Asian American Incorporation or Insurgency?

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

Tim Libretti

The Asian American Movement
By William Wei
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

The State of Asian America:
Activism and Resistance in the 1990s
Edited by Karin Aguilar-San Juan
Boston: South End Press, 1994

WILLIAM WEI’S THE Asian American Movement is an historical study, while Karin Aguilar-San Juan’s volume The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s presents a series of essays by various scholars and activists assessing the movement historically and evaluating its legacy in contemporary activism.

These two works offer conflicting historical perspectives of the 1960s movement itself and, by extension, of those elements of the movement which should inform and direct organizing and practice in the present and future. Glenn Omatsu poses the question in his essay opening Aguilar-San Juan’s volume:

“In our community — where new immigrants and refugees constitute the majority of Asian Americans — can we find a legacy from the struggles of two decades ago? Are the ideas of the movement alive today, or have they atrophied into relics — the curiosities of a bygone era of youthful and excessive idealism?”

Are the concepts of “power to the people” or “self-determination,” Omatsu wonders, still relevant to Asian Americans today? Asking such questions for Omatsu means participating in a larger national debate focussed on a “re-evaluation of the impact of the 1960s on American society today.”

Omatsu’s query of whether or not “the movements of the 1960s serve as the same controversial reference point for Asian Americans” raises the question of exactly what is the content and significance of the reference point of the Third World movements of the 1960s. Indeed the meaning of the 1960s and of the Asian-American movement is contested terrain: These two recent histories and evaluations of the movement point up exactly how contested, and what is at stake for future political action and constructions of Asian-American political identity.

Wei’s work offers an informative chronicle of the movement, from its origins and quest to define Asian-American identity, to the Asian-American women’s movement, the development of a cultural apparatus and alternative press, and the final conflict between radical and electoral politics.

But Wei’s history essentially weaves a liberal political narrative that tells the story of a movement attempting to maintain its integrity against groups attempting to insinuate a “sectarian” (for Wei a code word, usually for left- or Marxist-oriented) political agenda.

The thrust of this narrative is patently clear simply in the titles of the last two chapters: chapter seven titled “The Emergence and Eclipse of Maoist Organizations,” and chapter eight, “From Radical to Electoral Politics: The Asian-American Odyssey for Empowerment.”

For Wei, the movement has realized itself by becoming institutionally embodied in a number of community and national service organizations. Wei describes the Asian-American Movement as “essentially a middle-class reform movement for racial equality, social justice, and political empowerment in a culturally pluralist America.”

From Social Change to Electoral Politics

That movement reaches, or reached, its political fulfillment by resisting and defeating the infiltration of bankrupt revolutionary political organizations and entering the mainstream of American electoral politics, where it succeeded “in keeping with a fundamental tenet of American democracy, that group solidarity is a prerequisite
for political power.”

Wei begins to rewrite the objectives and strategies of groups devoted to genuine social transformation, writing that “for most activists, the litmus test of political power will be their ability to elect their own to office.”

As his examples Wei cites such figures as Michael Woo or Warren Furutani who, in Wei’s words, “realized that in order to be an effective community advocate in the 1980s, he had to move from radical politics, which was no longer a viable vehicle for bringing about social change, to the electoral politics arena.”

The language of Wei’s analysis effectively marginalizes and erases those elements of Asian America historically committed to resisting U.S. imperialism, at home and abroad, and challenging the specious democracy of bourgeois society — for Wei, just the misguided pursuits of a heated moment of political passion which properly miscarried.

While many Asian Americans followed the “radical road” in the late 1960s, centering their activism in the antiwar movement, when the war ended, according to Wei, “many activists found themselves marooned in a political void . . . reexamining strategies for bringing about fundamental change in American society and the Asian American community.”

As Wei concludes the story, the militant confrontational style of the 1960s no longer proved an effective tool of social change, so that “in the 1980s, the only viable option open to Asian-American activists was electoral politics.”

