This is a transcript of a panel discussion that ChangeLab convened at last year’s Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) Conference in Portland, OR. It was first published in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Studies, Volume 4, no. 2 (Fall 2017) and is republished here with permission.
Soya: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us. My name is Soya Jung, and I’m a senior partner at ChangeLab, which is a racial justice experimental think tank that studies how demographic change, neoliberalism, and the rise of right-wing movements are affecting racial politics, with a special focus on Asian American identity. It’s my great pleasure to moderate this panel of my brilliant friends, teachers, and comrades.
Furthest to my left, appropriately, is Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association [CPA] in San Francisco. Alex also serves on the coordinating committee of Grassroots Asians Rising, a new national initiative for grassroots Asian American organizations. He will draw on his vast experience organizing multiracial resistance against ballot measures and other policy attacks during the years that followed Sa-I-Gu and reflect on changes within the Asian American movement since then.1
To his right (not politically) is Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford. Jeff is a co-founder of CultureStr/ke and ColorLines. A journalist and author of many books, he most recently wroteWe Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, which links #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite; Ferguson to Washington, DC; and the Great Migration to resurgent nativism.2 He argues that resegregation is the unexamined condition of our time and that undoing it is key to racial justice and cultural equity.
Daniel Martinez HoSang is an associate professor of political science and the head of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Oregon. Danny is the author of Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California.3 He will discuss California’s racialized ballot measures during the 1990s as a way to understand Sa-I-Gu as a marker for thinking of race relationally and comparatively, and for organizing within multiracial frameworks.
Chandan Reddy is an associate professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies and the program in the comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington and the author of Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the US State, which examines a crucial contradiction at the heart of modernity: the nation-state’s claim to provide freedom from violence depends on its systematic deployment of violence against those perceived as non-normative and irrational.4
I’m going to give some introductory remarks, and then we’ll dive in. We chose to frame this conversation in terms of crisis: not only the state of permanent crisis created by racial capitalism and settler colonialism but also specific flashpoints like Sa-I-Gu. We want to look at the conditions surrounding these flashpoints and the responses to them that then shaped race consciousness and politics subsequently.
Today we have no shortage of crisis, no shortage of flashpoints. The United States just dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan and is flirting dangerously with nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared an all-out war on immigrants and a revival of the War on Drugs, saying, chillingly: “Be forewarned. This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”5 We have a climate change denier and fossil fuel champion in control of the Environmental Protection Agency. People like Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson and Tea Party darling Nikki Haley are setting foreign policy and are the faces of the United States on the global stage. On Thursday President Trump signed legislation aimed at eliminating federal funding for abortion care. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is eviscerating public education under the banner of “freedom of choice.”
It is hard to keep up with the pace of crisis. Internationally the world is burning, literally, with extreme weather events and disasters due to the warming of the planet, causing particular suffering in the Global South. And Syria. I have no words for the horrifying crimes of the Assad regime against the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. I fear that the left in the West has profoundly betrayed humanity in its failure to support the Syrian democratic revolution. I fear the rise of these strongman regimes globally—Putin, Assad, Trump, Duterte, Erdogan—all backed by state power, and the future that this signals.
And yet there is hope. Perhaps more than at any other time in my lifetime, there are opportunities to shift mass culture, at the very least to popularize and normalize a slightly more critical consciousness. It’s not as if brutal immigration enforcement wasn’t taking place twenty years ago, or the War on Drugs is something new. But now more people are paying attention, wanting to do something, seeing themselves as agents of change. That’s promising. But what do we, as critically thinking, justice-minded thinkers and doers, want? What will lead us out of what Jeff has called this “cycle of crisis”?6
This month marks not only the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sa-I-Gu but also the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church. In this speech, Dr. King knowingly risked alienating significant portions of his base as well as white liberal powerbrokers by denoun-cing not just domestic racism but also militarism and capitalism. King warned that these “giant triplets” formed a blueprint for “violent co-annihilation” and called for a spiritual revolution of values fueled by a deep and all-embracing love. Speaking of the war he said:
And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.7
I love this speech because it is such a careful and powerful call for an internationalist working-class and poor-people’s politics, and for a feminist politics fundamentally—a politics of non-subjugation, of anti-domination, of radical love. That he was killed exactly one year later has always haunted me. It is as if silencing his radicalism, his unwavering commitment to human solidarity, was necessary for the capitalist class to declare the freedom dreams of Black Americans achieved, to erase all arguments for dismantling the color line by denying its existence, by creating new stories about the deserving versus the undeserving of humanity through criminalization and immigration policy, allowing the giant triplets to live on.
The year of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, there were 159 race rebellions across the United States, driven by the same forces that drive Black uprisings today: poverty, police violence, political neglect. The first occurred in Cleveland, but by far the most devastating ones took place in Newark and Detroit, a city that fifty years later is under emergency management.
Just a year earlier, in 1966, the New York Times published William Peterson’s “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” and the U.S. News and World Report published “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” praising Chinese Americans and Chinatowns.8 The model minority myth started to take hold in the American public imagination. Chinese and Japanese Americans, who previously had been seen as disease-ridden, untrustworthy, sexually deviant, and criminal, were magically redeemed as exemplary nonwhites. After World War II, US elites needed to adjust America’s racial folklore to win the Cold War contest for global power. The Soviet Union criticized the United States for its racism, so America created the model minority to prove the possibility of racial uplift while maintaining the validity of rules that justified the punishment of rebellious Blacks and other threats to the liberal capitalist state. This project was helped greatly by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which selectively favored highly educated and professional classes of Asian immigrants entering the country while criminalizing migrants from Mexico and Latin America.
But how do we make sense of the fact that this is also the same time as the fight to preserve the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, when the owner, the Milton Meyer Company, threatened to demolish the building and evict its elderly, low-income Asian residents? This was the same time as the My Lai massacre, when the US soldiers of Charlie Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade arrived at the village of My Lai. The unit meets no resistance from the 700 inhabitants, yet kills over 500 Vietnamese civilians, including 119 children seven years old and younger and 27 elderly people in their seventies or eighties. What did the model minority myth do for us, as Asians, by slicing and dicing our interests and our consciousness away from a global working-class majority?
We can’t dislodge the model minority myth without contending with capitalism, which since the formation of this nation has declared clearly that Black life doesn’t matter. When Black lives don’t matter, life matters less, and Asian lives matter only when they justify Black death. We are raced in relationship to one another, and our survival depends on understanding this. For Asian Americans, our entry into this nation, our arrival, has been as rivals within racial capitalism. Multiracial solidarity requires seeing race not as a set of natural categories of people but as a system of state-brokered relationships in a global scheme of deadly competition. Just as the state violence of immigration enforcement makes national borders real, our rivalries within capitalism give meaning to racial boundaries. Antiracist struggle requires not a reshuffling of categories but a replacement for the rivalries of capitalism, a new common sense and practice for how we live on this earth.
