There were any number of ways that Pennsylvania state Sen. Cris Dush, a Republican from a rural district in the state’s northwestern corner, could have responded to this week’s murderous rampage in Georgia that left eight people dead, six of them Asian-American women.
By opting for a digressive confrontation with the 50-member chamber’s only Asian-American lawmaker that was riddled with white privilege, an ill-considered defense of the former president, and a complete failure to make note of the dead or to condemn the current wave of hate aimed at Asian-Americans, Dush picked the worst of all possible worlds.
It turned what could have been an important, teachable moment about the changing face of an increasingly diverse commonwealth of nearly 13 million souls into just another lame, partisan sparring match.
On Wednesday, as the nation struggled to come to terms with what appeared to be yet another racially motivated, pandemic-inspired attack on Asian-Americans, Democratic state Sen. Nikil Saval took to the microphone to condemn the violence, lend a historical perspective to the incident, and point out that there wouldn’t have been an increase in violence against Asian-Americans if the White House’s former occupant hadn’t used racial epithets to describe a virus that has so far indiscriminately killed more than a half-million Americans.
“As an Asian American ... I have felt the pressure, the hatred, that has come about in this moment, and I, like so many of us, have felt it for years,” Saval said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Indeed, five years ago, after one of then-candidate [Donald] Trump’s hateful speeches, I was physically attacked on the streets of my own city, in the district I would come to represent, by someone who simply associated my skin color with immigration. Today, and every day, like thousands of us across Pennsylvania, I fear just such another attack.”
Dush shot back with a weird bit of whataboutism, arguing that infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci had used a racial epithet before Trump to describe the virus. As early as last March, Fauci said he would never use the slur to describe the virus. Trump, meanwhile, repeated the racial slur during an unrelated interview on Fox News on Tuesday night, Newsweek reported.
Dush also said he was disturbed by Saval’s assertions because, as a veteran, he had served alongside soldiers of all backgrounds, and “... We fought alongside each other, we stood alongside of each other, and we worked alongside of each other,” regardless of skin color.
All of that is a deflection. It has nothing to do with the indisputable fact that anti-Asian racism is on the rise nationwide during the pandemic era, as NBC News reported. Nor does it have anything to do with the fact that a November 2020 FBI report showed bias-motivated killings at a record high amid a nationwide spike in hate crimes.
Dush, a white Christian, has the luxury of being disturbed by his colleague’s comments. But Saval doesn’t. And it’s a sure bet that his Black and brown colleagues in the Armed Forces lived the reality of the nation’s institutionalized racism - even if Dush claims not to have seen it. Most whites don’t.
Dush further faulted Saval for jumping the gun on the motive for the murders, which may have been prompted by the accused shooter’s alleged sexual addiction, rather than racism, which authorities still have not ruled out as a motive. Nonetheless, the context of anti-Asian hate hangs heavy - and inescapably - over this incident.
An audio transcript of Dush’s remarks did not include any sympathy for the dead, nor was there any expression of support for Pennsylvania’s Asian-American community, which has found itself on the receiving end of despicable acts of hate. He at least had the presence of mind to argue for the need for a “good, solid dialogue,” presumably about race-relations. Still, to call that a missed opportunity is an understatement.
Instead, Dush chided for Saval for being, in his view, politically divisive, and patronizingly told him that “We need to make sure that we’ve got the facts before we go spewing the types of things that I’ve been hearing of late.”
A brown-skinned Pennsylvanian pointing out violence against other brown-skinned Pennsylvanians isn’t “spewing” anything. He’s reflecting his own lived experience, and the lived experience of everyone who looks like him as they try to find their way through a society that still has a long way to go to live up to its founding ideals.
It’s an offense against decency that eight people, most of them women, are dead. It’s an offense against our collective humanity that the majority of them are members of a minority now enduring violent hate.
It’s an outrage that easily should have transcended party lines and led to a moment of unity that some crave they want so badly.
Dush had an opportunity to really listen, and profit, from his colleague on the other side of the aisle. The fact that that didn’t happen just compounds the tragedy.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek