by Jomo, Mamos, and Will
In the United States, racist views of Asian-Americans are promiscuous and self-contradictory. On the one hand, we are told that we are model minorities, hard working citizens living out the classic American story of immigration and upward mobility. On the other hand, we are painted as perpetual foreigners, never quite American even after multiple generations of citizenship. On the one hand, we are supposed to be passive, docile, and submissive, while on the other hand they fear we are the yellow peril, a rising, ruthless, and aggressive empire that will someday destroy the white race.
The fact that these stereotypes are so contradictory show their ludicrousness. Racists project their own fears, anxieties, desires, and aspirations onto us in order to suppress our self-government and make us into who they want us to be, even if what they want us to be makes no sense. But racist fears, anxieties, desires and aspirations are not simply the product of individual ill will – they are shaped by powerful institutions. For example the U.S. military reproduces stereotypes of Asians as an aggressive, brainwashed Mongolian horde in order to raise support for their base expansion projects aimed at containing Chinese military power. Without U.S. military interests in Asia, this stereotype could have died out but instead it is growing.
That’s why liberal strategies of “anti-racism” will not liberate us. Liberals encourage white people to question their stereotypes as part of confronting their “privilege.” They do not attempt to abolish the institutions like military bases that produce and reproduce these stereotypes to keep us subordinated. This editorial will examine the historic political, economic, and social origins of anti-Asian racism. Our goal is not to enlighten anyone’s consciousness but rather to expose the institutions that oppress us so we know who our enemies are and what we need to smash.
The big picture: Facing the double-barreled shotgun of colonialism and empire
In general, we can say that our enemies are the forces of white supremacy – any institutions and practices that have the effect of elevating white people over people of color (including Asians) by subordinating and suppressing our attempts to be self-governing.
In particular, there are two interlocking systems of white supremacy that shape the terrain of Asian American life and struggle. The first consists of the social relations formed by the colonial settlement of North America and the founding of the United States out of colonial settler states. It is the result of land stolen from American Indians and Chicano/as, the enslavement of Blacks, and the extreme exploitation of “free” Black, Indigenous, European, and Asian migrant labor. As a shorthand, we will call all of this “settlerism”.
Settlerism has created a legacy of terror, violence, and racial hierarchy which Asian Americans have had to navigate. From the moment we arrived as workers in the Wild Wild West we found ourselves facing down the barrels of guns originally pointed at Blacks and American Indians. Later, we found ourselves victims of a Jim-Crow-style legal system. It is only more recently that we have been championed as the “model minority”, a supposed solution to the “problem” of militant Black resistance to 500 years of settler terror. The racist rationale that created such an identification for Asian Americans is further explored below, as well as in other articles.
The second system of white supremacy is related to settlerism but is more global. It consists of the social relations formed through the expansion of U.S. imperialism in Asia through military conquest (the colonization of the Philippines, the partition of Korea, the Vietnam War, etc.) and the domination of American multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank over Asian economies. U.S. Empire built off of earlier forms of European imperialism in Asia even as it modified them. Like them, it enforced the fiction of a white Western civilization reforming Asian barbarism.
The experience of Asian Americans has been shaped by the fact that those who rule over us here in the U.S. also subjugated the countries we or our families came from. The architects of U.S. Empire in Asia created a whole string of lies about Asians being backwards, ignorant, weak, and undemocratic in order to justify this subjugation. These lies have been applied to us as well, preventing us from assimilating and becoming white like the formerly non-white immigrant groups from Europe did.
In response many Asian Americans have chosen to be consistent and principled internationalists – we have known that our situation here will not improve unless people of color abroad defeat U.S. Empire. Others have bought into U.S. empire, claiming they are the “good” Asians, unlike those “bad” Asians over there who are prone to terrorism, fanaticism, Communism, or Islam. And of course US Empire has exported aspects of North American settlerist ideology to Asia, which is why so many of our aunties and uncles over there are scared of Black Americans even though they have never met any.
In order to understand Asian American struggles we need to keep both of these systems of white supremacy in our headlights. We can’t adopt the all-too-common view that race in America is a simple binary of white over Black. Social relations in the U.S. are deeply shaped by U.S. imperialism in Asia, our peoples’ resistance to it, and our own struggles here in North America. But at the same time, we can’t pretend we’re in a national liberation struggle somewhere in Asia where we are the majority – we are in the Western Hemisphere where our lives are forged in the Black-indigenous-white crucible and we need to seek our allies and define our enemies within this context.
To do so, we will consider the origins and contemporary manifestations of four forms of anti-Asian racism: the backwards worker myth, the perpetual foreigner myth, the model minority myth, and the myth of the yellow peril.
The Docile Worker Myth: Frustrated American dreams turned deadly
The fundamental forms of anti-Asian racism emerged because of labor competition between Asian workers and white workers who viewed Asians as backwards and submissive.
