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.