The Racial Justice Movement Needs a Model Minority Mutiny

 yurikochiyama_angeladavis

It had cost me twelve years of my time,
to realize what a nickel and dime,
hustler I had really been,
while the real hustlers are ripping off billions,
from the unsuspecting millions,
who are programmed to think they can win. 

Lightnin Rod, Hustlers Convention, 1973

Hip hop emerged in spite of the brutal logic of capitalism, out of centuries-old traditions, to insist upon and amplify black voices and black political consciousness. But as Brittney Cooper, Questlove, and Jeff Chang have recently pointed out, it has been exploited to the point that black cool now serves as transnational currency in the global market. This is a version of what organizer Alicia Garza rightly rails against in her important piece on #BlackLivesMatter: the power of white supremacy to take an act of political insurgency and empty it of meaning, to flatten it into coinage, or an anemic symbol of post-racial liberalism.

But as long as there is resistance, the insurgency lives on, and new strategies are constantly being born.

As a disclaimer, I’m no hip hop expert. During the ‘70s, I was that maladjusted, bespectacled Korean kid who grew up in a white suburb listening to Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. For me, the turn to hip hop came later, as a search for political knowledge and a salve for the discomfort of my upbringing. Today, having spanned the hip hop generation to reach the post-racial hype of the 21st Century, I read that generation’s trajectory as a cautionary tale.

I wanted to learn where it all started, what artists like Lightnin Rod (a.k.a. Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a.k.a. the grandfather of hip hop) were saying before beats became a $300 pair of headphones. So I listened to Hustlers Convention, and was struck by its relevance now. The album vividly depicts ghetto life in a swaggering portrait of hustler cool, but in the end, its narrators see the real hustle: “that the glamour and the glitter is the work of parasites who prey on the downtrodden.” Gentrification has made many of the ghettos of that era barely recognizable today – occupied, as a colleague who grew up in Bed Stuy recently told me, by white women in yoga pants jogging with baby strollers. This is how structural exclusion has remained intact, creating shiny new inner-city habitats for the privileged, by pushing largely black communities outward into inner-ring suburbs with little infrastructure and even less political and economic power. See Ferguson.

But the conditions of blackness have changed in one way: now more than before, whites believe that the real problem is anti-white racism, even as the economic chasm between blacks and whites has widened. This is the central point: that anti-blackness endures in the economic and political systems that shape our lives, rolling ever forward on the rails of white privilege.

Listening to Hustlers Convention inspired me to riff on this idea. How do Asians operate in the global market of racial ideas, especially now, in an allegedly post-racial era? We, who arrived in the Americas as subjects of empire centuries ago, were vaulted to model minority status in the mid-20th Century. Weren’t we summoned by white elites to our own hustlers convention? The playfield is different: less the street corner, and more the labor market, and the terrain of what Vijay Iyer calls complicity with excess.

1965 changes to immigration law opened the doors to professional classes of Asian immigrants. Around the same time, the model minority myth got nailed down as racial common sense. By falsely equating the circumstances of the descendants of slaves with a population of largely voluntary immigrants from India, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, the myth “proved” that racial uplift by non-whites was possible. It resolved America’s PR problem of anti-black racism, and cemented its legitimacy as the model of freedom and democracy in the world. It distracted from the immense casualties of U.S. wars abroad, and ignored the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees who arrived involuntarily, often to be settled into some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, ill-equipped to understand why they would be viewed as privileged by their new black neighbors who, unbeknownst to them, had been fighting a different war, and for a good long while.

The racial invitation that white elites offered to Asian Americans went something like this: “If you come here and assimilate into this anti-black settler state, if you behave properly, we will let you hustle for your prosperity. You won’t be white, but you might get close, and at least you won’t be black. You’ll be the poster child of the American Dream, and together we will squash the insurgency underfoot that threatens our collective fortunes.” [In smaller print: We might occasionally spy on you, round you up, and detain you; and some of you will have to stay in crappy jobs and housing. But it’s all to keep the Dream alive.]