Thus, although initially Wei admits that the Movement “lacked an ideology or even a plan of action to attract and unite a following,” and although he never really offers a sense of the movement as a coherent organization but rather as isolated groups struggling in diverse communities with varied objectives, he nonetheless gives pride of place to the middle-class and campus contingent of the Movement for an “ethnically pluralist society.” Even so, it isn’t clear, for example, why Filipino farmworkers who played a central role in the United Farm Workers struggles in the 1960s aren’t included.

Additionally, when activists of a left or Marxist persuasion enter Wei’s narrative they are seen as enemies of the movement, simply trying to drain its resources in pursuit of their own hidden political agendas, rather than as serious constituents of Asian America attempting to redirect the politics of the Movement according to a more complex and fundamental critique of U.S. racial oppression.

He concludes that:

“Though Asian American revolutionaries believed that these new campus and community institutions would have little lasting value and would eventually engender widespread frustration, they nevertheless tried to exploit them to obtain resources and influence in the Asian American community, as they prepared for the social revolution that was, to them, always looming over the political horizon. That revolution has not materialized–in part because the existing social order has been flexible enough to respond, albeit inadequately, to the needs of Asian Americans and other people of color. In the wake of sectarianism in the left community and the collapse of communism around the world, Asian Americans have deserted Marxist ideologies and Leninist organizations and have pursued their ideals through the electoral political system.”

An Alternative Grassroots Narrative

It is this anti-left and, really, anti-grassroots organizing narrative of the Asian-American Movement that Karin Aguilar-San Juan’s The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s<D> self-consciously challenges.

Aguilar-San Juan introduces her volume writing about Yuri and Bill Kochiyama, a Japanese-American couple who have lived in Harlem for thirty years and been active in grassroots organizing in both the Asian American and African-American liberation struggles, in addition to having been friends of Malcolm X.

Aguilar-San Juan views the obscurity of Asian-American activist models — which is perpetuated by such works like Wei’s — as damaging and in need of historiographical rectification. She writes,

“The notion that we are the nation’s “model minority” unfortunately pervades even so-called progressive establishments.

“Frequently white activists tell me they don’t know any Asian activists and ask me, perhaps somewhat anxiously, to provide them with names. But leftist Asians and other people of color also reproduce the myth that we shun political work.”

She recounts, for example, telling a Native American activist about this very volume: “He responded with surprise,” she recalls, “that the anthology would focus on activism because, as he put it, `Asian Americans don’t usually do that kind of thing.’ Stereotypes run deep, even among friends.”

Ironically, even Wei’s example of the paragon of progressive electoral politics, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, belies his own historical rendering of Asian-American activism. Jackson’s appeal in 1988 was not simply the standard “vote for me and I’ll set you free.”

In his 1988 platform Jackson continued to encourage organized protest movements outside of government as a key to success in winning social change, a version of electoral politics quite opposed to that privileged by Wei at the end of his movement history.

While Wei implicitly endorses reformist efforts to work within the Democratic Party, if he had followed his analysis of the Rainbow Coalition through further, he would find that its progressive impulses were basically eroded the more the coalition was absorbed into the Demoratic Party.

Furthermore, Wei effectively ignores the fact that a central component of Asian-American Movement activism was informed by a politics of national liberation, underwritten by the theory of “internal colonialism.”

The Asian-American Movement occurred within the context of other Third World movements of the 1960s according to which people of color in the United States connected their own conditions of oppression and struggles for liberation with Third World national liberation struggles. Wei, however, dismisses this as simply a revolutionary romanticism inspired by Maoism and the People’s Republic of China.

It is this very common distortion of movement history that Glenn Omatsu rectifies in his essay “The Four Prisons and the Movements of Liberation: Asian-American Activism from the 1960s to the 1990s” opening Aguilar-San Juan’s volume. Omatsu recounts learning many of the same myths of movement history that Wei perpetuates: that it originated with the initial campaign for civil rights; that it reached its height with the antiwar movement; that it took the form of protests for asserting racial pride and identity; that it was primarily a campus movement.