To understand why this happened we need to look at a key moment in the formation of both settlerism and imperialism: the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Asian Americans first began to arrive in large numbers as miners, farmers, workers, and rebels. At this time the U.S. was going through the industrial revolution, unleashing forces of capitalist accumulation with a voracious appetite for land, resources, and labor. To fulfill this appetite, soldiers and settlers were moving westward looting and plundering American Indian and Chicano lands at a breakneck pace. The wealth they wrenched from their genocidal drive to the Pacific was delivered, dripping in blood, as the down-payment for the new factories, plants, and shipyards that formed the bedrock of emerging U.S. imperial power in Latin America and Asia.
All of this involved mobilizing and exploiting human labor at an unprecedented scale. American settlerist mythology describes the conquest of the West as a something led by individualistic small property owners – farmers, cowboys, merchants, prospectors, etc.– who supposedly represent the soul of American democracy. But digging goldmines, boring through mountains to build transcontinental railroads, and similar enterprises required a level of organization that rugged individualists alone could not accomplish and capital that only large corporations and the federal government could provide. Soon enough big companies shunted aside the pioneers and hired mass gangs of workers at the lowest wages they could possibly impose. This was the birth day of the America we know today, where our dreams are of cowboy glory and our day jobs are full of monotonous toil under the watch of bureaucrats.
The corporations were looking for workers who could be compelled to accept slave-like wages and conditions without revolt. They turned to two sources. The first consisted of European immigrant workers from the east coast who had found themselves thrown into unemployment and poverty through economic crisis. The second consisted of former Asian farmers dislocated by the European and U.S. imperialism that was ravaging their homes (e.g. the Opium War and the genocidal Philippine-American war). But neither of these groups proved to be a well-disciplined or docile workforce, and it turned out that the only way to neutralize them was to pit the former against the latter.
The European immigrants were lured west with dreams of becoming self-made men- owning property and eventually becoming capitalists. Their dream was a mirage; they were sorely disappointed and were seething with anger. Those who had established small businesses were getting out-competed by the big corporations. And new unskilled workers who arrived from east coast slums found dangerous, low paying jobs their only option.
White supremacist politicians, craft union bureaucrats, businessmen, and many white skilled workers joined together to make Asian workers scapegoats for these frustrations; the Chinese community, which was the largest Asian ethnic group at the time, became their primary victim. They deflected the anger of small proprietors away from the big corporations and against their Chinese workers, arguing that the corporations’ reliance on cheap Chinese labor gave them an unfair advantage over smaller businesses. They also claimed that “civilized” white Americans should not have to compete in a labor market with “backwards” and “weak” “Orientals.” This allowed the skilled white workers and their craft unions to deflect the demands of unskilled European laborers for training and entry into the trades. The unskilled workers were told Chinese immigrants, not the corrupt and elitist craft unions and bosses were to blame for their plight. All of this allowed expanding US capitalism to solidify control over the workforce, neutralizing potential trouble from the unskilled white workers by co-opting them into white supremacy and neutralizing the Chinese workers by subjecting them to vigilante terror.
These anti-Chinese campaigns were a key moment in the construction of that bloody line between white and nonwhite in America. Part of the logic of settlerism was the deputization of rank and file white workers into a vigilante force that could aid the state in dispossessing and murdering American Indians and Chicanos. This logic was extended against Asians as bands of armed vigilantes attacked Chinese folks and drove them out of gold mines, orchards, and small towns across the West. Between 1850 and 1906, Chinatowns burned to the ground and thousands of Chinese were killed, forced into prostitution, or marched to railroad cars and driven out, sometimes along the very tracks they and built. It was a campaign of wholesale ethnic cleansing.
Eventually, this vigilante force was legalized in the form of a whole complex of Jim-crow-style legislation that forbade Asians from owning land, testifying against white men in court and attending public schools, etc. It all culminated in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act which attempted to prevent any further Chinese immigration.
Early Filipino- Americans faced similar conditions. For example, there were anti-Filipino riots against Filipinos in Yakima and Wenatchee valleys in Washington, and Filipinos were driven out of Yakima in 1928. Japanese Americans also faced segregation from public schools and were attacked by racist mobs in San Francisco in 1907.
The ideologues leading these campaigns justified them by describing Asian workers as docile, dirty, backwards, and undemocratic. They were painted as conformist, traditional people unfit for a world of hearty American pioneer individualism. Many of these stereotypes remain today. (Of course, in cases where they had managed to set up their own businesses or farms, the script was flipped and Asians were portrayed as uppity, cunning devils who must have some trick up their sleeve).
