Asian American Activism Stirring

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Scott Kurashige

FOR A BRIEF but wonderful moment in 2000, the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Presidential campaign drew widespread public attention to its central theme of restoring democracy by challenging corporate power. Speaking to thousands of supporters at “super rallies” and millions of television viewers, Nader hammered home the three general points that corporate power has:

1) totally corrupted the American electoral (two-party) system;

2) disempowered millions of people, destroyed their standard of living, and intensified systems of exploitation and oppression;

3) created a global ecological crisis.

Democrats and mainstream media used all their clout to obfuscate Nader’s message and cast his supporters as helping to elect Bush. Then the post-election controversy hit, exposing even deeper structural flaws in the electoral process, but mostly provoking more insipid comments from media observers.

Despite being blatantly robbed of votes, Gore himself stepped down when he realized the struggle had reached the point of questioning the legitimacy of the entire U.S. political order.

Lost in the shuffle was the revelation that Asian Americans were the most likely voters to embrace the progressive 3rd party alternative in the Presidential election. A voter poll in the New York Times (11/12/00) reported that Nader/ LaDuke’s support was higher among Asians (4%) than among whites (3%), Blacks (1%) or “Hispanics” (2%).

This fact is interesting if only for the reason that Asians are usually considered too demographically small and politically marginal to be included in most polls. More significantly, the poll results help to chip away at the dominant stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority” that avoids confrontation, stresses the hard work ethic, and embraces conservative free-market politics.

Other than the excellent South Asian American reporter Somini Sengupta, there’s probably no one at the New York Times who knows what to make of this data (or has even attempted to do so). Yet the high Asian turnout for Nader is not likely to come as a surprise to the many experienced Asian American community activists engaged in diverse areas of work related to the central theme of confronting corporate power and restoring democracy.

These arenas include protests against the WTO, IMF, corporate globalization, and the destruction of indigenous economies and cultures; the anti-sweatshop movement and campaigns for workers’ empowerment; the movement for environmental justice, which sees the interconnection between “green” issues and the issues of race, class, and gender that impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color; and the fight to educate rather than incarcerate youth.

Tokenism No Alternative

For most activists in these struggles, voting for Gore was no alternative at all. The meager effort by liberals to build a case for Gore is epitomized by the comments of S.B. Woo, a Democrat and former Lt. Gov. of Delaware.

Woo spearheaded the “80-20 Initiative” designed to create an Asian American “bloc vote” for Gore. He pointed out that Clinton had recently appointed an Asian American cabinet member and awarded twenty-two Medals of Honor to Asian American veterans — as if these symbolic gestures by a lame-duck President in any way affect Asian American workers who toil in unsafe sweatshops, work for below minimum wage, struggle to find affordable housing, and live in constant fear of INS repression.

Another rhetorical campaign launched by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was placing full-page ads in Asian community newspapers headlined, “For Generations, Democratic Policies Have Helped Asian Pacific American Families.”

The Democrats were apparently banking on the notion that Asian Americans had forgotten about such crimes against humanity as World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans, nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and imperialist wars in Southeast Asia waged by previous generations of Democrats.

Having served historically as convenient scapegoats for both Republicans and Democrats, Asian American voters have always been fiercely independent.

In fact, the Democrats’ more recent shift rightward under Clinton/Gore alien<->ated many Asian American community activists. Ed Rendell, the chair of the DNC, is a good example of a “New Democrat” in the mold of Gore and Clinton.

As mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell was considered a primary enemy of Asian American communities. For instance, to promote “fiscal conservatism,” Rendell singled out a library serving a predominantly Asian and Black neighborhood to be the only one shut down throughout the entire city.

Community residents protested this unjust act for most of the 1990s, but their concerns went ignored by Rendell who continued to promote corporate redevelopment and gentrification in Center City.

Welfare, Immigration, Globalization

While the overriding economic program of the Clinton/Gore years – “balancing the budget” by slashing the public sector, deregulating markets, and promoting globalization — has created a small strata of Wall Street multimillionaires, far greater numbers of Asian Americans are among the working poor, a sector that has greatly expanded in this era of polarization.