Omatsu later learned a counter-history, however, cast as follows:

“Those who took part in the mass struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s will know that the birth of the Asian American movement coincided not with the initial campaign for civil rights but with the later demand for black liberation; that the leading influence was not Martin Luther King, Jr., but Malcolm X; that the focus of a generation of Asian American activists was not on asserting racial pride but reclaiming a tradition of militant struggle by earlier generations; that the movement was not centered on the aura of racial identity but embraced fundamental questions of oppression and power; that the movement consisted of not only college students but large numbers of community forces, including the elderly, workers, and high school youth; and that the main thrust was not one of seeking legitimacy and representation within American society [Wei’s rendering of movement objectives] but the larger goal of liberation.

Wei’s rhetorical historiography, however, tends to erase or marginalize these anti-imperialist elements of the movement — or really any actors in the movement who don’t fit his mold of middle-class reformism — by figuring them as not part of the genuine movement. This despite the fact that the movement is not coherently defined by Wei, but rather constituted by the political actions of the diverse populations of Asian America.

Wei glosses over conflicts or contradictions within the political constituencies of the Asian-American Movement by arbitrarily defining what constituted or counted as a true or genuine Asian-American consciousness or identity. He writes, for example, that Asian American radicals “had exchanged their heightened consciousness of themselves
as Asian Americans for what would prove finally to be the false consciousness of themselves as Maoist evolutionaries.”

Wei never fully explains exactly what is the content of a “heightened Asian-American consciousness,” instead arbitrarily circumscribing Asian-American political identity according to a middle-class reformist ethos.

Differing Theories of Race

Thus, a central difference in each work is the theory of race that emerges from each. Wei, for example, writes of those Asian American radicals motivated by ideals of self-determination that “they moved away from a concern with ethnic consciousness and toward a commitment to revolutionary change” and that “Asian American radicals changed their focus from racism to capitalism.”

Wei’s rigid distinctions — between ethnic consciousness and revolutionary impulse, between racism and capitalism — extract the category of “race” from its material context, and from categories of class and gender. It is as though there were a distinct position in the social structure that yielded a pure Asian American racial consciousness, and as though racial consciousness were not shaped by factors of class and gender.

All this bespeaks an impoverished theorization of race and racial identity — although implicitly Wei’s own vision of ethnic consciousness is decidedly middle-class. “Race” has historically been a central feature of capitalism, in positioning populations hierarchically within the global economy and targeting people of color for superexploitation, a fact Wei ignores.

Moreover, Wei’s conception of an Asian-American ethnic consciousness downplays uneven economic development, and very significant differences in historical and political experiences, within Asian America. While acknowledging Filipino and Korean Americans as the forgotten national constituencies of Asian America living in the shadows of Chinese and Japanese Americans, Wei evades the tensions and conflicts that make problematic the formulation of an overarching Asian-American political identity.

The essays Aguilar-San Juan has compiled, however, offer a much more complex understanding of race and racial identity, and a critique of the narrow identity politics — defined as “ethnic consciousness” — forwarded by Wei.

As she writes in her introduction, “Identity politics — while they have created occasional possibilities for dark-skinned individuals to move up the socioeconomic ladder — unfortunately have seduced many people into putting their identity issues at the center of the debate, while shunning the more substantive issues of racism and class oppression.”

She continues:

“In the 1990s, we must take care not to subsume ourselves solely in efforts to build Asian American pride. Reducing race to a matter of identity, rather than expanding our experience of racism into a critique of U.S. society, is detrimental to our movement. In the Asian American community, we often make the dangerous mistake of equating the process of acquainting ourselves with our ethnic, linguistic, religious, or historic roots with activism against racism. If in our desire to claim our identity, we overlook, for example, the ways that race is connected to imperialism . . . then we hover perilously close to the trap of defining race as a biological rather than a social construct.”