In reality, the white workers were just as dirty, poor and miserable as Asian American workers, but they were bamboozled into hugging the chains of their own wretchedness rather than fighting back against their real enemies. They were the ones who succumbed to the manipulations of anti-democratic ideologues and if anyone was swept mindlessly into mob conformity it was them. They were tricked into siding with their bosses and decadent, conservative craft unions rather than joining with Asian workers who could have been their natural allies in building a more democratic America.
Of course, this is not to say that all classes of Asian Americans were automatically democratic. Emerging elites in Asian American communities also exploited our peoples ruthlessly. For example, Chinese workers were oppressed by powerful businessmen and labor brokers such as the Chinese Six Companies on the West Coast. These cartels collaborated with white supremacists to deliver coolie workers under slave-like conditions to American corporations. They worked with other Chinese elites that controlled political dissent in Chinese communities and maintained highly patriarchal and semi-feudal patronage networks backed up by thugs.
But despite these restraints, Asian American workers proved themselves to be anything but backwards and naturally slavish. They lived the classic American experience of being thrown into a rootless, violent new context and improvising strategies of survival and resistance. During the anti-Chinese pogroms, Chinese Americans organized boycotts, lawsuits, popular militias for armed self-defense, appeals to China for arms, and mass civil disobedience against attempts to get them to wear photo ID cards.
At times, Asian American workers found solidarity with Euro-American, Chicano, Black, and Native American workers in the IWW, a radical union that fought the bosses and the racist and corrupt American Federation of Labor. Japanese workers organized alongside Mexican workers in Oxnard CA, and Japanese-led labor organizing and strikes on Hawaiian sugar plantations attempted to break down the divide-and conquer management system that allocated wages based on ethnicity to create resentment between different Asian groups. Pioneering Filippino activists such as Philip Vera Cruz and Carlos Bulosan also organized alongside Arab and Latino farm workers to create the strong United Farmworkers Union in the 1960s. Enduring much physical and economic duress, the farmworkers managed to go on strike and organized a four-year long grape boycott to push for higher wages and better working conditions.
These moments of resistance are often overlooked chapters in the struggle for democracy and anti-racism in the U.S. They offer important lessons for us today where the American dream is once again dissolving into unemployment, economic crisis, dislocation, and faceless bureaucracy. Once again, right-wing populist/ white supremacist politicians and militias are emerging to blame all of this on immigrant workers. Latinos are the primary targets for now, and for reasons we explain below Asian Americans could also be targeted in the future. We can look to this early Asian American resistance for insight into how we can fight back today.
The perpetual foreigner myth
Despite these heroic struggles, Asian American workers and principled multiracial labor organizations were numerically outnumbered. Eventually, Asian Americans were barred from many industries and forced to live in ghettos (Chinatowns, Manillatowns, little Tokoyos etc). Although Asian Americans used these communities to build networks of mutual aid and protection from white supremacy, this ghettoization limited their ability to impact broader American politics through multiracial labor struggles and cultural production.
This is partly the material basis for the myth that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. Having ethnically cleansed and concentrated Asian American populations, white supremacists turned around and argued that Asians liked to keep to themselves, that we are just visitors or squatters here who are loyal to our homelands and not to America. They see our cultures as strange and exotic, fundamentally incompatible with American democracy.
This perpetual foreigner myth was reinforced by the machinery of U.S. Empire, which was expanding into Asia. To justify its conquests, the imperialists argued that Asians had an exotic, decadent, and outdated civilization that needed to be supplanted by Western modernity. Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem the “White Man’s Burden” was about this conquest, and it described Filipinos as ungrateful heathens, “half devil, half child.” He is only one of many examples. These views of Asians as an exotic and backwards civilization were applied to Asian Americans as well, and our ongoing segregation has been justified over and over again with the excuse that we will never be able to participate fully in American civic life.
The perpetual foreigner myth reached a crescendo during World War II when the U.S. government portrayed the entire Japanese – American community as a ticking suicide bomb ready to go off in support of Japan. They rounded up thousands of Japanese families and put them in concentration camps. The perpetual foreigner myth is still alive today as neoconservative pundits portray South and Southeast Asian- American Muslims as a fifth column ready to pollute America with Jihadi terror, vampirish patriarchy, and religious fanaticism. Of course, some Asian Americans buy into this malicious propaganda by arguing that those other Asians, not us good suck ups, are the real, perpetual enemy aliens. The notorious Michelle Malkin who wrote the book, “In Defense of Internment: The case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror” is one such example.
This perpetual foreigner myth is gendered: white supremacist efforts to define Asians as strange and exotic are often fought over the bodies of Asian women. Before the Western colonists arrived, Asian societies had a wide diversity of gendered institutions from the rigid patriarchy of imperial Chinese Confucianism to the relatively matriarchal norms of Southeast Asia and southern India.Yet everywhere they went, these colonists set out to create reflections of their own patriarchal societies. In Burma, British colonialists found themselves interacting with powerful women leaders. They argued that the equality or even dominance women enjoyed there was a mark of Burmese society’s barbarism. They eagerly tried to “civilize” these “exotic” women by training Burmese men to dominate them.
