In the most articulate summary to date of the issues related to the AsianWeek publication of hate speech, Erin Aubry Kaplan writes in today’s LA Times:
The column, published in the San Francisco-based AsianWeek newspaper in the waning days of African American History Month, was so astonishingly hateful that activists of all stripes immediately rushed forward to condemn it. AsianWeek Editor Ted Fang issued a lengthy apology and fired Eng, who is in his early 20s and also writes science fiction novels. The small press that published Eng’s books announced last week that it was taking them off the market. There was a hastily arranged community forum about strengthening black/Asian relations and improving coverage across color lines. More are surely on the way.
This kind of hand-wringing is to a degree appropriate. It’s also inherently limited, a first step that all too often stands as the entire response to ugly racial moments that generally say more about our so-called enlightenment than we like to imagine. Containing the mess, therefore, is critical. From Trent Lott to Michael Richards to Kenneth Eng, our impulse in the wake of black insult is to kick-start big, rhetorical debates about race that tend to divert attention from hard questions about accountability, about who said what and why.
Apologies notwithstanding, this is the real accountability problem. AsianWeek is no fringe underground blog but a respected publication owned by a politically connected and media-savvy family in the most liberal of cities, San Francisco. It claims to support civil rights and social justice. How could it possibly slip up like this?
The disturbing answer is that Eng’s sophomoric columns weren’t slip-ups at all but were sanctioned on some level by the people in charge. AsianWeek’s editors may not have agreed with the column’s particulars, but it still passed their smell test. Publishers and editors don’t have to agree with opinion columnists — trust me on this one — but they do have to agree with the soundness of the columnist’s logic, and they certainly have to distinguish mindless ranting from righteous anger.
By this measure, Eng’s diatribe wasn’t even debatable. He was waving a red flag so big and bright, you’d have to have been blind or completely unschooled in race relations not to see it. Presumably, AsianWeek’s editors are neither.
Fang has so far stopped short of blaming anyone other than Eng for what happened, saying instead that AsianWeek is doing some soul-searching and reviewing its editorial policies. That’s like a rogue cop shooting an unarmed bystander in front of 100 witnesses and the police department responding by reviewing its use-of-force rules. Sure, procedure has its place, but it often pales in comparison to the bigger truth. And the truth here is that the most base and unsubstantiated views about black people still found expression in a sophisticated publication for and about Asians.
Was this cognitive dissonance or cognitive harmony? That’s the question we need to be asking.