As we well know, the war that Dr. King risked his life to denounce fifty years ago led to a refugee crisis. Alex and I were recently at a gathering of Grassroots Asians Rising, with 160 activists from Asian American and Pacific Islander community-organizing projects around the country. There we heard Chhaya Chhoum speak, the director of [Bronx community organization] Mekong NYC who came to the US as a result of this refugee crisis. She described a conversation she had about Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech with a lawyer who had worked with him at the time, who told her that King knew he would be killed because of that speech. She told us how surreal it was for her, a Cambodian refugee, to sit in that room, with that person, and talk about that speech. The cycle of crisis. She also told us that her community would soon be christening a new mental health clinic, fiscally sponsored by a Black health organization, to address the severe intergenerational trauma among Southeast Asian refugees. The name of the clinic is Beloved Community.
So now I want to turn to my friends here to talk about crisis and multiracial politics. We’ll start with Sa-I-Gu and work forward to this moment and also to future possibilities. And let’s try to make this conversational, so please feel free to respond to each other as well as making your own distinct points.
Jeff: Thanks, first of all, to Soya for organizing this. It’s a real honor to be here with all of these folks who do such amazing work that inspires and influences me so much, and actually makes me feel that we’ll be all right.
For those of us who came of age in the eighties or nineties, I think we’re trying to define a generation of cultural politics. We just finished a panel on Karen Ishizuka’s book Serve the People, which was about the rise of the Asian American movement as it took shape in the sixties, which she calls “the long sixties.”9 It’s a very important book, and I think everybody should read it. It’s the kind of history that I wish we had had when we were coming of age in the eighties and nineties. We were trying to struggle in a context in which the Civil Rights and Third World revolutions in the United States had been steadily, sometimes jarringly, dismantled during the Reagan/Bush era. The process of course began before that, but it really accelerated beginning in the 1980s, and left those of us who were raised to believe in a Third World coalition realizing that there was a huge gap between what we were thinking about in the universities in terms of what coalition politics might look like and what was actually happening on the ground with continued immigration—which, as you were saying, Soya, focused a lot on the middle class for particularly Asian Americans and still immiserated so many people in poverty.
So the uprising was a turning point for us. One of the things that strikes me is that many of us who came of age in that generation moved away from the idea of Asian American politics. We felt like maybe we were best practicing an Asian American cultural politics, a politics in organizing, by not foregrounding the Asian Americanist aspect. For me, I found hip-hop activism; Danny was working at the Center for Third World Organizing [CTWO]; a lot of our peers went on to form things like the National Domestic Workers Alliance. So thinking about how we could forge boundaries and intersections between folks was the core of what we were trying to do.
In recent years, of course, that’s shifted back, so we’ve seen the growth of that, but we’ve also seen on the campuses a return to thinking deeply about what it means to be organizing in working-class Asian American/Pacific Islander communities. And now there’s an interesting way that these ideas can be bridged. When we see what’s going on out there in the world, we see ourselves in this crisis that’s inescapable. The flashpoints are 1965, 1992; right now, the years 2013 to 2016 have returned us to a cycle. So a lot of the language that I hear now on the campuses among my students reflects the same frames and languages that we were using back in the eighties and the nineties. As folks who are concerned with justice, racial justice, we do have to be able to figure out how to communicate and find new ways to move us out of this cycle. So there’s crisis, there’s our reaction—we’ve all been thinking about how to react—and there’s a backlash that forms, and this is the basis of what we saw with the Trump election.
Then there’s the sense that’s ahead of us of some sort of exhaustion: an exhaustion of ideas, an exhaustion of spirit, and then we find ourselves back in crisis again. I think for us, as Asians and Pacific Islanders who are trying to figure out how to get out of the cycle of crisis, we now have to be able to think of identity expansively.
Soya, you framed this incredibly well in the beginning here. You know, the “Beyond Vietnam” speech was not something that I was actually taught during the eighties and nineties. It became central to Asian American organizing as we began to embrace the work of Grace Lee Boggs. I think that Grace Lee Boggs became such an icon for our generation in part because we saw a fellow traveler, someone who had decades upon decades of experience before us in traveling out into that unknown and working outside primarily Asian American communities, actually; she seemed part of the narrative that made sense to those of us who came of age in that era. But what she was doing was pointing us to this notion of an expansive identity: one that seeks connection, one that seeks intersection, one that always tries to foreground the voices of those who are on the frontline, one that requires us to be conspirators, co-conspirators, behind our people’s leadership, and sometimes to be leaders where it makes sense for us to do so, but ultimately to be committed and engaged in an ethical identity.
What it ultimately comes down to is how we define identity—Asian Americanness, Pacific Islanderness, whatever you call it—in an ethical kind of way. How do we define it in a way that allows us to seek and to understand the connections and then to be able to find the place where we could serve? Whether it be to lead or to follow and support and help create space for it in the long run? And this ultimately, I think, is how we move from this particular point, when we are forming the resistance. People are finding intersections, but the resistance is not going to be enough to get us out of this cycle of crisis. We have to be able to move it to a transformative kind of a vision, a transformative kind of space, and that’s where I think we need to be grounded in an ethical position.
Daniel: I want to build on a couple of things that Jeff said and talk about the particular set of conditions at that moment—the conjuncture of forces unfolding in the early 1990s in Los Angeles whose scale and intensity were so difficult to grasp at the time. Think about the corridor in and around Normandie Avenue from Koreatown, which is just east of downtown, running south for about fifteen miles through the heart of Black and Brown LA. By the early 1990s, this stretch had undergone a remarkable crisis and transformation—when so many forces shaping the late twentieth century came into collision. South LA loses tens of thousands of well-paying, often unionized jobs—suffering a heavy toll from the transformation of the industrial economy and the attacks on organized labor. At the same time, the legacy of Cold War militarism and empire in Korea, Southeast Asia, and Central America produced massive displacements and migration to Southern California. Then we have the growth of the low-wage jobs in areas like garment work and the service economy that the state was never committed to regulating and that unions were slow to organize. The impact of all of these forces had not yet fully registered.
The state itself—one of the leading exemplars of progress in post-1945 California—was in a state of crisis, a casualty to both the anti-tax movement and the deepening investment in prisons and policing. Places like Crenshaw High School, a landmark institution in Black LA for generations, which was by the early 1990s grappling with massive budget cuts that left it unable to serve most students. King/Drew Medical Center, a landmark health institution in South LA, also in the throes of crisis. Even mass incarceration, the scale and impact of which we have a better understanding of today, was a problem that most people hadn’t named at this time, even as the state was in the middle of a massive prison boom. With regard to policing, by the early 1990s dozens of Black people had already been killed in chokeholds by the Los Angeles Police Department, but that was not yet part of the public narrative of police abuse. Today we can trace all these forces and their intersections and all the things thrown into uncertainty, but at the time, it was difficult to have a collective sense of their gravity and impact, and the types of organizing and political strategies that would be required to address them.