The volume overall offers a Marxist approach, featuring dialectical views of race, class and gender, and emphasizes precisely the contradictions that problematize an Asian-American national identity. Such an approach takes on an increasing urgency given the rise of a young neoconservative professional class in, and increasing class polarization within, Asian America.

In this situation, as Milyoung Cho points out in her study in the volume of the conditions of internally colonized Asian immigrants in New York’s Chinatown:

“Fellow countrymen’ though they may be, their bosses are entrepreneurs and capitalists first in extremely competitive industries. And, as has become apparent, they will stop at nothing to maximize profits even it means exploiting their `own people.

A nationalist identity or politics that attempts to accommodate the contradictory positions of Asian-American labor and capital is hardly one that would have, as Elaine Kim says of cultural nationalism, “the potential to contest and disrupt the logic of domination, its exploitation and exclusions.”

What is needed, Cho’s essay and Aguilar-San Juan’s volume as whole suggest, is a nationalism founded upon an analysis of race as a social construct connected to imperialism, an Asian-American political identity defined by a resistance to the internal colonization of people of color in the United States under racial patriarchal capitalism.

In encoding an Asian-American national identity, Aguilar-San Juan’s volume attempts to relink its present emergence to its origins in the Asian-American Movement of the 1960s amidst other Third World movements inside the United States. The overall project of Aguilar-San Juan’s volume is precisely to assert this continuity of contemporary Asian-American activism with the militant tradition of radical nationalist practice of the 1960s.

Such essays as Milyoung Cho’s on working-class struggles in Chinatown, Kent Wong’s on building an Asian Pacific labor alliance, or Steven De Castro’s essay on Filipino activism in the United States and the Philippines begin to work through these issues, moving us beyond models of liberal cultural pluralism and recognizing the political stakes in cultural practice.

Additionally, as is most evident in E. San Juan, Jr.’s essay on “The Predicament of Filipinos in the United States,” the volume features analysis of the specific conditions of the various national constituencies of Asian America and the material differences which define their political interests — even, or especially, when those differences challenge the monolithic assertion of an Asian-American political identity.

San Juan, for example, argues that for Filipinos, because of the particular colonial conditions affecting their position in the global labor market and because they are rapidly becoming the majority of the Asian-American population, “now is the time to assert our continuity from the sweeping rubric of `Asian American,’ even as we continue to unite with other Asians in coalitions for common political demands.”

Essays by Sonia Shah on the possibilities for a pan-Asian feminist agenda, and by Margaretta Wan Ling Lin and Cheng Imm Tan on domestic violence in Asian American communities, also point to significant fissures within Asian America that need to be addressed in defining the political priorities of Asian America and in attempting to unify the various political contingents under the rubric of an Asian-American political identity.

Furthermore, the volume features essays which situate Asian-American politics within the broader context of U.S. and international racial and class dynamics, bringing the dialogue about “race” in this country beyond the Black-white binary. Elaine Kim’s interview with Bong Hwan Kim, former director of the Korean Community Center in Oakland and current director of the Korean Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles, addresses the difficult position of Korean Americans.

Edward T. Chang’s essay “America’s First Multiethnic `Riots,'” compares the 1965 Watts and 1992 Los Angeles “riots” with a view toward theorizing what the changing racial composition of the L.A. population means for rethinking “race” beyond Black-white relations, and for redirecting the Asian American Movement toward coalition-building with other people of color. Also, Peter Nien-Chu Kiang’s essay explores the relation between Irish and Cambodian struggles for community development and educational equity.

The volume also emphasizes the connection of these struggles with cultural and academic issues, featuring essays on Asian-American cultural practice, on the protest against Miss Saigon for its representations of Asian Americans and sexuality, and on the evolution and direction of Asian-American Studies in U.S. universities.

Indeed, as we see with the differing historiographical accounts and evaluations of the movements, a lot is at stake in recovering cultural memory and political history. Aguilar-San Juan’s edition provides us models for grassroots political action, while Wei’s version erases those models and leaves little sense of the ongoing radical tradition.

ATC 69, July-August 1997