Ironically, in the 20th century the imperialists flipped their script. Now they like to portray Asian societies as strange and backwards because of their supposedly more “traditional” patriarchy. We are constantly exposed to images of veiled Pakistani or Afghan women and the neoconservatives would have us believe that the war on terror is being fought to liberate these women from the grips of Islamic repression. What they never mention is that the U.S. has often supported the most patriarchal despots in Asia from Park Chung Hee in Korea to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
While the US military is busy “liberating” Asian women, its soldiers and sailors stationed at the military bases in Asia sometimes rape local women and get away with it under Status of Forces agreements reminiscent of colonial concessions. Prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking rings from Thailand to the Philippines have sprung up to provide “rest and relaxation” to US soldiers and tropical getaways for US businessmen. Associated advertising and pornography outfits turn this material reality into the myth of the hyper-sexual exotic Asian woman.
While some white supremacists claim they are coming to Asia to liberate its women, others appeal to the patriarchy of American capitalism and attempt to pimp out Asian women as supposedly traditional, docile, unliberated peasants who will make good sweatshop workers, mail order brides, and prostitutes. This logic has helped build an Asian underclass inside the U.S. When these women resist and sabotage their bosses’ efforts they are subjected to assault or are detained and deported.
The model minority myth
Today this underclass is rendered invisible and this history of Asian American working class resistance is suppressed. Both inside and outside our communities, Asian Americans are now portrayed as middle class, upwardly mobile, hard working techies. Our classmates assume we are naturally smart and politicians assume we are naturally conservative.
These new stereotypes also have a dark history behind them. In 1965, the US was facing pressures from the civil rights movement at home and the cold war abroad. In an attempt to improve its poor image as the world’s greatest racist, the U.S. government relaxed some of it’s explicitly race-based immigration laws and began to allow more Asian immigrants to come over.
Unlike at the turn of the century when they needed cheap workers, in the 60s the U.S. capitalists faced a crisis of overproduction and unemployment due to massive automation of U.S. factories. However they did have a large demand for trained technicians, scientists, and engineers who could help run and update this automated machinery, and they were competing with the USSR for scientific talent to promote military supremacy. Given this context, the 1965 immigration act only allowed in the educated, skilled Asians and continued to bar unskilled Asian workers. This also contributed to a brain drain in Asian countries that now lost the skilled doctors and scientists who had received state subsidized training for their capabilities.
This arrangement proved useful to the ideologues of white supremacy. They began to argue that Asians were a “model minority” because they had supposedly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps through education and hard work. The disproportionate number of Asian technicians and professionals who had arrived at the US through the state’s capitalist immigration policies, was ahistorically attributed to Asian values of hard work and family. The implication here is that other minorities are problem minorities – that Latinos and especially Blacks remain poor because of their supposedly inferior culture, laziness, or lack of intelligence, and not 500 years of settlerism, slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination. At a time when the Black Power movement was shaking up American society and galvanizing young working class Asian Americans to side with Blacks in the struggle against white supremacy, this emerging model minority myth was deployed to divide Asians from Blacks and delegitimize the Black revolt.
The model minority myth is destructive not only because it sets us against other people of color but also because it erases our own legacies of working class struggle. By presenting Asian Americans as inherently middle class it obscures the key histories outlined above, denying us democratic and anti-racist sheroes and organizational precedents from our own communities. It also renders invisible the significant and growing Asian American working class today. From undocumented Chinese and Filipino workers to Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees from the terror of the US war in their homelands, this myth leaves out some of the most important and dynamic Asian American communities- the very folks who are a waging key struggles today against police brutality, homeland security raids, and deportation orders.
The model minority myth could not have lasted if it were simply a white racist fantasy propagated by media portrayals of Asians. It was solidified because upwardly mobile middle class leaders in some of our own communities have bought into it. As soon as possible they moved out of the ghetto and into the suburbs and they tried to train their kids to fear and pity other people of color. Many of our parents continue to buy into this myth because in their eyes it jives with some of their own chauvinistic thinking about essential “Asian” values of hard work and family discipline (expressed through very American and very capitalist reinterpretation of Confucianism, Hinduism, etc.). For them being the model minority also means maintaining patriarchy, regulating their kids’ sexuality, and keeping them away from the more dynamic (and less white!) aspects of American culture such as hip hop. It is the task of our generation to break this middle-class stronghold that has dominated Asian Americans today.