In the early 1990s, I was working for an organization called the Center for Third World Organizing. In the local organizing we did, we sought to identify the areas where the experiences and interests of different communities of color converged and to organize around those—environmental health, education, youth services, etc. This approach produced some important victories. But what we were much less good at is thinking about the very different ways that all these shifts I mentioned affected people differently. So on one hand some people—especially long-established Black communities and workers—are getting laid off and displaced, leading to a crisis in employment and income. On the other, people are getting pulled into these hyperexploitative labor conditions—they are being overworked. This is the start of a rise in Asian-owned and Korean-owned businesses that are employing newly arrived workers—particularly undocumented Latinos/as or people with mixed status—and we just didn’t have an analysis or basis of experience to think about how to politically address both issues [over- and underemployment] at the same time. Or to take another example, LA had long been home to patterns of racial segregation in housing that disproportionately targeted Black renters and homebuyers. But even as a massive wave of white flight beginning in the 1960s opened up new housing stock in previously all-white neighborhoods like South Gate and Lynwood to Latinos/as, Black people were still shut out, and patterns of segregation endured. So we have these forces that produced quite different experiences within different communities of color, such that a “common issues” framework that might unite people around shared interests was not fully adequate. There were real differences in employment patterns, housing experiences, treatment by the state (mass incarceration versus immigration enforcement) that too often were not taken into account. This was not about primordial hatred or mistrust between racialized groups but about structural factors that complicated the possibilities of political solidarity between these groups. In many ways, Sa-I-Gu made these longstanding conditions and forces newly visible.
The last thing I want to say in reference to Soya’s wonderful introduction is that in King’s speech, one of the high points is the clarity with which he made connections between imperialism, materialism, and racism. He very carefully traced out their mutual constitution and shared origins. That is, he gave us a way to think about all the forces that were at work on that fifteen-mile stretch of Normandie Avenue. But by the early nineties, that analysis, and the historical memory from which it had been produced, had faded, and we didn’t have the institutions that might have held on to such an analysis. For example, ethnic studies programs in the academy were barely hanging on at that point. Within electoral politics, we had a whole generation of Black leaders like Mayor Tom Bradley in LA, who really did not have the orientation, politics, or capacity to sustain such a critique. So there was this combination of rapidly changing conditions and institutions that weren’t capable of grappling with them that left many people at a loss to understand what was to come.
Alex: Wow, I’m riffing off all of these ideas. I’m Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. This is actually my thirteenth year there, and I feel very fortunate to be part of an organization that lived through all of these times and to be at the point where the way we talk about the movement is actually tapping into the work of the 1930s. A lot of work was done by, I would say mostly by Chinese folks who were involved in the anti-imperialist movement and aggression of Japan and also the Great Depression. So there is a lot of rich history, and the way I like to think about it is, I’ve been thinking about Bruce Lee—what’s his most famous phase—“Be like water.” Through the years there’s been so much thinking about how the political conditions are changing and how the organization can navigate to stay relevant in the times.
One thing in the 1990s that’s part of our history is that the, quote, “organized left,” Asian American left, dissolved. Because of that, the movement infrastructure really changed. And what did that mean? It meant that the energy from all the highly committed Asian American activists who believed that revolution was around the corner shifted and in some cases dissipated. At the time so much had happened, and we had become more of an official nonprofit in 1991. So there’s a big shift: there had been a lot of work that was super centralized with one group that says, “These are the priorities,” and then when things shifted in the nineties, everyone was like, “Well, we’re just going to do a lot of really good local decentralized work,” and actually anything that said “central” or “centralized” was not a good thing. You see an emergence of a whole bunch of networks that were in labor, in community, and it gave rise to a lot of positive things in the movement. The decimation of our movement, that’s not something we could have stopped; we’re dealing with massive forces. But the way that we see it, in terms of being like water, is then building off all these amazing experiments along the way.
We learned at that time in the nineties—talking about the workforce changing, new immigrants—that we had to change how we talked about Asian Americans because we started organizing garment workers. We started organizing people who did not identify as being Asian. We were inspired by the Asian American movement, and right in our midst there were new immigrants coming in who didn’t even know what “Asian” was, right? And so we started really churning out how to organize in this way. We actually didn’t know what was going on, right? There were twenty to thirty thousand people still working in the garment factories in the nineties, and we were organizing those folks. And I actually became politicized because AAAS [Association for Asian American Studies] and Asian American studies had a strong focus around labor, workers, and the intersections with women’s identity, immigrant identity, and even globalization, and that was a huge contribution to the field and my own political development.
I’m thinking about some of the openings that exist because that period taught us a lot, and actually there are a lot of things that our elders saw from comparing what happened in ’92 and what happened with BLM [Black Lives Matter] when a lot of police violence reemerged. They were surprised, they’re like, “Yeah, ’92, when these riots happened, we had no idea how to respond.” That’s how our generation saw this police violence: with social media exploding, it makes you feel like everything is falling apart, right? But some of the elders were like, “You all are more prepared than we were.” I was like, “Oh my god.”
Soya: Thank you. I think we’re ready to shift toward looking at what has changed since ’92. A lot of things have shifted in terms of the global economy, in ways that our panelists have taken up. So I’m going to ask Chandan to start to pivot usto that question.
Chandan: As I start to answer this question, I want to thank Soya again for organizing this panel and bringing this conversation together. Soya relentlessly works to make sure that there remains an ongoing conversation and project between the field of Asian American studies and Asian American and Asian immigrant activists and organizations working on diverse issues and conditions. It’s efforts like Soya’s that we need going forward because they address precisely one of the failures that, as Danny was putting it, we discovered in the aftermath of ’92: how much the Asian “American” and Asian immigrant movement and the project of ethnic studies were not in conversation and didn’t have a continuous relationship of renewal with each other. In a way, Soya and the work of ChangeLab are exactly one example of what has emerged out of the crises of ’92, a renewed effort to connect Asian American and ethnic studies to emergent and ongoing activist projects and organizing efforts.
As Danny said, there are a number of transformations, the full extent of which, looking back, we did not know in ’92, such as racialized mass incarceration, the loss of public-sector work for African Americans, and the increased reliance on undocumented and mixed-status Latinas/os and Asian immigrants across all sectors of the formal and informal economy. At the level of ideology and practice, we were just beginning to see the outlines of what we now refer to as neoliberalism. Yet much of the focus in the ’92 period was battling the dominance of liberal multiculturalism as a kind of cultural order for producing both visions of societal and workplace equality and justice and also visions of what it is to work across race.
There were a lot of people—I’m thinking of people, for example, who worked to get justice for Latasha Harlins after her murder by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du. Local activists, like Harlins’s aunt, and critical race theorists pointed to the alarming ways in which culturalist discourses about Harlins’s menacing Blackness and Soon’s defense of her family assets became the basis by which Soon was spared any jail time for her murderous actions. The case pointed to the ways in which liberal courts and the legal superstructure were key sites for racial meaning-making, often stressing the “cultural” differences of racialized groups.10
It’s not new in the history of US law, where comparison of Blacks and Asians are frequent, found in legal rulings like Plessy v. Ferguson and even earlier nineteenth-century cases. But the ways in which the law deployed culturist arguments to reinforce flexible hierarchies of racial value were different if not entirely new. Most importantly, this emergent cultural order, what Jodi Melamed calls neoliberal multiculturalism, mediated and often obscured LA’s transformation by economic globalization, transnational investment capital, and the carceral state.11 We are still living through this cultural order, even as it’s being contested for dominance by a resurgent and authoritarian white supremacy.
