was ethnically Chinese. Additionally, it should be remarked that the petition was in fact created by a Chinese national living in the UK. However, the presence of such a petition seems to indicate that for many, the United incident could be seen as a tipping point bringing the already hard-fought struggle for Asian-American social justice to a larger audience.
The incident has additional implications far beyond United States, and its propagation overseas speaks volumes to the current perception of US race relations internationally. Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging site often compared to Twitter, picked up the story shortly after it occurred, generating a fiercely negative reaction from many Chinese web users. Accusations of anti-Asian racism spread quickly amongst Chinese web users, with suggesting that the man had been purposefully singled out for debarkation specifically because of his race and that passengers of other ethnicities would not have been treated in such a manner. Within hours, the story had circulated throughout the Chinese internet along with calls for Chinese citizens to boycott United. Notably, these sentiments began to pop up on the Chinese internet before the man’s ethnicity was declared, with many believing or perhaps assuming that Dao was of Chinese descent before the media eventually correctly identified Dao as Vietnamese-American.
United recently celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of its first flights to China and had been hoping to expand its operation within the country to capture more of the Chinese consumer market. However, the perception of this incident within China has already cut deep into United’s pockets, having already incurred over a billion dollars in losses since the event occurred, though this loss of course is not solely attributable to the reaction of the Chinese market alone. However, fallout from the incident may even force them to scale back their operations within the country, as Chinese purchasing power is often used as a method to express the Chinese nation’s dissatisfaction with particular countries or corporations. The impact that this can have on a business can be seen in the recent spat with South Korea over the perceived national slight at allowing a US-developed missile system to be installed on land formerly owned by the South Korean supermarket chain Lotte, leading to a boycott of South Korean goods within China and a halt in the flow of Chinese tourism to South Korea.
The implications of this incident extend far beyond the potential impact it will have upon United’s bottom line, though. Weibo’s quick and vehement reaction to this incident seems to indicate the already extant presence of a belief on the part of many Chinese that anti-Asian and anti-China sentiment is not only pervasive within US society, but that is responsible for the violent persecution of members of their race. Many Chinese already at least casually familiar with the recently enacted attempts at immigration bans and mass deportations and the prevalence of white nationalist and racist rhetoric at the highest levels of the US government will be particularly sensitive to the treatment of Dao by US police officers and will extrapolate this event to include other areas of US society.
Institutionalized racism has been a part of American society since its founding; however, the perception of the rising tide of white nationalism and xenophobia within the United States in recent times is a perception that bleeds outside of US borders and into its relations with other countries. In the age of social media and viral communications, incidents like the one that happened on the United flight can penetrate the global internet before even the full facts of the event can catch up, causing perceptions of countries and societies to be formed almost instantaneously by people filtering events happening thousands of miles away on their screens. Viewing the reaction to incidents like this is akin to taking the global pulse of US perception abroad, a perception that has visibly suffered due to the high degree of familiarity the world has with the terrible state of US race relations.
Indeed, the United States has often claimed the moral high ground in criticizing China and other nations on matters of human rights and treatment of their own citizens. However, this perception of the United States as a moral superpower internationally—a perception which itself stands on shaky ground given many of the atrocities for which US power has been historically responsible—is quickly eroding, causing many to question the current state of American dominance of the international system. In the past, governments and leaders might have been able to at least partially control the narrative being disseminated about their nation internationally. However, the world has reached an age of communications where even a seemingly isolated event like the assault that occurred on the United flight can have just as much, if not more, impact on the perception of a country and its citizens abroad than could any political or economic policy. As long as incidents like this one continue to occur and are available on the internet for billions of global eyes to witness, the narrative of the United States as a fundamentally racism, xenophobic society dominated by white supremacy will eventually become the dominant one, with far-reaching implications.