The Asian population in the United States radically changed after 1965. What had been mostly low-wage laborers now included engineers, scientists, and other professionals from privileged classes. The politics behind these changes came out of U.S. Cold War interests. In some cases this took the form of investing military and economic resources to back oppressive regimes in Asian nations; in others, waging wars that killed millions and created new refugee populations. But all the while, racial liberalism put out the welcome mat for high-skilled Asian immigrants to fill U.S. labor needs.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, mainstream media touted the success of Asian Americans, armed with growing amounts of statistical and anecdotal material to make the case for Asian American uplift. At the same time, the Reagan-era project of dismantling social welfare programs kicked off in earnest, using racist tropes like the black “welfare queen” to win public support. The War on Drugs kicked off a massive prison buildup that relied on churning up white fear of black crime. And U.S. economic elites restructured the global economy, from cities to entire nation-states, handily pulling racial levers to redistribute wealth upward. The model minority became transnational currency for buying stock in white U.S. hegemony.

I see white supremacy as a seesaw, a zero-sum game where groups “rise” by participating in the exclusion and exploitation of others. Neoliberalism is the zero-sum cage, convincing us that the best way to advance human progress is through strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade, and that the main job of the state is to create these conditions – by force if necessary. Civil rights, labor protections, environmental regulations, health and safety measures, and protective tariffs are all barriers to corporate freedom, and thus barriers to progress. The state’s role in this upside-down world is to create markets where they don’t exist, colluding in the privatization of land, water, education, healthcare, and even life itself. In this world, police structures, prisons, and military forces exist to guarantee freedom. From key positions of influence in universities, corporations, states, and structures like the IMF and World Bank, neoliberals have presented this world as “common sense.” This is the racialized cage we live in, navigating our own group-differentiated hustles, over and against one another.

But neoliberalism is the epic hustle, where “the real hustlers are ripping off billions, from the unsuspecting millions, who are programmed to think they can win.” The programming is the marketing of black cool, convincing us that we have reached post-racial nirvana because Dr. Dre is making millions. It is the idea of black criminality, convincing us that policing and mass incarceration are necessary to ensure freedom for the deserving. It is the staging of wars criminalizing nation-states and religions in the name of global security. And it is the model minority myth, which invites a strategically and methodically groomed Asian American population to hustle for honorary whiteness as a demonstration of meritocracy.

It is time to kill the programming.

Asian Americans are exceptional not because of meritocracy, but because our migration patterns and particular histories led to an aggregate state of relative privilege, in service to a set of agendas. We got invited to the real hustlers convention, even if just as the kitchen help, and learned that anti-blackness and settler logic are the poker chips for maintaining white economic and political dominance.

But there was once another strategy. As Asian Americans, we decided who we were alongside Black, Chicano, and Native American liberation movements, understanding ourselves as insurgent subjects of U.S. empire. Our identity is interracially defined. Like others, our liberation depends on black freedom. We can’t go back in time to the 1968 Third World Liberation Strike – the world has changed and so have we. But we can embrace an authentic Asian American politics that is rooted in history, shaped by current conditions, and unapologetically antiracist. We can make more visible our own stories of exploitation, vigorously refuse the complicities of excess, and set fire to the last 75 years of model minority myth making. Some of us were part of making that myth. Now all of us who call ourselves Asian American must work to undo it.

The racial justice movement needs us. Our experiences of war, imperialism, and the enticement to anti-black racism are necessary to push back against corporate plunder and state collusion, to dismantle the apparatuses of racialized violence. We must remember that as committed as Yuri Kochiyama was to black liberation, her experiences also shaped the thinking of Malcolm X. Mahatma Ghandi’s insurgent politics and strategies against British imperialism shaped Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence. From Ferguson to Palestine, follow the money and power in local police forces and detention centers, and you’ll find yourself at the doorstep of empire. Criminalization is the domestic face of imperialism. We are stronger together, and we must forge a strategy to demand state power that disciplines capital and serves the people, not the other way around.

It is time for Asian Americans to unleash model minority mutiny, link arms with the struggle for black liberation, and together, finally turn the world right side up. Let’s build the analysis, forge the commitments, and create the strategies we need for a united front against white supremacy.