The other part that was emergent at the time—and we still don’t have tremendous ways of handling it, which is not a limit of movements but a limit of the moment we’re in—is that electronified finance capital was just beginning to assert its dominance. Even though the labor organizing through the 1980s was very much in the industrial sector, there was emergent work happening in labor organizing among urban folks of color and immigrants of color in the services sector. We were just starting to look at what someone like Saskia Sassen would term the global city, and starting to develop where we could make interventions in the financial order by organizing service workers, organizing strategic sectors that would be able to highlight the material structure within which finance is embedded as well as the inequalities of the growing financial sector.12
In some ways that work was successful, but we had no idea of the level to which finance, transformed in the 1990s and 2000s by new computational abilities, had overtaken previous dominant forms of capital, and what this would mean for economic justice work moving forward. In many ways we were still working with the transformation of, for example, industrial work into new forms of contracting and so on that Danny was mentioning. But now we are really trying to figure out how to talk about the relationships of tremendously impoverished communities, some of whom are working poor and some of whom are denied work altogether, to this moment of finance capital. That’s very different from what we thought we were battling in ’91 and ’92, even as we saw transnational conditions starting to emerge across sectors of the economy.
Jeff: The only thing I would tack on to Chandan’s amazing analysis is the implosion of organizing political power into a focus on culture. This riffs on your idea about multiculturalism: the capitalization of multiculturalism and the moment in which we shift from invisibility to hypervisibility and become the faces of the inequitable system that hide and paper over the inequality. So we have, on the one hand, Moonlight winning over La La Land, and yet the Academy is 90 percent white, those kinds of things.
Alex: I was thinking about how there has been an opening for a new narrative, a new identity for Asian Americans, in this period. I think for a lot of the organizations that were doing work on the ground in the nineties and continue to do that, we were all politicized under this Asian American movement, this identity that was born in the sixties and seventies. Then we went to our local communities, and I’m including refugee folks organizing Cambodian communities, queer and trans folks, Arab and Muslim folks: everyone basically just jumped into deep local organizing because those were the new conditions. Many had been doing solidarity side by side with Black folks for a long time already. Our national work is grounded in local conditions, and this is why we’re doing all this amazing work.
In 2004 the Chinese Progressive Association attempted something we had been trying to do for a long time: we wanted to bring everyone back together to think about how we create a national API [Asian and Pacific Islander]—and even that is a contested term, “API”—movement-building effort. It was in response to George Bush getting reelected. We came together and realized that very few of us actually identified as Asian Americans, meaning that we as activists did, but when we went into the community we didn’t use that term. So we were holding on to this romantic idea of being Asian American and then just saying, “Okay, Asian American work is also Asian immigrant work even though our Chinese immigrants don’t get along with Koreans or Japanese.” And we’re like, “They’re just messed up, they just should all get along, they’re in this country, right?”
I think we wanted to hold on to this thing and we tried really hard—some of you in the room might have been part of this—and we realized through that project that there are many differences among our community. We ended up creating a track for organizers because organizers actually had to respond to the needs in the community, which are not around Asian American issues but more around labor issues, tenant issues, queer and trans issues. Then the new kind of work that came up in that period was obviously with Arab and Muslim communities: there’s more and more organizing that is being done, especially after 9/11 and more recently around formerly incarcerated folks.
These are the kinds of new identities that I think for a long time we were looking for permission to include. But who has “permission” to change this? In terms of “API,” some say, “Well, there are no Pacific Islanders here, so how dare you use that?” The typical response has been, “Oh, it’s a political identity.” These are old debates, and right now there’s an opportunity to basically redefine everything. In 2011, we brought many of these groups together again in New Orleans and there were one hundred–plus people, thirty groups, and all of these tensions exploded in front of us. We were like, “We’re here as Asian Americans,” and some were like, “No, you’re not; when 9/11 happened you all weren’t there for us,” and it was like, “Oh, that’s true.” All these things that started to emerge, but people didn’t realize that even as a Chinese/East Asian organization we do organize Chinese people against Chinese people. They don’t see themselves as only Chinese; they see themselves as workers.
This exchange was so important, and I’m happy to say that we’ve been able to build strong relationships and see some of how we can actually build long-term movement infrastructure. At the same time, these are the organizations, mostly in the Southeast Asian refugee community, that are doing some of the most cutting-edge work in the movement. Also, just like in the sixties and seventies, it is young people who are leading us. It’s not just happening in the Asian community, but I would also say in all of our communities.
Daniel: In another two years we will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Proposition 187, a 1994 California ballot measure that in retrospect is actually further to the right than anything Trump could have dreamed up today. Prop. 187 made one’s immigration status a condition of any receiving any public service—including public education and healthcare—and turned all public-sector workers into de facto immigration agents. The measure passed by two-thirds of California voters, an electorate with a Democratic majority. According to exit polls, which are probably not exact, between 50 and 55 percent of Asian Americans voted for it. Among Latinos/as, the polls suggest 30 percent; African Americans, 45 to 50 percent. Again, this reminds us of all the hard political work that remained to be done to build real political unity within communities of color. Thus, the notion that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us becomes perversely inverted.
As 187 was perceived mainly as targeting Latinos/as, among Asian Americans and African Americans it was offered as a kind of invitation—you can join an attack on another racialized group as a way to get a little break from the crisis you are facing. The measure, we should remember, was taken up by the Republican Party but actually came from much further out on the political fringes, among a small group of people who sensed all of this dislocation and said, “These are conditions in which we can really build a new kind of anti-immigrant project that invites at least some people of color into the fold.”
So I think part of what Alex is also talking about is all the work that’s gone on at the local level since then to address these dynamics. If we think about California today as operating as a kind of bulwark against much of the Trump agenda, this is the product of twenty-five years of organizing work that’s been put in at the local level among organizations that realized that none of these multiracial alliances or political formations can be presumed or taken for granted. If you look at this roster of amazing multiracial organizations working today in Los Angeles—the Garment Worker Center, Community Coalition, then Labor Community Strategy Center, AGENDA [Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives], and many others, they all advanced an analysis that recognized all the work that had to be done at the local level.
And statewide in California each proposition—1996 was an at-tack on affirmative action, 1998 an assault on bilingual education, 2000 a focus on juvenile justice—each of these moments focused attention on the way that electoral politics, local politics, and changes in the political economy all shape the conditions of people’s lives. Today there is an impressive capacity across the state to think in very sophisticated ways about these dynamics, a far cry from the conditions and capacity in the early 1990s.
Soya: There’s so much here; trying to narrate twenty-five years of organizing and neoliberal attacks and the rise of the reactionary right is ridiculous. But I do want us to say a little bit in regard to 9/11 and the ways in which that fundamentally shifted the terrain of struggle across lots of different issue areas.
Chandan: I do want to say something about the successes and richness of the kinds of “new” organizing that also emerged in the wake of Sa-I-Gu that we can see very clearly now in the post-9/11 moment. One of the things that ’92 really brought out within Asian American organizing was a much deeper attention to the histories of US empire, both in the past and ongoing, and a much deeper attention to the economic relationship between what we still called at the time the Third World, or what we now call the Global South, and the Global North: the ways in which Global Northern prosperity correlated with deepening income inequality and impoverishment in the Global South.
So what you saw impressively in ’92 and onward was a shift in Asian American politics away from a politics of rights and much more toward new forms of politics that many people were calling diasporic politics. These groups were organizing some of the people that Alex was talking about. For example, in New York it was the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, started by Bhairavi Desai and others who were organizing in new ways, often across the formal/informal labor divide and among immigrant “workers” and so-called taxi “owners” who had mixed legal citizenship status.