For progressive Asian Americans, a defining moment of the Clinton/Gore administration occurred when it teamed with Republicans to “end welfare as we know it” and disqualified “legal immigrants” from federal aid in the same 1996 bill.

For others, the final straw occurred when Democrats caved into the anti-China xenophobia by backing the dubious arrest of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. Nader garnered vast support among Chinese Americans when ethnic newspapers reported that he, in contrast to Bush and Gore, condemned Lee’s arrest and detention as racially discriminatory.

As progressive Asian Americans remain very connected to politics in Asia, Nader’s critique of globalization was a welcome break from Gore’s macho posturing. Anti-imperialist politics have long been central to the activism of Filipino, Korean and Okinawan Americans.

The many uses of military intervention by Clinton/Gore (e.g. repeated bombings of Iraq to enforce deadly sanctions, bombing of civilian targets including the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, extension of military aid to the repressive regime in Colombia) certainly could not have made those Asian Americans who have experienced the impact of U.S. military intervention in Asia feel comfortable about the prospect of a Gore Presidency.

Furthermore, as the Clinton/Gore drive for “free trade” has meant in practice that corporate concerns generally take precedence over global human rights, workers’ rights and environmental justice, Asian American activists have elevated the battle against sweatshops, whether they be Nike’s factories in Southeast Asia or garment industry subcontractors in Chinatowns.

Elite Maneuvers

Despite their party’s generally distasteful platform, the Democrats have been able to make large gains among the Asian American electorate, largely because the Republicans (led by the likes of California’s Pete Wilson) had very explicitly campaigned on an anti-immigrant agenda in the 1990s.

In the process, a whole new wave of Asian American moderate-to-liberal elites are being incorporated into the lower-levels of the Democratic party hierarchy. The Republicans under G.W. Bush are trying to prove that they too can pay lip-service to “Asian issues” and make symbolic gestures such as appointing Asian Americans to cabinet posts.

Such maneuvering by the major parties has left Asian American elites, eager to capitalize on opportunities but unsure of the proper path, in a state of confusion. Take for instance the recent actions of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a group that acts as a lobbying arm analogous to the NAACP.

The OCA joined civil rights organizations it views as peers by stating that it “strongly opposes” the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General, focusing especially on his opposition to affirmative action. Almost simultaneously, the OCA issued a statement applauding Bush’s nomination of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor.

Since Chao is herself a committed foe of affirmative action and other measures designed to remedy discrimination, this smacks of both hypocrisy and the crudest form of biological thinking. It also further demonstrates the bankruptcy of politics that remain tied to the corrupt “inside the beltway” system.

In the meantime, progressive Asian Americans are demonstrating far more clarity by working to build opposition to the Bush inauguration and subsequent Presidency.

Facing Our Challenges

Although disappointingly passive since the post-election controversy began, Nader and the Greens say they are committed to building a broader social movement independent of the corporate-controlled two-party system.

But tremendous challenges lie ahead. While the Nader/LaDuke campaign and the DNC/RNC protests helped to bridge the gap separating activists of different backgrounds, there remains quite a ways to go before the dominant two-party system is overthrown.

How will our movement(s) connect issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, environmentalism and anti-imperialism in both theory and practice? Answers to this question will continue to come far more from grassroots struggles than from any organized effort of the Greens.

Indeed, the Asian American Nader vote signals less a commitment to building the Green Party, and more the independent and critical thinking of activists engaged in building such grassroots struggles.

Furthermore, it is very likely that the support for Nader/LaDuke and progressive politics in general is strongest among the younger generation, which is increasingly assuming leadership in Asian American communities. This extremely interesting and exciting development is both analogous to the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and, perhaps, also a legacy of that social movement.

The mainstream media are not likely to pay much attention, but activists of all colors ought to follow it very closely.

ATC 91, March-April 2001