Forcing procedural correctness can be harmful
When New York City suddenly announced in August that it would build a new jail close to Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Chinese community went up in arms – it was unpleasant to have another jail at your doorstep. And when the city announced at the end of November that it had dropped the previous plan and would instead make the existing prison in Chinatown bigger, the wave of anger surged again. The second announcement also came out of the blue. In a democratic country, this is at least theoretically unacceptable. Elected officials representing Chinatown called in a unified voice for the city to restart the process to allow for more community advice. That was the easy part. The hard part is, then what?
Discussions between city authorities and the community can lead to three possible scenarios. First, the city builds the jail somewhere else. It is not very likely. The Chinatown jail is part of the boroughbased prison system the city envisions creating by 2027, with bigger jails in four of the five boroughs to replace the current detention centers on the isolated Rikers Island. City officials say that detaining people in places in the center of communities is more humane than isolating them and will lead to a better outcome for inmates. Most elected officials in this liberal city, including those representing Chinatown, agree. What they don’t agree on is the location of the new jails. But how do you make a convincing argument that one neighborhood deserves a jail more than another?
In the second scenario, the anger of the community dissipates during negotiations and it decides to accept the jail. Not likely either. The current detention center in Chinatown, which was built in the 1980s, triggered the biggest protests from the community then. Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets. The jail was built anyway. Then New York Mayor Ed Koch made an infamous comment: “You don’t vote. You don’t count.” That hurt the Chinese community so much that even today it is still used, together with the image of the ugly windowless jail building in the center of Chinatown, as a way to shame Chinese voters into casting their ballots. Given this background, it’s hard to imagine the Chinese would accept a bigger jail in their neighborhood.
The third possibility is that the city launches a better plan mindful of the community’s interests. But the plan announced in August already came with some quite generous perks including the offer of some additional space for public use. The Chinese rebuffed the plan. It is quite clear by now that Chinatown just doesn’t want a larger jail, period.
In a deadlock like this where there is little common ground for a compromise, putting all the weight on community engagement without being fully prepared for the outcome may backfire in the future. That is especially true given the Chinese community is in transformation – there is a rising awareness of citizen rights and an increasing passion for political participation. But there are unprecedented waves of political conservatism as well. Doing things by the book and holding talks plays an indispensable role in the American system and means its major institutions retain at least a measure of support. But it is not always aligned with the priorities of new immigrants, many of whom grew up in countries and cultures that are pragmatic and result-driven. This is particularly so with recent Chinese immigrants coming from a country where people’s intense competitive spirit and sharp focus on results have contributed in a major way to its rapid economic development in the past few decades.
The last time procedural correctness ran amok in the Chinese community was when Chinese-American cop Peter Liang accidentally shot dead an unarmed black person while patrolling a government housing project in 2014. Liberals in the community called for Liang’s indictment, trusting the judicial system to give the rookie cop a fair treatment. It didn’t work out well, especially when people saw that several white cops in similar situations were not indicted.
Liang’s case was a catalyst for the creation of a rights movement among Chinese immigrants. And those fresh off the boat raised their voices playing a leading role in protests. And the protests often took place when their own interest was sacrificed for that of others, in turn helping push them further to the right.
I once asked a veteran liberal activist who happens to be an American-born Chinese what she thinks about the right-wing views of many new Chinese immigrants. She responded: “They need to be educated.”
Responses like this are, in my view, the very reason that American liberals are losing ground among new Chinese immigrants.
Procedural correctness is important. But simply forcing it on people can do more harm than good. When the right procedure leads to the wrong result, as often happens, it can only deepen distrust of procedure as well as those who have been pushing for its use. The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiao[email protected]mail.com