Working across sectors that are often separated in labor movements, these community-based diasporic organizing efforts didn’t take as their ultimate goal developing workers’ consciousness, for example, about their rights as US workers, since for many the economic conditions that determined their labor participation crossed national borders, linking their home countries and the United States. So organizing as diasporic people meant developing concrete tactics for bettering labor conditions through collective organizing as well as working collectively to understand how the histories of both colonialism and neo-/postcolonialism in their home countries and the emergent relation of the Global North to the Global South were exactly part of the context in which they were impressed into specific conditions of labor and work. Folks were doing a variety of politicized work within diaspora.
For example, in the Korean community, we saw the emergence of Nodutdol. This is a community-based organization started by Korean immigrant and Korean American feminists working together in a diasporic context to call out the political and economic collaboration between the Korean development state and the US state. At its founding, Nodutdol sought to connect with and extend the radical democratic movement taking place in South Korea against both global capital and the development state and continued US militarism along the DMZ [demilitarized zone along the 38th Parallel], by students, farmers, low-wage women workers, etc. Nodutdol did not only seek to support Korean immigrant communities and connect these communities to important movements for demilitarization and radical democracy in Korea; it also challenged the patriarchal nationalism found within other Korean American and Korean immigrant organizations and Korean religious organizations, a diasporic nationalism that also abetted forms of US racism, sexism, and heterosexism locally.
So it really was these other groups, these diasporic groups, that were starting to talk about state collaborations between South Korea and the United States and the importance of transnational forms of labor organizing and opposition in Korean immigrant communities; and as women of color, diasporic feminist groups saw the ways in which opposing diasporic patriarchal nationalisms was central to fighting anti-Black racism or sexist heteronormativity in immigrant communities.
So I think this is one of the most important features of any account we give of what’s different after ’92 in Asian “American” organizing—the strength and growth of new kinds of diasporic organizing. Without this important shift in how folks thought about “Asian American” organizing we wouldn’t have had groups like DRUM [Desis Rising Up and Moving/South Asian Organizing Center] who were such an important part of post-9/11 organizing against the US security state. These were just some of the various diasporic political formations that were especially crucial, in the 9/11 moment, to the move away from an Asian American perspective of inclusion and rights and the idea that, for example, racial profiling or indefinite detention was a violation of our rights as “Americans.” And, importantly, they also became a way to say that there is another project here, one that seeks to understand the transnational and global conditions of violence and contradiction that we’re in at this moment. I think diasporic work was doing that in a very original way within the Asian American organizing infrastructure.
Jeff: I have a question, actually. It strikes me that one of the victories that we should claim is that the rise of the diasporic politics creates a foundation for the resistance to Trump’s Muslim ban through the huge protests at the airports last year. That is something we should absolutely claim. I didn’t think of it until you brought it up that way. I’m thinking about the three of you and the way that you’re all bringing in different levels of analysis, and Soya, I want to ask this question of you, too. What is the role of thinking about place in this particular moment? Because we’re talking about state, you’re talking national as well as very local, you’re talking about global, and of course, Soya, you’re working in all these different levels. What is the role of place in thinking about what an Asian American politics might look like moving forward?
Daniel: I think about groups today like the Asian Pacific Environmental Net-work (APEN) in the East Bay, doing work quite similar to what scholar/activist Eric Tang has written about in relation to CAAAV’s [Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence: Organizing Asian Communities] organizing in the Bronx. Both places are home to longstanding Black communities that have deep experiences with deindustrialization, economic crisis, and state violence. APEN takes an environmental justice framework developed from Black communities in the South and Brown communities in the Southwest and brings it to bear on the conditions of Cambodian and other Southeast Asian refugee communities in urbanized areas. That is, they learn from the lessons and political insights of Black communities and leaders in understanding the conditions they face in places like the Northwest Bronx and Richmond, California. I think the same is true of groups like DRUM in New York, a recognition that even when we organize around local, so-called “place-based” concerns, we can never cordon off those conditions from the larger histories and dynamics of racial subordination and power. The forces of the world and of history are at work within all of these local communities, and this memory and the solidarities it produces are essential.
Soya: I would agree with that. I think one of the ways that place can be a framework for organizing and movement building is to think about how—whether place is a neighborhood or a workplace or a global chain of production—we’re related to each other in those systems. I do think there’s a very concrete way in which local organizing, in terms of building actual political leverage, is a particular thing. But in terms of our politics and the way we think about our relationships to each other, how we think about race, place is a physical and political manifestation of power.
For example, I’m so preoccupied right now with the threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. So I’m thinking about how the 38th Parallel was just kind of picked at random; Korea is a nation that was divided by the United States and the USSR. The implications of that are so profound: the fact that the war never ended, that there was an armistice and not a peace agreement; the fact that the border between North and South Korea became the most heavily militarized border in the world; and the fact that the United States sees South Korea and the Philippines as a staging area for US military power in imperial aspirations via its dominant relationship to these governments. That has profound consequences for all of us. It’s not just about Korea or Korean people but about how US militarism has fundamentally shaped our world and the threat of what King called “violent co-annihilation.”
Alex: I like this question because this is something I started to dig deeper into when Grace Lee Boggs came to San Francisco. She was talking about how Asian Americans in this century are going to be the leading force because, in part, of China’s global role. Chinese or Asian Americans could be the strategic buffer to stand up to Chinese capital while also understanding and being in solidarity with the people in China. It made me think about the racial project that we have here in the United States.
Sometimes we think about the movement as US based, and that it’s such an easy thing for our community members who know that this is not really their home. They’re making it their home, but the connections are very easy to draw from their experiences and there are a lot of organic things that are happening right in front of us. All the things you said make me think about how in the nineties, neoliberalism pushed its way in, and that prompted us to think more globally. We brought our members to Hong Kong to protest the WTO [World Trade Organization] in 2005. There were so many other Asian nations—Thai workers, there were Korean workers—and it made me think about how important our contribution is as Asian Americans to the movement locally and globally. We could talk about war and fighting imperialism in ways that other communities could, too, but because most of the not-so-great socialist experiments happened in our homelands, Asian immigrants and refugees who come to this country fit perfectly in the neoliberal and capitalist logic of the US system.
So there’s so much there. I was thinking about how we’re the “wedge” of the world: I’m not trying to be very Asian centered, but we are what’s holding back a lot of things, or we could decide what’s happening globally. Just with the Chinese/Asian Pacific world, I think there’s a rise of a sense of Chinese nationalism or superiority as well, and the strategic ways that we think about that are very complicated. When we brought people back to China, there’s a very clear agenda of what they call the “Chinese Dream” versus the “American Dream.” They say, “We will never bail out Wall Street; the economy will be safe and stable under the Chinese government.” It’s a very real thing. So that’s a side project as this other US project is happening, and they’re related to each other in this world. It’s all playing out. I think Asian Americans have a huge contribution to deepening that.
Chandan: I want to add one thing that builds on what Alex was talking about in terms of organizing within racialized immigrant communities. The year ’92 was a particularly important moment for what women-of-color feminism and emergent diasporic queer-of-color work were doing in this period and how their organizing was related to changes in modes of exploitation, where the small margins of surplus value and profits depended upon what sociologists call “co-ethnic” exploitation.
