Today’s API movement: confronting racism, capitalism, and war

Marvin Joseph The Washington Post
Low-income residents rally against eviction on Sep. 30th in Washington, DC. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)


Over the past year, growing numbers of Asian Americans have taken up the call for #ModelMinorityMutiny, rightly pointing out the falsehood of Asian American uplift, but more importantly, rejecting the very idea that chasing after such a precarious and inhumane notion of success is something even worth doing. In reality, Asian Americans have been mutinying for a while now. In this spirit, several people asked me to share the following remarks, given during a recent panel discussion titled, “What Can Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Do About Racial Justice?” at the National CAPACD conference in Washington, D.C. Hopefully they can shed some light on the work that grassroots Asian American and Pacific Islander organizers are doing, and have been doing for decades, to advance a politics of humanity and inclusion over the divisive politics of American exceptionalism and white supremacy. The panel featured Naroen Chinn of 1Love Movement in Philadelphia; Deepa Iyer, Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion and author of the forthcoming book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multiracial Future; Mike Murase of the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles; and Leotele Togafau of FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity) in Hawaii.

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Good morning! It’s my great honor to moderate this panel of incredible activists. First, I’ve been asked by National CAPACD to take 10 minutes to provide some framing from ChangeLab’s perspective. Then we’ll dive into the panel discussion for about an hour. Finally, we’ll take some time for Q&A with all of you. Afterwards, there will be a workshop to continue the conversation, for those interested.

A quick note: I’m going to use “API” sometimes, and “Asian Americans” at other times, because I want to be historically accurate and intentional about how and when we’re talking about Pacific Islander communities and experiences.

What can APIs do about racial justice? It’s not a new question. I want to start with a few quotes – first from Daryl Maeda, chair of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, on the Asian American movement of the 1960s and ‘70s:

The Asian American movement created a multiethnic alliance [of] Asians of all ethnicities [inspired by the ideas behind] the Black Power and anti-war movements… as well as decolonization movements around the globe… Coalitional politics was… foundational to understanding the United States as a capitalistic and imperialistic system that exploited people of color both within and outside its borders.

He’s talking about the Asian American movement in 1968. Now, a few quotes from interviews I’ve done with today’s Asian American activists:

Twenty or 30 years ago, to say ‘I’m API’ [had] a political commitment that [came] with it… Today, what does it mean when one counts oneself as API? …Is it a political identity? Do we think it’s a cultural identity? Do we think it’s a biological identity somehow?

Another person asked:

Do we really share common experiences and common histories and common concerns? …We’ve really strayed from the initial work and rhetoric that started to occur when the [Asian American] movement was being shaped and formed… I think we lost something.

How did we get from a multiethnic Asian American movement clearly committed to interracial solidarity and to ending capitalism and war, to this moment of questioning the very meaning of API identity and politics? I’ll try to give a very rough sketch of some key shifts over the last 50 years or so, to help surface the historical conditions shaping these questions about APIs and race.

National CAPACD was born out of the struggles of low-income APIs, so I’m going to assume a basic point of unity here is a desire to build power for the most marginalized APIs – Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, queer and transgender people, youth, low-wage workers, and women. The question is: how do we do that? And, what are we building power for?

The original Asian American movement was committed to multiracial solidarity not because it was the right thing to do, but because its leaders understood that Asian American struggles were shaped by white supremacy, that they had shared interests with Black people and other people of color. They understood that their very presence in the United States, and the conditions they faced here, were the results of capitalism and imperialism, the driving forces of white supremacy.

But demographic and political changes since then have created questions for the API movement. Asian Americans once included primarily poor and working class Filipinos and East Asians. But due to U.S. wars and immigration policy, the population came to include Southeast Asian refugees, growing numbers of South Asians, and high-skilled professionals and entrepreneurs from various parts of Asia. We at some point got included statistically with Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The broad category of API now includes not just ethnic and linguistic diversity, but also vast differences in class, color, religion, and migration stories.

This raises questions like:

If Asian American, or now API, politics is by definition coalitional, are we operating in a coalitional way? If not, how can we build genuine unity?


What do capitalism and imperialism look like now? Who’s being affected, what are the key fights, and how do we build solidarity across ethnicity and race?

The institutions that came out of the movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s – some of which are represented in this room today – were and are critical, to “serve the people.” But they weren’t set up to address some of the biggest challenges facing APIs now – criminalization, deportation, post-9/11 surveillance, anti-Muslim hate violence, and U.S. militarism and economic exploitation in Asia and the Pacific.

Also U.S. race politics have changed. During the ‘80s the political right waged a huge backlash against civil rights and multiculturalism that continues today, creating the belief that we are “post-racial”. Meanwhile, massive disinvestments from the public sector and massive investments into incarceration and national security apparatuses have created immense suffering, especially in Black communities, but also for other people of color.