In this sense, our struggles against the model minority myth today are not just struggles against the white supremacist media and immigration systems; they are also struggles for women’s liberation, workers’ self management, sexual and gender freedom, and anti-racism in our own communities. As more Asian workers begin to immigrate and as our generation of young Asian Americans begin to identify more with other people of color, the model minority myth could be shaken up.
The international dimensions of the model minority myth follow the same pattern, and exacerbates its harm. U.S. Empire has propped up the Asian Tigers (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as models for other people of color nations to follow. And yet these supposed capitalist success stories have faced restless working classes and democratic challenges to their authoritarian governments. South Korean workers and farmers militantly confronting the cops at anti-globalization demonstrations should be enough to shatter the myth of Asian docility and conservativism.
The Myth of the Yellow Peril
All of the myths discussed so far are built on the assumption that Asian countries will remain subordinated to U.S. Empire. Even the Asian tigers are junior partners. But the prospect of a growing Chinese empire emerging as a direct rival to U.S. imperialism could significantly shake up the relationship between Asian Americans and other Americans.
The rise of the Japanese Empire in the early 20th century gives us a precedent for understanding what might happen. At first the American ruling class saw the Japanese Empire as a benign, progressive force that could help modernize the rest of Asia and Japanese Americans were thus seen in a positive light. But eventually, Japan began to approach parity with the U.S. and the two empires began to compete for territory and resources. At that point, the script was flipped and the Japanese were portrayed as ruthless, cunning, diabolical aliens threatening to swarm across the world and exterminate the white race. The propaganda of both the Japanese and the U.S. armies turned the Pacific front into a race war. In the U.S., this gave rise to the stereotypes of the “yellow peril” literature and films.
Today, while most American elites are content to cash in on cooperation with China’s dynamic capitalists, some factions of the U.S. ruling class are beginning to promote a vision of China as the new yellow peril. They recognize that China holds trillions of U.S. dollars in its state bank and are startled by Chinese government efforts to wean its economy off of production for the U.S. consumer market. They describe the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony as a strange pageant of Asian conformism, as an unleashing of the collective power of docile Asian workers who will bow to a rising new Emperor, a new Oriental Despot. There is renewed talk about the threat that Chinese people supposedly pose to Western values.
What effect all of this will have on Asian Americans is yet to be seen. Many of us, regardless of ethnicity, are mistaken for Chinese by white folks who can’t tell the difference between us. If the U.S. and China begin a protracted inter-imperialist rivalry over energy, military, or financial supremacy, this could re-awaken some of the old anti-Asian elements of U.S. nationalism. The model minority myth could dissolve and more direct and vicious forms of white supremacy could re-emerge. Faced with angry American workers who have lost their jobs due to corporate looting, politicians may try to divert this anger against Chinese workers abroad and Asian American workers here, claiming we are “stealing” American jobs. This could lead to new attacks against Asian Americans reminiscent of the killing of Vincent Chin who was beaten to death in [year] by Detroit auto workers angry at Japanese competition. Although unlikely in the near future, outright war with China could lead to social chaos in both countries and the possibility of new internment camps. We shouldn’t be alarmist but it is crucial that Asian Americans begin organizing now to prevent these potential catastrophes. We are in a good position to make links between American workers and Asian workers abroad, articulating our common interests and challenging the claims of both Chinese and American elites to speak for our peoples.
As we have seen, anti-Asian racism is not simply the product of individual ill will. The docile worker myth, the perpetual foreigner myth, the model minority myth, and the myth of the yellow peril all have to do with deep-rooted contradictions in American society. If we want to break free of these oppressive myths then we need to confront these contradictions head on, in solidarity with other Americans and with folks struggling against U.S. empire abroad.
 The Asian American activist, J. Sakai, has used the concept of “settlerism” to explain the structure of white supremacy and capitalism in the U.S. Sakai argues that most white “workers” have been bought off by the privileges they received from white supremacy and therefore are not part of the working class. While we agree that the U.S. is a product of a colonial settlement process, we recognize that in history some white workers have rejected these privileges and sided with workers of color against white supremacy and capitalism. We believe that such breakthroughs are happening in lower frequencies today and can take form in larger scales.
6 thoughts on “On the Origins of Anti-Asian Racism and How We Have Fought Back”
Thanks for providing this space for discussion.
I think it may be valuable to question this concept of pan-Asian identity, either “Asian American” or “Asian.” Although Japanese people in the US have indeed experienced racial oppression, as this piece points out, let’s not forget that Japan was and continues to be an imperialist power. The conflict between Japan and the US in World War II was a conflict between imperialist powers. Furthermore, some of the sharpest struggles for liberation in Asia historically have been against Japanese imperialism and this remains a question on the continent today.