I think people like Cathy Cohen, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Michael Dawson—African American intellectuals—are amazing on this and really taught us a lot about the importance of studying and addressing co-ethnic exploitation, which was a very important part of the way that the racialized economic and social order reproduced itself in the nineties. Cohen and Dawson have shown how the rise of a very small Black political class that achieved limited though highly visible electoral victories in local, state, and national politics, often for the first time in US history—such as the mayoral or gubernatorial races of the eighties and nineties—did little to improve or change the political economic and racialized conditions of working-class and poor Black people. Instead, ideologies of “linked fate,” which suggest that both elite and non-elite Black people share a common racialized condition, or linked racial fate, such that antiracist electoral victories for the former would have racially beneficially effects for the latter, only made more obscure or “advanced” the marginalized of the latter.13
Likewise, taking the ’92 uprising as a historical marker and example, Lisa Lowe argued that for racialized immigrant and racialized “ethnic” communities, forms of political organizing and thinking that presume a racial or immigrant cultural and political univocity and homogeneity “advance” the marginalization of racialized immigrant women and queer people in ways that conjoin with and deepen their class exploitation. She brings this out forcefully in her reading of the film Sa-I-Gu.14
Additionally, there were gendered moral orders and moral codes that mediated complex social histories and experience that in traditional forms of labor and political organizing (especially within a rights framework) were impossible to even bring into the public. In Sa-I-Gu there’s a lot of discussion about Korean immigrant women’s mental health and trauma, which ranged from surviving multiple wars, land divisions, and displacement to intimate partner violences. The trauma conditioned and was often made worse by the long, solitary shifts immigrant women worked in grocery stores located in communities for which they had only the most limited language skills. Barred by language, location, and long working hours from community and full sociability, Korean immigrant women faced poor mental health as a symptom of the complex of violent histories and forms of power that determined the work they could perform. Additionally, gendered moral codes often reinforced the unspeakability of these symptoms in public, advancing the marginalization of immigrant women’s work when we construe “labor organizing” in narrow ways.
To take another example, we saw this as well in queer immigrant and queer-of-color organizing, when the US religious right began to court immigrant and African American churches and communities into their antigay political campaigns. All the while, the racial and class demographics of who was dying by the 1990s from HIV showed the political vectors of disease and death, yet it was nearly impossible to speak about HIV or queer sexualities in general as political and related to the conditions of exploitation beyond frameworks that stressed the politics of access to health services for queers of color. Post-’92 then marks as well a moment when diasporic and women-of-color and queer-of-color organizing and “cultural” struggles are precisely asking, how do we start to think differently about the political? Because the political itself, when we think about the politics of public spheres in that way, is one of the things that’s making certain deeply historical social relations impossible to organize around and also entrenching them. There was an attempt to do new work around and radically rethink our understanding of the “political” against and beyond what even a radical labor politics of the public sphere understands and delimits as the source and site of politics.
Jeff: It makes me think again about the importance of us trying to define an alternative to these moral codes, to this sort of morality. It makes me think about David Graeber’s work around debt, for instance, and how debt is internalized as something one should be ashamed of as opposed to Martin Luther King’s idea of debt, which is that we all owe each other, we belong to each other, and that’s what forms the beloved community.15
One of the other things I wanted to riff on, too, in terms of this idea of 1992 and 2001, is the rise of the police state in Los Angeles to contain bodies of color and specifically young bodies of color with the War on Drugs, which is framed as a war on gangs. There is this escalation of laws, of policies, and the normalization of the idea that we have to be tough on crime and therefore we have to remove young people of color who are in surplus to the new economy from society. We see that building up.
In 2001 this new police state is expanded to police the entirety of the country through Homeland Security. So we switch immediately from immigration and naturalization to enforcement—from naturalization to enforcement is essentially what happens. This leads to this escalation of militarization such that now we can think about how the policing on the border—the physical policing on the border with the kind of militarization that’s happened there—relates to the militarization of primarily Black cities and suburbs such as Ferguson and how that relates to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We see how the racialization process is actually connected in all of these ways: policing in the inner city relates to what’s happening on the border, which relates to what’s happening in the Black suburb or the colorized suburb, which relates to what is happening in the imperial project in the world.
Daniel: After Sa-I-Gu, there are sixteen thousand people arrested in LA, due to the presence of some five thousand state and local police—not even counting the national guard. That capacity didn’t just emerge; it had been built all across the past twenty years. This capacity for state authority, control, and violence and its devastating impact—which we understand well since 9/11—was less widely understood in the early 1990s. And it is important to remember that in many communities—places like Oakland and Los Angeles—the elected people of color raised few objections to this build-up. There were plenty of local mayors, council members, and police chiefs who were happy to welcome more funding for cops and jails in their communities at that time. They largely went along with it.
Soya: Okay, I am going to move to the audience Q and A. I do want to plug one thing that didn’t quite come up in our conversation. We brought up CTWO at the beginning of the panel; I think there has also been a profound shift in the way that social movement organizations work and a neoliberalization of social movement work because of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy. And there’s also a dearth of space for us to have conversations that bring together practice and theory or political training like CTWO and other organizations did, and I think that’s really hurting us. Questions or comments?
Audience member 1: Can you talk a little more about how organizers can strike a balance between honoring people’s particular senses of ethnic or national identity, as well as the specificity of the oppressions each group experiences, and the need to develop broader coalitions?
Alex: This is an ongoing question, especially now as we think about the new Chinese immigrants who are coming to this country and probably the flash-point of Peter Liang and Akai Gurley, where there was an organized infrastructure to get Chinese immigrants to support Peter Liang and oppose the Black communities that are rising up.16 It’s a little bit more complicated because there were several factions contesting for that narrative, and I would say a lot of the groups on the ground basically have been doing this for a long time, but with such low resources and at such a small scale that it’s not enough. Just a specific example for CPA and a lot of the organizations across the country, our immigrant base was not ready to throw down and go to a march to support Akai Gurley, but our young people were ready.
I think in a previous era of the organization we were like, “Well, young people shouldn’t be out on the streets until the adults are ready.” We get stuck in these kinds of binaries. Our young people were like, “We’re ready”—and our young people were also the same people who pushed for a queer space—“We’re ready to roll.” We just reconciled the fact that we are very different, This is just to say that it’s okay, that in our community there are going to be some people who are ready to take action. Even in our movement history, young people have moved faster and they have led the way. With the adult members, with the Peter Liang case, we did a lot of deep conversations about sharing the stories of Akai Gurley’s mom. And of course CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities was taking the most leadership of the group and trying to counter Chinese conservatism because the way it was put out on WeChat [Chinese social media] exploited nationalism.
It was unfair because Peter Liang wasn’t treated like a white person, a white cop. In the end this is a perfect example, because he actually did not get any jail time and so it moved some of our members to be like, “Oh, so police privilege does trump being attacked as a Chinese person.” So there were a lot of these moments. As an organization that’s been around for a long time, we’ve seen so many of these things, and so every time we use them as opportunities but also we’re very humbled by them.
There were two moments in my time at CPA that were really painful. One was in 2006: the immigrant rights movement was not trying to build a broad, holistic solidarity movement, so most of our folks thought it was a “Latino” issue. Some members literally said, “You are helping the corporations because corporations want amnesty so that Latinos can come and they’ll work cheaper than us.” I was like, “Oh man, it’s so deep,” and we lost, I remember losing members, and it was hard, and those people have not come back. We had to rebuild it, and we keep learning from those moments. The second time was in 2010 when a Chinese senior was killed by two young Black men. Some in the Chinese community wanted to call it a hate crime and wanted us to get out there, and we organized a major rally with other progressives in the Chinese community and members of the Black community and called for unity. We lost some people then, too.
