SCOTUS, Spas, Rock & Roll
David M. Anderson contributed to this article.
When millions of Jewish Americans sat down for the Passover seder last month, I’m sure many of them didn’t just think of the Jewish journey — the one that took the Hebrews from slavery to the Promised Land of Canaan. Deuteronomy, one of the Torah’s books of the law, teaches the God-fearing to “love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The laws that govern observant Jews are filled with callbacks like this, dependent clauses where their prophets and their God remind them of who they once were, and who they often still are: Strangers, to our collective shame — othered, oppressed, and attacked through the ages, a nation often left without an earthly home to match their name and their fame. You have to stick up for the strangers, the Hebrew Scriptures practically scream, because you were them. You are them. Jews, like the rest of us, share a fate with the children of the Earth, and that sharing brings a responsibility.
My mind wasn’t exactly on the Pesach when I thought about the fate of the strangers this week. It was on the end of legalized abortion, and Panthea Lee’s cover story in The Nation magazine on violence against Asian-American women and, uh, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
During the recent case over Mississippi’s ban on abortion, someone at the US Supreme Court leaked word to POLITICO that Roe v. Wade had worn out its welcome with the Court. When a draft of the Court’s ruling hit the headlines on Monday night, the outcry was as predictable as the ruling itself. Thanks to this ruling, argued activists across the country, millions of women could be forced to deliver babies that they weren’t financially, personally, or even physically able to raise. In some states, this argument went, even women with ectopic pregnancies could be punished with fines or imprisonment if they decided to pass on their court-ordered fates of penury and pain. Through the eyes of millions of pro-choice voters, this isn’t necessarily about the lives of the children, who technically aren’t even children yet; prohibitions on abortion are instead underhanded efforts to bend female sexual behavior to the will of shadowy religious forces.
In the Nation’s April cover story, Panthea Lee covered a different kind of issue: Violence against Asian women. For the last two years, Lee explains in “Death, Sex and Empire,” we’ve been privy to a spike in relatively random attacks on people of Asian descent. The news of the world speaks of Asian women being murdered on the job at health spas, leering men stabbing them to death in their bathrooms, demented hands launching them onto train tracks. But the truth is much deeper than that, much longer. In Lee’s telling, the current targeting of Asian-Americans — especially Asian women — comes from stereotypes and tall tales of exotic eroticism that this country whittled and honed during its wartime adventures in the Pacific. Taken together with opinion polls that show Americans blaming their Asian neighbors for the pandemic, or claiming they have loyalties to countries other than the United States, the picture of why we’re hearing about anti-Asian bigotry and violence gets a little bit clearer.
Neither of these stories have left my head since they first crossed my eyes, but not necessarily because they’re near and dear to my heart. The people who stand to suffer in either of these cases — women! Asian-Americans! Asian-American women! — don’t share any demographics with me, a Black man. It’s tempting to think I don’t have anything at stake here, that the best I can do is to watch from a distance and wring my hands. But… is it?
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic has one of the most arresting trailers beheld by mortals since 2020’s Judas and the Black Messiah promos. A lot of it is just Elvis, played by Austin Butler, cycling through the poses, costumes and thunderous tunes that made him the King of Rock and Roll. But it also dips its toes into the more complicated parts of his legacy, the ways in which he nabbed intellectual property from the Black church and Black artists without so much as a word of credit or tribute.
This… this is the trailer. I’m still talking about the trailer.
In one particularly poignant sequence, Butler’s Elvis is trying to process the news of the day — that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot and killed at a hotel room in Memphis — when Elvis’ manager, the Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, offers a few words of commentary. “A tragedy!” he exclaims, with a theatrical wave of the hand, only to follow it up with a claim that gives Pressley pause: “but, it has nothing to with us.”
Maybe Elvis is thinking back to the moments he shared, or the art he used, or maybe he’s thinking about his own place in the world as a favorite son of the American South. Whatever he’s thinking, Butler’s crowned knave of music leans on a doorway and shakes his head. “It has everything to do with us,” he replies, in a Memphis twang so smoky and sweet he could have slathered it on a rack of prime rib.
It has everything to do with us. Elvis had sung Gospel before, but this was some spiritual insight. As long as he walked in a state, country, continent, or even planet alongside people who had placed their trust in Dr. King’s hands, as long as they breathed the same air and (frankly) sang the same songs, everything that happened to them had everything to do with him. No, the triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement didn’t affect Elvis and his, uh, ilk the way it affected people who — oh, I don’t know — look like me, but the questions of racial equality were weighty enough, and broad enough, to convict even the people who sat on the sidelines as they were being answered. The Civil Rights Movement, and its central figure, had everything to do with everyone. It simply had no other choice.
I don’t have a uterus; I’m never going to die in childbirth, which means I’ll never have to worry about the risk nearly as much as the woman I’ll marry and build a family with at some point in the future. I’m probably never going to get blamed for an international plague or subsequently shoved onto a railroad track. (Having said that, I dropped an earbud at Temple Station several weeks ago. It’s still there, and yet it’s also a federal offense to climb onto the surface of a train track, so…) The temptation is right there, like a crisp and shining fruit, to say that these things are a tragedy — a tragedy that has nothing to do with me.