18 Responses to The Racial Justice Movement Needs a Model Minority Mutiny

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  1. Ben Efsaneyim October 14, 2014 at 1:03 am #

    Am I being naive when I wonder why the fact that the aggregated voting patterns of Asian-Americans favours the progressive policies of the Democrats to the tune of two-thirds requires a mutiny? Surely, the fact that we favour the party of social and (supposed) racial progressiveness should mean that we are already, for the most part, well on the way to opposition, or at least well and truly open to, issues of racial injustice.

    It’s not that I disagree with you, but it seems like flogging a dead horse to suggest that Asian-Americans are not attuned to the necessity for racial justice, when their voting patterns indicate the opposite. What am I missing here?

    • Audrey October 16, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      Ben, I wasn’t sure what part of a critique of neoliberalism implies that voting Democrat is going to solve anything. And then I made the mistake of clicking through and skimming your blog, which makes it pretty clear that you don’t consider dismantling anti-blackness to be an important part of Asian-American organizing. There’s nothing radical about voting for a political party that has continued to expand the prison-industrial complex and sanctioned over-policing of POC neighborhoods (and yes, this does affect Asian-Americans as well, since you don’t seem interested in the other groups affected by racial injustice).

  2. Soya Jung
    Soya Jung October 14, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    That’s a good point, Ben. Voting patters do suggest Asian American progressive positions on issues like healthcare, affirmative action, reproductive choice, and more. And there are certainly vocal and committed Asian Americans in the racial justice movement, and organizations that have spoken out and shown up after the Zimmerman verdict, after the murder of Michael Brown, e.g. to denounce anti-black racism. But what we need is a strategy to make our antiracist politics more cohesive and more impactful. And many of us are actively working on that! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Jill October 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    U can read an implicit anti-semitism thought this article

    • janiece October 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

      wtf u read a different article than I.

  4. janiece October 14, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    Great Op-Ed. Many more white ppl need to take responsibility for their complacent role in allowing any portion of the population to be oppressed. It is all of our jobs to guide our own race in the appropriate direction. Not the job of those our race oppresses. Just like it is all our jobs as Americans to stop the atrocities of our government being perpetrated in our name all over the world. Its our job to control our govt. not the countries we destroy. Our complacence makes us accomplices.

  5. michelle March October 16, 2014 at 12:52 am #

    Wow. Blown away. Thank you. I haven’t heard such resounding truth for what seems like a lifetime.

  6. Ben Efsaneyim October 16, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

    Audrey

    Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog, but I am skeptical of the claim that merely skimming through someone’s writing can present anyone with a clear picture of anything. If you wish to critique my writing and my ideas then feel free to do so on my blog – doing so here is disrespectful to this blog and its authors. It is also uncouth. My focus is on the Asian-American experience from the perspective of an Asian male – I don’t claim to be an activist, but merely an observer. I make absolutely no apologies about that.

    That aside, regardless of your opinions about America’s two-party system, the Dems represent the progressive party – if you wish to express skepticism about that then fine, and I would probably agree with you. But don’t let it be said or even merely implied that Asian-Americans are not open to progressive ideas or are in some way resistant to pursuing racial justice – the Dems represent that, and if Asians (and others) are wrong for believing that then the blame lies wit those who fail to present a more convincing alternative.

    • c October 17, 2014 at 3:48 am #

      Ben, I think the point of this post is that a better alternative IS needed… that within the neoliberal/american dream/go-no-more-radical-than-democrat system, racial justice will not come to be.

    • Rashnu October 22, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      “Merely an observer.” hmm… Is there really such thing as a neutral, ambiguous observer? Not an activist? What do you mean by “activist”? Everybody is acting. A blog is an action. If you are putting out information that people can be exposed to, that is an action that can affect someone. What is the expected result of that action? What is the expected result of the people who may be influenced by that action? Merely an observer, but putting out information doesn’t quite add up. This article is about “doing”, isn’t it? You are doing something. So, why are you doing it?

      • Ben Efsaneyim October 22, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

        Rashnu

        Where did I use the terms “neutral”, or “ambiguous”? Why do you think that being an observer also means one cannot “put out information”? Do UN observers in war zones remain quiet about what they see? Do electoral fraud observers not “put out information” when they witness electoral fraud? What are you trying to say?