We keep going through these different stages, and there’s something much bigger that has to happen. The opportunity is that we need to start organizing in new ways—and maybe not even use CPA as a main vehicle, because people don’t actually know what “progressive” is—and to think about ways to reach the new immigrant workers’ populations and to use things like the anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is coming up, to link those issues. And even the thing that is happening with Dr. Dao, who was beaten and dragged off his United Airlines flight—how can we use that as a way to unify and not say this is only about discrimination against Asians but connect it to the larger system of white supremacy?
Daniel: You make a great point that while there certainly were these formations in the eighties—I think of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City and Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland doing this important work—they did not yet have the capacity to enact major shifts in areas such as funding from large foundations or resources from labor unions or elected officials. It wasn’t until later in the 1990s that we saw growth in all of those places, among the women-of-color feminist organizations and within queer organizing, that proved capable of producing a much broader vision.
Soya: Any more questions? I think it was CPA who did the comic book story about the Peter Liang case. If you haven’t seen it I think you can see it on the website: www.cpasf.org.
Audience member 2: Can you talk about the difference between the formal investigations that followed the uprisings in the 1960s, like the Kerner Commission [on the 1967 “race riots”] and the McCone Commission [on the 1965 Watts Rebellion], and the official response to the events of ’92?17
Jeff: It’s striking to reread McCone and Kerner in light of resegregation. It’s really, really interesting to think about what that means as supposedly demographics—not supposedly, it’s happening—as demographic changes are occurring intensely and quickly and we’re all supposed to be getting better because we’re becoming more diverse. And to remind ourselves, of course, that it actually takes concerted effort, national effort, to move to a place we can begin to address these questions.
The thing that strikes me even about getting to the stage of a national report is that it means that you have some sort of a political consensus that people would want to address something like this. We’re very, very far from that, and I feel that a lot of the politics of the last fifty years have been about trying to itemize and separate groups so that we can’t get back to that kind of consensus.
One of the big questions is how do we inspire the imagination—the social imagination, this sort of broad, national unconscious, maybe global unconscious—to think about how we can establish a new consensus here? It comes down to the question of what it means to be a new majority. If we are actually the majority and we are trying to form this new majority, what are the inspiration and foundation, values and ideas and visions, that we’re basing that new majority upon? So that’s the big intersectional question that we can get to, hopefully.
Daniel: Both reports push away from the language of individual, itemized prejudice that has dominated the postwar era and toward the state acknowledging the impact of structural conditions. But undergirding both is this notion that people have been left behind from otherwise healthy, functioning markets, institutions, economies, and possibilities. That was the underlying premise: how can minoritized groups get access to what the majority has? But today, the whole formation is in crisis. The crisis in these white abandoned communities has begun to mirror the conditions in subordinated communities of color—failing schools, bankrupt public institutions, precarity as a basic condition of life. So I think that’s why that proposition is now much different.
Audience member 3: Hi. I’m Phanuel Anit and I work in a different diasporic and North American context—the Caribbean and Canada, where indigenous organizing is very strong. I wonder if any of you could talk to if and how folks were thinking about settler colonialism and indigeneity in their thinking and organizing?
Chandan: That is a great question, and it brings up a few things. One is that one way we have to think about Los Angeles is how it is a transnational crucible, and that transnational crucible begins much earlier than the late twentieth century and is composed of layered histories of colonialisms and settler colonialisms, including the changed social relations of the region after the Mexican American War, upon which post-1965 Asian and Latina/o immigration occurs. Kelly Lytle Hernández’s new book addresses this.18
So I think that the connections and frameworks you’re suggesting for us are absolutely right. As far as I know, most Asian American organizations didn’t have any critical relationship with settler colonialism or indigenous organizing in Los Angeles at that point, that I know of, in any major way. It was absent in our work and in the explicit thinking that I, at least at that time, participated in. It’s crucial and definitely something that wasn’t in the conversation then. In fact, I think sometimes people misunderstood or thought that diasporic work meant the exclusion of thinking about settler colonialism— which was, fairly or not, one of the reputations that diasporic work got in the 2000s because that work and thinking never explicitly took up questions of settler colonialism and its histories, nor did it collaborate with indigenous organizers locally, with the exception of Pacific Islander and Palestinian communities. The concerns around land appropriations and the construction of place can reopen diasporic politics in important ways.
One thing that is interesting about place, too, that ’92 really marks, is that this is a moment when Asian American politics and organizing and also Asian American studies really had to address the importance of language: what shifts Asian American organizing post-1986 is people organizing in other languages.There emerged very specific types of organizing that were based in distinct non-Western language communities, such as taxi drivers in New York, a great many of whom are Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi speakers. Indigenous folks working under the duress of ongoing settler colonialism have spoken importantly about a group’s place-making and deep relationality to land and place as crucial and a priority upon which sociality is built. And yet a deep sense of land and place as central to our being or ontology is rarely admitted into the meaning of the political. When you’re working with people’s sense of their language, you are working in their place-ness even as migrants, and they experience being a migrant in that language. That became a very crucial part of the organizing that was becoming successful.
But moving forward, I do think one of the difficulties that must be dealt with is people’s disparate relationships with settler colonialism. I think we’re still asking that question: how do we come up with a vision of justice when people’s conditions for experience are incommensurate, and what does it mean to do relational work around those incommensurate, constitutive conditions? Because we need to have that conversation without going back to universal rights, egalitarianism, and so forth; it has been an ongoing challenge.
And the last thing about policy work—Cathy Cohen made an important point recently in a talk, saying that we have to think about what ethnic studies are at the elite institutions at this moment. Elite institutions now have the same number of underrepresented students as in ’92, if not fewer, and even fewer than they did in the mid-seventies and eighties. In this context, our ethnic studies programs and projects can easily be cover for the worst kind of representational politics, according to Cohen, in which representation in the university speaks for underrepresented communities. Rather than imagining ourselves as representative of current antiracist struggles, what would it mean, instead, Cohen queried, to ask what “we”—in universities—can do to address the numerous movements and struggles coming from these underrepresented communities currently?
For example, if you think about Ferguson, what can an ethnic studies program do to address the demands of the Ferguson movement, whether that’s about going out there and writing a report for them or teaching a course on the histories of Black struggle and Black survival of which Ferguson is a part—in other words, engaging their deep “placed-ness” in social geographies almost entirely excluded from elite education despite often being displaced by the gentrification schemes and campus expansions of universities? Rather than thinking of ourselves in ethnic studies as a representational space, we should think of ourselves as addressing the spaces that have been excluded from academic knowledges.
Alex: I appreciate this conversation as someone who has worked in the community, who got inspired by the academic institution, who was tracked to go to grad school; I feel like this is the kind of conversation that’s been missing. We need to bridge and challenge theory and practice, theory and history; we need to have more of these conversations.
