On February 11, Peter Liang became one of the few police officers indicted for shooting and killing a citizen while on duty (NPR). Liang had his firearm drawn while patrolling a dark stairwell of a public housing development. He fired his gun from the eighth floor while on a vertical patrol assignment with his partner. The bullet ricocheted off the wall to a lower floor and fatally killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American male. The jury found the former New York City police officer guilty of second-degree manslaughter and one count of official misconduct (NBC News). Liang was the first NYPD officer indicted for an on-duty shooting in the past decade (Think Progress). The unexpected response from the judicial system reveals the growing need for a scapegoat to appease the black community. By purposefully designating an Asian American as the scapegoat for police brutality, white hegemonic structures create a divide between the Asian American and Black communities in order to uphold power. This power then fuels the broken law enforcement system that allows police officers to target black bodies without any accountability.
After the sentence, the Asian American community began to question whether or not Liang—the son of Chinese immigrants—was serving as a scapegoat. Liang’s case emphasizes the ubiquity of the defense of white heteromasculinity and the scandal of ex-privilege (Brandzel and Desai, 65). It was an anomaly that he was put on trial when countless white police officers historically have not been charged in killing black men. If white police officers were indicted for their shootings, white heterosexual men would become de-privileged subjects, who had to recognize the prevalence of racism. In recognizing that Liang’s case not only sheds light on inequality, but also the perpetuation of white masculinity, the forces at play can be broken down.
A separate case involving a white police officer, Neri, held significant parallels to Liang’s case, supporting the scapegoat theory. The most salient difference was that Neri was not indicted for his killing (NY Times). The jury found Neri’s shooting to be accidental, but Liang was not granted that same privilege as a Chinese American. With white police officers repeatedly walking free, the justice system may have punished Liang as a scapegoat to satisfy their needs and to appease outrage predominantly from the black community. The lack of indictments for white male police officers reinforces the notion that whiteness is continuously masked and divorced from any sense of responsibility (Brandzel and Desai, 69). The involvement of the larger police union, mostly comprised of white males, furthers the void of accountability for white males. The police union, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, usually speaks out in defense when officer-involved shootings arise, but there was little to no support in Liang’s case (Gothamist). Liang’s identity falls outside of the dominant group so he was easily assigned to take the blame.
White police officers involved with similar shootings undergo the scandal of ex-privilege as they tell stories of their loss. In order to regain their former privilege after an incident, individuals and institutions prepare an argument for restoration. Balancing the narratives that disparage these white police officers are stories that work to humanize them beyond the crime committed. The media outlets achieve the latter by focusing on the point that the shootings were accidental. This shifts the discourse about the officers from privileged and normative to disenfranchised and vulnerable. Through doing so, the officers embody wounded white masculinities and become more American. In a broader sense, the scandal of ex-privilege diverts the conversation from race to one concentrated on restoring upstanding citizens back to an American way of life (Brandzel and Desai, 66).
Liang, on the other hand, is portrayed as alien through the incomplete recognition of him as an American. Also, the lack of support from the police union further isolates him as foreign. However, Liang was not wrongly indicted; instead, all police officers should be held accountable for their excessive force and wrongful actions that disproportionately affects black bodies (The Guardian). Far too many young black lives have been taken by irresponsible police officers, and divisive rifts between minority communities will only exacerbate the issue. The systems and institutions in place that perpetuate structural inequalities, white heteromasculinity, and the scandal of ex-privilege is a broken one. The path to justice is to hold Liang responsible and to see to it that all other police officers are as well.