South Asian privilege in the criminal justice system

Central Park 5 members
From left to right: Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam

Ava DuVernay, the brilliant director behind films such as Selma and 13th, partnered with Netflix and released When They See Us, a four-part series centered around the notorious mistrial of Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam (more commonly referred to as the “Central Park 5”) in the Trisha Meili rape case. DuVernay does a phenomenal job of highlighting the absolute injustice these victims and their families had to endure at the hands of a faulty and racially biased justice system that decided to falsely convict five bright, young men who had their own dreams and aspirations. 


While watching the show, there were several moments where I had to pause it, as I was furious and angered at the blatant mistreatment of innocent young boys who were stripped away their youth, friends, and aspirations. After finishing the show, I was left with many mixed emotions: as a seventeen year old who holds the hope of becoming a lawyer one day, I felt invigorated to pursue law and contribute to reforming and reshaping the American justice system. However, I also experienced a different set of emotions. 


Being a member of the South Asian community, I believe we often forget the privilege we have of not being directly targeted and criminalized by the American criminal justice system. I believe the majority of issues we face as South Asians, and I specifically as an Indian American, are related to discovering our identity, breaking cultural norms, and defying western stereotypes. I believe they’re almost never related to the fear of being incorrectly incarcerated for a crime we did not commit. I feel that they’re almost never related to the fear of being held to gunpoint or killed due to police brutality. 


Having grown up in a town that is 83.9% white, 8.6% Asian, and 3.2% African American, it is clear that I have been accustomed to a different lifestyle, free from the worries affecting the majority of ethnic enclaves and minority communities within the United States. While racial tensions do exist within my community, I have not seen reports of cases of police brutality and racially-directed police actions. I believe this is largely due to the fact that the area I live in is overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent, so there is no concept of overpolicing, as there is not a large enough minority population to constitute the “need” for it. After watching When They See Us, following the Black Lives Matter movement, and educating myself on the history of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, I have realized that I hold immense privilege to be growing up South Asian in an upper middle-class community where police and criminal activity are the least of my problems.


My main message that I want my fellow South Asians to take away from this is that to keep fighting for representation and other issues that affect our community. However, while fighting for our own issues, we must also acknowledge and be cognizant of the privilege we have in the United States that many other ethnic minorities, namely African Americans and Latinos, don’t. I also urge everyone reading this to watch When They See Us; it has an extremely important message that deserves to be spread and heard. What happened to the Central Park 5 is absolutely heartbreaking. However, this not only happened to them, but it is also applicable to thousands of other African Americans and Latinos currently in the federal prison system. We as South Asians have been blessed to generally not have been victims of a corrupt criminal justice system in the United States. However, just because this issue does not affect us, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that we must not fight for reform.


I understand that many of my fellow South Asians might be confused by my viewpoint, as members of the South Asian community can often be acquainted as “terrorists” be it at the airport during TSA or while walking on the street. However, neighborhoods with high South Asian populations are not over-policed and do not suffer from the same scrutinized vigilance that many African American or Latino-majority neighborhoods might face. 


This in no way, shape, or form is meant to minimize the issues faced by the South Asian community or the efforts put in to eradicate those issues; this is simply a way to raise awareness of the privilege South Asians experience when dealing with the police and criminal justice system in the United States.

United States of America