This shows that framing the main problem as white supremacy might not be entirely correct (“our enemies are the forces of white supremacy – any institutions and practices that have the effect of elevating white people over people of color (including Asians) by subordinating and suppressing our attempts to be self-governing”) or at least is a little one-sided.
Instead of identity politics based on labels, what we need is a Marxist understanding of the national question: an analysis of class and national interests. While there is indeed a struggle against white supremacist ideology and its embodiment in material practices, there is also a question of the oppression and liberation of specific Asian nationalities, each with its own particularities. This understanding is especially clear among the organizations of the Filipino national-democratic movement, in their framing of the “three main problems” of the Filipino people (semicolonialism, semifeudalism, bureaucrat capitalism), and in their conception of the immediate solution (national democracy).
One effect of “Asian American” identity, which has been pointed out repeatedly, is that it makes invisible the needs and demands of South and Southeast Asian nationalities (e.g. in studies on poverty rates). Another effect I think is that it actually holds back alliances between different oppressed nationalities. For example, Filipinos may have more in common with, say, Mexicans or Puerto Ricans in their historical experiences and in the immediate objectives of their struggles, than with the Japanese or the Chinese, yet they are grouped with the latter and not with the first, in the current configuration of U.S. identity politics.
The terms “Asian” or “Asian American,” I believe share the same problems of the term “Latino,” which Martha Gimenez has analyzed in a brief, but insightful piece in Cultural Logic:
You raise some important challenges here. Unfortunately, I think you are misunderstanding where we are coming from and or/ overemphasizing some of our differences. I hope this can clear up where we agree and disagree.
For one, we are firmly against any form of imperialism, including Japanese imperialism. In fact, some of us were part of a group called March 1st Solidarity, named after the March 1st 1919 movement in Korea against Japanese colonialism. That group opposed white supremacy and US Empire in Asia as well as the chauvinisms of various national bourgeoisies in Asia, including those of China, Japan, and Korea.
So in that sense, we are not animated by “identity politics” if by that you mean a narrow focus on essentialized racial identity. We recognize fully that there are differences between various Asian and Asian American communities, and there are necessary struggles over ethnicity, class, and gender within Asian and Asian American communities. One thing we have tried to do is to challenge the model minority myth, which separates East Asians from Southeast Asians, as well as from Latino folks as you suggested.
It is unclear to me why an analysis that prioritizes fighting white supremacy is incompatible with a “Marxist” or class struggle analysis. The piece lays out how anti-Asian white supremacy was part of the class composition of US settler colonialism and imperialism both in North America and abroad. The essay is not saying the problem is simply with “identity”, it is also a problem of the subordination of labor and the super-exploitation of immigrant workers.
In terms of the Filipino National Democratic movement, some of us have worked closely in coalitions with Bayan groups here in the US to challenge US empire in Asia, and we have participated together with them in API contingents in the May 1st immigrant rights rallies. We have much respect for the work they are doing.
That being said, we have critical questions about their program of national democracy. It seems this involves building a block with the national bourgeoisie against US empire to challenge semifeudalism and semicolonialism and only later challenging this class and capitalism itself. This seems to draw from a Maoist two-stage process of revolution, what Mao called “New Democracy”. I can see how some sort of cross-class coalition needs to be built against US empire but the question is, will this be a united front or a popular front? Will it be built on the terms of the working class and peasantry, or on the terms of the national bourgeoise? Will it be one where the anti-capitalist, working class struggle needs to be put on hold until the nation is free from colonialism or is it one where the working class retains its autonomy and ability to make anti-capitalist demands so it can build organization and grow in strength to overthrow capitalism itself? Do independent working class and peasant struggles strengthen the movement against imperialism or weaken it?
I’d encourage you to check out our various posts on Palestine solidarity because we take up these questions of national liberation, class composition, and race in more depth there. I hope this will give a more nuanced understanding of where we’re coming from.
My point was that given the problems of pan-Asian identity, which you recognize, is this still a viable political framework? The model minority and yellow peril myths are not forms of anti-Asian racism per se, but racism against more particular groups within the Asian racial category. On the other hand, the perpetual foreigner and docile worker myths are not particular to Asians, but have been applied more broadly to other oppressed nationalities.
I think challenging the model minority myth will mean, concretely, showing that the pan-Asian racial category conceals more than it reveals (it is a bourgeois ideology) and showing that Asians exist as distinct oppressed nationalities in the US (Cambodians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and so on) with their own particular histories that cannot be submerged under pan-Asian identity if they are to be fully understood. I think it is possible to do this while at the same time recognizing the contributions of radicals and revolutionaries who have struggled under the framework of the “Asian American movement,” as a shifting and transient political coalition, and not a racial identity.
