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Why It Matters That the United Dragging Victim Is Asian

The outrage over the incident has largely left out discussion of the man's race. And that's a problem.

On Sunday night, cell phone videos were published of a 69-year-old Asian man being forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight by Department of Aviation security officers after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. The footage is viscerally disturbing: The passenger screams as his face appears to be slammed into the headrest. Subdued, he is then dragged by his arms down the aisle, his shirt hitched up to expose his stomach. Later, he somehow gets back on the plane and runs to his seat, stammering, over and over again, “I have to go home.” Another video shows him clutching one of the plane’s divider curtains, face dripping with blood, repeating the words, “Just kill me.” He was reportedly later removed on a stretcher.

The incident, which captured in extreme form the myriad ways in which the American airline industry demeans its passengers on a regular basis, was met with widespread outrage. United CEO Oscar Munoz made the situation worse by issuing a tone-deaf statement that described the airline “having to re-accommodate these customers,” as if violently expelling a paying customer was akin to asking him to change his seat. Munoz later defended his staff’s reaction, implying the customer deserved a beating for being “disruptive and belligerent.” The Chicago Police Department, hardly the most trustworthy law enforcement organization in the country, claimed that the man “fell” and struck the armrest. (According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Police Department, which is separate from the Department of Aviation police, released this statement despite the fact that their officers were not involved at all.)

These statements were rightfully excoriated in the press and in people’s social media feeds. The scandal sparked discussions about monopolization in the airline industry, the nexus of corporate greed and state violence, and even whether the death of customer service contributed to the populist furor that swept the country in the 2016 election.

Less discussed, however, was whether the victim’s race played a role in the incident. In initial reporting by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, and Fox News, the man was referred to as a “passenger” or “doctor,” but not as a person of Asian heritage. The Times headline merely stated, “United Passenger Is Dragged From an Overbooked Flight.” In pieces in which his race was mentioned (a detail often added much later), it was usually a one-line reference to the fact that the passenger claimed that he was being singled out for being Chinese. (Many people on social media pointed out the racism may have played in his violent removal.)

On the one hand, the video is so powerful precisely because it could ostensibly happen to anyone. If you’ve been on a plane in the past ten to 15 years, then you’ve at least had a small taste of the utter helplessness that comes from dealing with these faceless, unaccountable corporations. On the other hand, for Asian-Americans who watched this video, the victim’s race is an important part of this story. To treat it as an inconsequential factor seems, at best, an oversight—at worst, it’s an erasure.

Asian-Americans are normally treated as model minorities, part of a racial narrative that shows that white people are perfectly capable of living in harmony with people of color as long as they work hard and play by the rules. Prejudice against Asian-Americans, not to mention state violence, is often papered over. The first comprehensive tracker of hate crimes against Asian-Americans was launched only in February of this year, despite the fact that Asian-Americans have been targeted in several high-profile attacks since September 11. Just this February, two men of Indian origin were killed in Kansas, with the perpetrator reportedly yelling, “Get out of my country.”

We still don’t know many of the details of what occurred on that United Airlines flight. But the fact that the man resisted is important. As Steven Thrasher, a writer for the Guardian, pointed out in a Twitter thread, the idea that the passenger could have avoided this whole mess by being more obedient—the Chicago Police, for example, cited the fact that the man was “irate” and “yelling to voice his displeasure”—is the same logic that is usually applied to black victims of police brutality.

Of course, African-Americans have a completely different experience of police brutality than Asian-Americans. (Asian-Americans are also not a homogeneous group; there is a difference in the way East Asians and South Asians are treated by police and airport security.) And this particular incident is complicated by the fact that the cops appear to be African-American. But the awful treatment of this man raises an obvious question: Would the police have really done that to a white person?

The problem with expunging the passenger’s race from the discussion is that it plays into this myth of the raceless minority. It presumes that there is little potential for an Asian man to be treated worse on a United flight because of his race than a white man. It suggests that Asians in America have more in common with white people than non-white people.

The other way to look at it is as part of a pattern of prejudice in this country—violent and otherwise—against people of color.