U.S. elites needed to justify this suffering. They did that through ideas like the model minority myth, a social engineering project that U.S. liberals undertook during the Cold War, in response to Soviet criticisms of American racism. The myth is more than offensive. It has broad impacts. It uses Asian Americans as proof that America is a legitimate world leader, a democratic nation where minorities can thrive if they work hard enough. It’s a smokescreen for war and for the realities of Asian Americans in struggle, lifting up only those who are successful, while reinforcing false ideas about Black criminality. The myth makes no sense, really. If hard work really brings material reward, then why aren’t the descendants of enslaved Black people wealthy?

Over the past five years, I’ve heard API activists share different ideas about what today’s API movement should look like, but one thing people agree on is that because of all these changes, we need new conversations to build a new politics, an upgraded version of that “something” that “we lost”.

Obviously, capitalism, war, and racism haven’t gone away. But as an API movement, are we still talking about these forces? Today the richest 80 people in the world own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion people, or half the world’s population. In 1967 Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”. Today, U.S. taxpayers pay $8M every hour, or $600 billion just in 2015, to support war – compared to $63 billion on housing, for example. Forty years after illegal U.S. bombings in Southeast Asia fueled the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the ensuing genocide and a refugee crisis, we now face a Syrian refugee crisis, fueled by U.S. war in the Middle East. These forces still shape the world, causing profound violence and suffering in communities of color here and abroad.

And what about race? Well, what is race?

Most of us think of race as demographic categories of people with shared characteristics. We’re taught to think this way. But race isn’t natural or fixed by ethnicity or language or culture; it’s the outcome of political and economic systems that divide humanity into winners and losers, creating freedom for some and suffering for others. We are “raced” in relationship to one another, and our racial position can change over time. Asian Americans went from being despised Orientals to model minorities in a matter of decades.

Race, this division of humanity into deserving and undeserving, began with blackness and whiteness, to justify chattel slavery and the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and democracy. White supremacy, which affects us all, is, in its origins, anti-Black, which makes Black liberation a strategic goal if we are committed to building a truly inclusive democracy.

Blackness isn’t separate from us. We can see it in every issue, including immigration. When President Obama uses the phrase, “felons, not families” to justify the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions, that’s sorting “good” immigrants from “bad” immigrants. It’s asking us to believe that it’s natural to see people with criminal convictions as less than human, as disposable people who somehow don’t have families, rather than as loved ones, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters with complex human lives and stories. That kind of criminalization has its roots in the enslavement of Black people. Today’s police forces are descendants of fugitive slave patrols meant to protect not us, not people of color, but white property owners. The legacy of that now affects not just Black, Latino, and Native people, but also APIs who are criminalized and deported.

So race isn’t the same as demographics. In fact, different APIs are “raced” differently. APIs include the very wealthy and the very poor; assimilated U.S. citizens and people who are criminalized and deported and killed; and those fighting for sovereignty against U.S. imperialism. These fault lines show us how systems like immigration, mass incarceration, economic exploitation, and war shape real differences in racial experiences even within a demographic category like API.

But this is an opportunity! How powerful would we be if we insisted on moving together as an API family, and if we acted in genuine kinship with other people of color, leaving no one behind despite these fault lines? We could do political jujitsu on white supremacy!

The Movement for Black Lives has brought more national attention to issues of race than we’ve seen in decades. It’s very much our fight. There are grassroots API groups that are, as we speak, redefining what it means to be API by organizing across ethnicity against violence, poverty, and criminalization from a racial justice lens – groups like PrYSM, CAAAV, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Freedom Inc., 1Love Movement, VAYLA, AYPAL, Desis Rising Up and Moving, Khmer Girls in Action, Mekong, the Chinese Progressive Association, and more. These groups are united through networks called Grassroots Asians Rising and the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, and have been committed to solidarity with Black communities from jump. They do racial justice work rooted in their own experiences, but in a way that understands that there’s no way we can imagine justice for APIs without solidarity with Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans – because we are one human family, struggling to get whole in the face of white supremacy.

So, there’s some framing from ChangeLab’s perspective that our brilliant panelists can now expand on…

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By Soya Jung

Soya has been active in the progressive movement for over 30 years. During the 1990s she worked as a reporter at the International Examiner, communications and policy staff for the WA State House Democratic Caucus, and executive director of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. She was the founding chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in 1996 to restore food and cash assistance for low-income immigrants and refugees in Washington State. During the 2000s she worked at the Social Justice Fund, a public foundation supporting progressive organizations in the Northwest, and consulted for various institutions like the Western States Center, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Nonprofit Assistance Center, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

At ChangeLab Soya has authored two research reports: "Left or Right of the Color Line: Asian Americans and the Racial Justice Movement" and "The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think", and co-authored the Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. She has convened numerous public events uniting scholars with social movement activists to explore race, gender, war/empire, and Asian American identity. Her writing has been published in Othering & Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, and cited in places like the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ColorLines, and The Guardian.