People in academic work have a very important role and we need organizers everywhere, and I’m using “organizers” in a very broad way. I’ll give an example: we run a fellowship in six states around the country, and it’s basically getting people to politicize by engagement with ethnic studies and Asian American studies. We spend ten weeks with them. Some of the things that they’re learning are not applicable to what’s happening on the ground. Some of it is detoxing from being in an institution that is pushing them to produce knowledge. It’s like the academic industrial complex: I need to go to grad school so I can counter other people in the field in order to move up. So indirectly what ends up happening is that they become people who are not able to work with other people.
There’s a need for whole compassion and humanity, empathy. I don’t know what class to take for that, but there’s something about being able to use intersectionality not to end up atomizing ourselves but to build something together. I think that’s a very hard skill. It’s not just academia; it’s the society in general, because capitalism finds ways to keep pitting us against each other, making sure that we feel different when actually there’s a lot to be united about. So I want to put that pitch out there for folks who are in academia: stay in there, survive, and find the right people to put in the right places.
A lot of young people don’t know what social justice careers are out there. Like simple things I often hear, “I didn’t know you got paid to do what you do”; not to say it’s all about jobs and job security, but people have these certain preconceived notions of work. There are also people who have a nine-to-five job and they volunteer twenty hours a week. There are so many ways people can engage themselves.
I want to close with one example. At the Grassroots Asians Rising gather-ing in New Orleans that Soya was talking about, we faced a lot of accusations where Southeast Asians were challenging East Asians because they’re privileged, because there were no PIs in that space. These were important criticisms about intersectionality but got us really divided. We didn’t have the skills, I didn’t have the muscles to be able to say, “Oh, how do we talk about this?” So how do you build that muscle?
Through the years we learned more about each other and each other’s work, had some difficult and courageous conversations, and just built with each other. A couple of weeks ago, when we brought these groups back together, the panel that I organized had our founder, Pam Tau Lee, an antiwar activist in the seventies, and then we had Chhaya from Mekong in New York and Sarath [Suong] from PrYSM [Providence Youth Student Movement] and they were honoring Pam, like, “Thank you for fighting for us when we were not in this country.” Then they were talking about the trauma healing, about work that needs to be done, and they talked about the deportations that were happening to Cambodian folks in the early 2000s that were made invisible in Asian American communities. Then we had a Pacific Islander talk about Guam, Hawaii, with foreign empire again being a big push—why PIs are in the status that they’re in. We ended with a Palestinian who, seriously, two days before the gathering, she was like, “Do you think we’re Asian?” I’m like, “I don’t know, do you think you’re Asian?” Then they’re like, “If you think we’re Asian then we’ll come and be on the panel!” and again, who are we asking permission from? It’s a contested identity, you know, so we just said, “Let’s break this thing wide open, and we’re going to try to define it our own way.”
The first thing that she said was, “Pam, I thank you for your commitment to the struggle.” She has Palestinian folks in her community who have been down in that struggle that long, but she hasn’t met a Chinese American elder who’s done the same thing for Palestinians. This is how we use intersectionality to actually build. There’s a huge role for academics to create that discourse and help us find good people to put into the community.
Soya: We still have a bunch of hands, but we only have four minutes. So every-one just pop out your question and we’ll see if we get some responses.
Audience member 4: I’m an undergraduate student and we’re currently struggling for Asian American studies and we are engaging with settler colonialism. So, the movement isn’t over. We’re doing it right now, challenging older orthodoxies and older models of Asian American studies. I just want to make a plug for that since none of you addressed that today.
Chandan: I agree with exactly what you said. There’s one thing that happened in post-’92 ethnic studies student organizing, which created a very different kind of ethnic studies from that of Berkeley or UCLA, and is also happening now, and this goes back to Phanuel’s [audience member 3’s] point about settler colonialism. I think that we could strategically leverage Asian American studies to be more in connection with Asian studies, and we could actually use undergraduate institutions to do the language training that would make us better language-based organizers in immigrant communities as well as give us the knowledges to write specific critical accounts of US empire abroad that we don’t have in the histories of our communities. Korean diasporic and Korean American students might engage Korean immigrant communities in innovative ways through writing different histories of the division of Korea and the demonization of the North.
Students who come from war diasporas are not merely victims or voiceless refugees but also knowledge producers of war who deserve critical training and access to knowledge repositories. I think there’s an important alliance to be made between ethnic studies and language-based Asian studies that could be very exciting for a new generation of organizing. The second thing is that I think that there is amazing undergraduate organizing that’s also building alliances with settler colonial studies and with Indigenous studies and with Latin American studies. I think those are new places that weren’t there before and have some very, very important, transformative possibilities.
- Sa-I-Gu means “4-2-9” in Korean, referring to the uprising in South Central LA that followed the April 29, 1992, acquittal of four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department charged with the use of excessive force in the videotaped arrest and brutal beating of African American motorist Rodney King. The rebellion spread throughout the Los Angeles area over a six-day period following the announcement of the verdict. In total, 63 people were killed, 2,383 people were injured, and more than 12,000 were arrested.
- See the organizations’ websites at http://www.culturestrike.org/ and https://www.colorlines.com/; Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (New York: Picador, 2016).
- Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Post-war California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). HoSang is now an associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, race, and migration at Yale University.
- Chandan Reddy, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the US State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
- See US Department of Justice, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks An-nouncing the Department of Justice’s Renewed Commitment to Criminal Immigration En-forcement,” April 11, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-jeff-sessions-delivers-remarks-announcing-department-justice-s-renewed.
- See Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York, New York, available at Stanford University, King Encyclopedia, http://kingencyclopedia.stan-ford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/.
- William Peterson, “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” New York Times, January 9, 1966; U.S. News and World Report, “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” December 26, 1966.
- See Karen L. Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (New York: Verso, 2016).
- On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old Black girl, was shot in the back of the head by Korean immigrant store owner Soon Ja Du as she tried to leave Soon’s convenience store after being falsely accused of shoplifting. Even though Soon was found guilty by a jury, the judge, a white woman, refused to sentence Soon to prison, ordering her to do community service and pay a $500 fine. The judge’s reasoning relied on stereotypes of Black aggressiveness and Asian devotion to protecting the family. See Neil Gotanda, “Tales of Two Judges: Joyce Karlin in People v. Soon Da Ju; Lance Ito in People v. O. J. Simpson,” in The House That Race Built, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Vintage Press, 1998), 66–86.
- See Jodi Melamed, “From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text 89, no. 24 (2006): 1–24.
- See Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
- Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139–167; Michael C. Dawson, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); Cathy Cohen, Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
- Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 91–96; Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Christine Choy, and Elaine Kim, Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives (Los Angeles: PBS, 1993).
- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011); Martin Luther King Jr., “Birth of a New Nation,” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, April 7, 1957, available at Stanford University, King Encyclopedia, http://kingencyclopedia.stan-ford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol4/7-Apr-1957_BirthOfANewNation.pdf.
- In 2014, Akai Gurley was shot and killed by Peter Liang, a Chinese police officer. Al-though Liang was indicted, all charges were dropped and he never served jail time. CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in New York led the Justice for Akai Gurley Committee. This case sparked outrage in the Chinese immigrant community because they felt that Peter Liang was wrongfully being targeted while white police officers are rarely indicted.
- See Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots [McCone Commission], Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning? (Los Angeles: State of California, 1965); United States Kerner Commission, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
- Kelly Lytle Hernández, Cities of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).