        • Rashnu October 23, 2014 at 11:53 am #

          I’m saying you’re not “merely an observer”. You deflected/dodged a comment saying that you are merely an observer, but that is not what you are doing. Observations are recorded and reported for a reason. Those questions in my comment were not rhetorical questions. Seems like your getting ready to dodge and shuffle around some questions.

          • Ben Efsaneyim October 23, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

            Rashnu

            Sorry, but you are still not making any sense. Where did I use the terms “neutral” and “ambiguous”? And how does one “deflect” or “dodge” comments that one has answered?

            My questions are not rhetorical either.

          • Rashnu October 23, 2014 at 9:46 pm #

            You didn’t use the terms “neutral” and “ambiguous”. I used them in case you were implying that. You’re not really answering anything. Your turn.

  7. Mlance October 17, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

    This article gave me the jitters (in a good way). I do see a lot of Asian Americans standing up for black people especially in the blog sphere. Being half black myself sometimes it feels like a hopeless situation because it seems like, from time to time, that no one cares about black people but other blacks (and it’s a shame that there are many who are against their own). But when I see blogs like this it reminds me there is an invisible thread of empathy that connects all people who are oppressed. I can say with a good bit of confidence that the black community is receptive of the empathy many Asians have shown us and I hope you can feel our empathy to your community and the challenges it faces in return too (And if not, I guess we just need to try harder ;)

    While I encourage all oppressed groups to stand up for one another I will admit I do have a bias for Asian and Black unity. Something about it seems like a powerful combo. I guess since we have such different experiences (almost opposite in a way) that no one would suspect such an allegiance. (You hit them from above we hit them from below!)

    Blah…I’m babbling, In short, good article.

    PS. This is highly random thing to ask but I gotta know, Why is a raven like a writing desk? (It’s from Alice and Wonderland)

  8. Anonymous October 20, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    Just to give you a snapshot of the “model minority” mindset, Ms. Jung: I’m a young, recent generation Chinese American earning an equivalent of $60,000 a year. And I’m considered below the median when compared to my ethnic peers. Many of my mentors are in their 50s and 60s earning well above that amount. They’re leaders and major contributors in their respective fields. Almost all of us keep our mouths shut and mind our own business. I’m one of the rarer few because, as a scholar, it’s part of my job and role in society.

    Here, you’re telling us to stop working and enter politics. How many people, not just in America, around the world rely on what we do? Doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, scholars, educators, administrators, public servants, and farmers. If being a “model minority” means dedicating oneself to a profession or trade and working hard for the greater good of society and humanity, I would be honored to have such a label.

    Sure, WASPs and Jewish families may hold the majority of the wealth at the moment, but that’s only because they managed to outwit other parts of the world first through warfare, second through exploitation, and now through consumerism. Rome was not built in a day. Competition is a survival of the fittest. And the United States has been growing based on competition. If you cannot swim upstream a river, the proper answer is not to destroy the river. Find another river where you can swim upstream, learn how to get out of the water and walk, and/or enjoy the ride downstream.

    Mr. Salman Khan has done a great service to America and the world by giving those with internet access free and fair access to fundamental knowledge required to be a part of the middle classes. Rather than inciting revolts in Asian American communities and, as an effect, create chaos around the world, perhaps you should work as an educator and help connect these African American communities to Khan Academy. Or create your own academy.

    Though, perhaps one day the ruling WASPs and Jewish families of America may decide to block out competition from other ethnic groups. Or, we Chinese Americans feel that society treats us unjustly. But today is not that day. Most of us help a lot of people and we are satisfactorily paid for our work. Chaos and war should only be the final solution, rather than the first solution. Though, those who are more-Chinese-than-American will probably disagree with me saying that chaos and war should never be a solution.

  9. Rashnu October 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    “…racialized cage…” That’s a good analogy. Under white supremacy, the different groups of non-white people don’t even get to relate to each other largely on their own terms, do they?. We deal with each other in a very white-influenced, white-prescribed manner. White people are often the middle-people that have the most influence on how people are going to interact with each other. Isn’t that what a lot of political groups are for? To contend with white people and with other groups (through white people)? Then white people make the decision about who gets what and who goes where.

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