Also, I think white supremacy needs to be specified: the concept refers to a system of national oppression particular to the US, corresponding material privileges for white people, and an ideology. However, the notion of a global system of white supremacy is more descriptive than theoretical. Posing the problems facing the peoples of Asia as “the forces of white supremacy – any institutions and practices that have the effect of elevating white people over people of color (including Asians) by subordinating and suppressing our attempts to be self-governing” is to oversimplify the actual dynamics of their histories and the objectives of their struggles.
Japanese imperialism in Asia was and is not qualitatively different from US and European imperialism. The division is not the color line, where the US and Europe are on one side and the national bourgeoisies of Japan, China, and Korea are on the other, but between oppressor and oppressed nations. It is interesting to note that pan-Asianism was one of the rationales that the ruling class of Japan used to justify its imperialism (which led to W.E.B. Dubois’s confusion for a period on the real character of imperial Japan).
It is important for the development of political program to be precise in defining the main contradictions on the world scale: between proletariat and bourgeoisie, between the imperialist powers, and between oppressor and oppressed nations. There is no contradiction as such between “Western [or white] civilization” and “the darker nations.”
Furthermore, genuine revolutionary struggles in Asia have always had both anti-imperialist and anti-feudal content. In this context, prioritizing the fight against white supremacy means overlooking the whole other side of the national revolutionary struggle. In other words, the Bandung line and Malcolm X’s understanding of the character of the Bandung conference were wrong. I was only referring to the Filipino national-democratic movement here as an example of this recognition – that there are problems of both semicolonialism and semifeudalism. As for whether the Maoist conception of two-stage revolution is correct, I think the situation speaks for itself (e.g. what is the only organized Communist [big-C] trend leading mass struggles in the neocolonial countries today?).
Hey boris, Thanks for engaging with us here. This piece was actually part of a journal that we put out and it would be great if you could check it out to get a fuller sense of where we come from: Jalan Journal of Asian Liberation: http://www.jalanjournal.org
To start off, I hope we are clear on the point, as Mamos also laid out, that we are coming not from a place of flattening and erasing class divisions among Asian communities. Our call for pan-Asian unity is more nuanced. More specifically, it is a pan-Asian identity led by the visions of the Asian working class and peasantry. Our attack on white supremacy is not meant as a way to mask the class divisions and simply to “rally the nationalist sentiments,” as many Asian ruling classes have done. That said, we have no interest in defending the role of the Asian national bourgeoisie, or ruling class. However, it is still important to understand their experiences with relation to white supremacy because in the absence of an articulated Asian working class identity and struggle, the experiences of the national bourgeoisie get filtered back into the working class through nationalism.
Why then do we put front and center the attack against white supremacy?
First, because it is still the dominant imperialism in the world today. It’s calling a pig a pig. Yes, Japanese capitalism has thrived and Japanese imperialism once upon a time had had its hay day. However, today Japanese capitalism and any other of those Asian tigers, are merely junior partners to US capitalism. Why then did the US thwart an attempt by Asian countries to create an Asian Monetary Bank to deal with the 1997 Asian financial crisis? For all the talk of “Asia rising” Chinese and Japanese capital still heavily depend on the US, intimidated and cowered also by US military powress. I have never heard of an imperial power having another imperial power’s troops on its land. I think Great Britain would flip its shit if the US planted a big old military base on its land. Yet, in Japan and Korea, both presumably capitalist power houses, US troops have their free reign, sent as back up to the war in the Middle East.
What you are pointing out, the domination of East Asians over SEAsians is true, but the reality is also more nuanced. More specifically, its the East Asian ruling classes setting up shop in SEAsia and Africa, oppressing those workers the same way it does its own. Lets not forget the 1.3 billion population in China, majority of whom are peasants or workers in factories who dont have much to gain from the escapades of the Chinese ruling class. Yet, because of heavy repression and a deliberate propaganda campaign by the government, the severance between these two classes hasnt been effectively made, both inside and outside of China. One of the ways that this class collaboration is strengthened, is through the dominant ideology of white supremacy that the US and Europe continue to exercise. It gives ammunition for the Chinese ruling class to say that any rebel is doing the job of US imperialism. It sounds ridiculous, but this still has ideological weight in formerly colonized countries cos the fact is, the CIA and the US military are still brazen and ever present.
I hope you dont misunderstand my point to mean that we can’t challenge the Asian ruling class until white supremacy is defeated. What I am saying is that the two struggles have to go hand in hand. People of color need an alternative path that brings together anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles together. What I do disagree with you is that I believe white supremacy still dominates the texture, life, politics of Asian countries. I have more to say about Japanese imperialism during WW2 but I will leave that to another response.
I read the piece that you suggested in the earlier comments. My main disagreement would be that “Asian” or “Latino” is not merely a cultural marker — I am not for essentialist understandings of culture. There is no one Asian or Latino culture. It is many cultures constantly being revised and recreated, and women, queer, oppressed folks need to assert our own versions of culture and fight to see it as the norm. This means patriarchal Asian men dont get to define what “Asian culture” is like for women. It means there is a battle and contestation for WHO gets to define Asian culture. It is a constant work in progress.