And, yet, as African Americans, we know what it is to live without the power to control what others do to our bodies. We know what it means to have our patriotism questioned and invalidated in troubling times. We even know what it means to walk under the cloud of wanton violence from public and private actors alike. When the lies of bigotry and supremacy, or of empire and paternalism, rear their ugly heads, it will always have everything to do with us, even if we don’t stand to be affected.
Because we were once strangers — not in ancient Egypt, mind you, but right here in America.
Bigotry and otherness are curses that plague every step forward for humanity. But the experience of being seen as something other than human — less than human — also brings a gift: The power to put your hand on the shoulder of someone else on the wrong side of the “us/them” to say, “I don’t know what it’s like to be you, exactly, but I do know what it’s like to be a stranger.”
America’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, gasping for air beneath the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, could have been a turning point in the history of this country. For a while, at least, it felt like one. But as the days turned in to weeks and months and the questions of police brutality got messier, whatever will there had been to change the way law enforcement treated its charges slowly petered away. Black Lives Matter got its fifteen minutes of fame, sure, but the window of time to do something with that fame felt like fifteen seconds.
As frustrating as that experience was for millions of African Americans (and the rest of the country, for that matter), and as tough as it is to compare one form of oppression to another, it looks like Asian-Americans didn’t even get fifteen minutes: Since the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021, the nation’s attitude toward people of Pacific descent seems to have only gotten more racist. In a recent poll from Axios, the share of people in the United States who blame Asian-Americans for the pandemic has somehow spiked by 11 percent, and the share who think Asian-Americans are loyal to countries other than the States has risen by 13 percent, in the year since the Atlanta shootings.
Why? I have no idea; it’s not supposed to be like this. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the late Dr. King insisted that the sight of Black activists being brutalized on TV, in the newspaper, in magazines, would compel ambivalent white onlookers to rally behind the fight against segregation. Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, decided to open her son’s casket at his funeral, so the nation would be forced to turn its gaze upon the results of a lynching in the Deep South. It was this — the sight of blood — that stirred apathetic bystanders into action and delivered blow after blow to the Jim Crow regime. When we, the public, see the results of bigotry, the brutality it leaves in its wake, we have to ask ourselves where it came from, at least for a little while. Right?
Apparently, wrong. Americans’ attitudes on Asian-Americans have gone sideways even as our news feeds and TV screens swell with the fruits of our misconceptions. We haven’t just decided that these tragedies have nothing to do with us; we’ve decided that the problems of our day and age have something to do with them.
I can already hear what you’re thinking: We’re in total agreement here. The way America sees its people — in this case, people of Asian descent — is a tragedy. And it’s getting worse. We’re well on our way to repeating mistakes we’ve made before, to compounding the sins we’re committing right now. But… what do you want me to do about it?
This isn’t the mid-20th century, and there are real differences in the challenges that face Asian-Americans and the challenges that faced — face — Black and brown Americans to this day. Where the Black struggle against racism has left us with centuries of economic and geographic shrapnel, through which we must limp to forge a more perfect future in a more perfect union, the Asian struggle can be a little tougher to quantify. The language of justice — “equality as a fact,” in the words of Lyndon Johnson, “rather than just an idea” — has felt a need to bend and part to accommodate those differences, bringing us phrases like underrepresented minorities to remind us that our plights are not the same. (They’re not, though Illinois-Champaign professor Tiffani L. Williams makes a compelling case that terms like underrepresented minority contribute to the problems they’re trying to solve.) Frankly, one reason it’s been so hard to link this problem to the problems that came into the spotlight in 2020 is that we’ve spent so much time talking about the things that keep those struggles apart.
But… speaking of parting, maybe the current moment calls for a little Mosaic Law.
Some of us know what it means to face violence from both members of the government and private citizens. Some of us know what it means to be killed twice, in the words of Dante Stewart: “in the streets, in our homes, on our runs; and in the eyes of others as they blame us for our deaths and sit in courtrooms to justify their destruction.” And some of us can see that meaning in the mirror of others, as we watch stereotypes and suspicion shape the narrative that separates the plight of millions of Asian-Americans from our own. This isn’t a recipe for success, and this isn’t a recipe for a more perfect union.
In my favorite line from his address to the March on Washington, now known simply by its central verses, Dr. King doesn’t just issue exhortations; he issues a warning about the future of his dream. “We cannot walk alone,” he told the crowd, as the joy and sorrow of the next 5 years stretched before him on the National Mall. “And, as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Turning back means that not just that the victories of the past fade away, but that the alterations of heart and mind that made those victories possible start to fade, too. There is no such thing as exclusionary justice, or a right movement that obsesses over difference, because we’re all the same in one of the only ways that truly matters.
Once upon a time, we were strangers. And until none of us are strangers, we are all strangers.