My use of Asian is also largely as a political identity. I would ask the author of the piece, if we want to keep dissecting identities, then what of “Argentinian” identity, and what of “Latin American” identity? Dont they also have the potential to mask class differences? These identities are products of struggle, and they are political identities first before they are cultural, and it is up for grabs who gets to define and lay claim to them. I havent thrown in the towel on a vision of pan-Asian unity. I think the rulers are constantly battling to define it as their own version of inter-capitalist collaboration, coming together as APEC or ASEAN to screw over their own. But at the same time there is a rich history of inter-Asian political exchange, migration and movement building from below that I would like to be a part of in reviving. If our enemies are all too happy to collaborate in screwing us over, why can’t we also collaborate to fight back the similar conditions that they set for us?
Hope this all makes sense.
I agree there’s a history of solidarity between the various liberation struggles in Asia, but I would argue that this doesn’t exist distinct from the history of solidarity between all oppressed nations everywhere. What about the ties between movements in Asia and Africa? Or the ties between the movements in India and Ireland? What is it that defines and gives significance to the program of pan-Asian unity as something distinct from this broader history?
I think it might be important to distinguish the significance of pan-Asian unity in the US from pan-Asian unity in Asia. Asian American identity developed as a political identity (agree with you there) in a particular situation of struggle against white supremacist national oppression in the US in the 1960s. However, people of Asian descent in the US remained and remain distinct nationalities: Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and so on.
It is interesting just looking at the “Asian American” links here, that all of the left organizations linked are organized along more or less national lines (BAYAN USA, CSWA, KIWA), and this is true for many (most?) left organizations historically as well, e.g. I Wor Kuen, often described as an Asian American organization, was actually overwhelmingly if not entirely Chinese American and was part of the long thread of Chinese American struggle that went back to the 1920s, documented by Peter Kwong and Him Mark Lai; another example is the KDP, which is cited in the Jalan Journal mission statement.
Looking at the situation today, my impression is that “Asian” and “Asian American” groups tend to be overwhelmingly assimilationist and reformist in their politics, as opposed to the groups linked here that have at least either an orientation to the national liberation movement in the homeland or to organizing the working class in the US (immigrant workers by and large do not self-identify as Asian or Asian American). I believe this problem of assimilationist and reformist politics has something to do with the Asian American identity itself, which is now treated by most as a racial category and not a political identity (e.g. identifying as an Asian American initially meant identifying as a progressive and a leftist, not as part of an “Asian American race”).
My point about Southeast Asian nationalities being made invisible was limited to how the “Asian” and “Asian American” racial categories (as opposed to political identities) operate in the US to basically hide the specific experiences of Southeast Asians for the purposes of e.g. measuring income levels and poverty rates and determining affirmative action policies. The problem here I think is not the erasing of *class* divisions, but the erasing of *national* divisions. These are divisions between different objectively existing and historically constituted, stable communities of people sharing certain common characteristics.
I agree with you also that culture is contested and that there is a struggle by workers and all oppressed in this regard. But, if there is no one Asian culture, doesn’t that mean that Asian culture as such is really not the actual ground of contestation? I would say that the cultures that do exist as singular entities are national cultures (Chinese culture, Filipino culture, Korean culture, etc.) and that these are what are fought over between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited, as both Cabral and Mao described.
As for pan-Asian unity in Asia, are there any left political forces in Asia that have actually articulated this vision? I don’t think the vision of Asian American unity that developed in the US can be transferred to Asia, especially by activists of Asian descent based in the US and not in Asia, without severely oversimplifying some complex realities. Neither Bandung nor Maoism represented programs for pan-Asian unity as such. Bandung brought together (often comprador) heads of state of various Asian *and African* countries. Maoism, as a development on Marxism-Leninism, is universal in its address and global in its ambitions (I also disagree with your negative assessment of Maoism but that’s a digression).
In grouping Japan, China, and Korea in a comment above, I wasn’t trying to point out the domination of East Asians over Southeast Asians, but more that each of these East Asian countries is in a different place economically and politically. I think the same is true for the countries in Asia in general, from the four Asian tigers with their own forms of dependence, to semicolonial states such as the Philippines, to a second-rate imperialist power in Japan, to forms of state-capitalism emerging from revolutionary wars of national liberation such as Vietnam, to the situation in China (we can agree to disagree on this) of capitalist restoration in 1976 where there is now an ongoing debate about whether this represents a return of neocolonialism or the rise of a new imperialist power.
Yes, there is a reality of US imperialism in Asia, but – and maybe this is a minor point of contention – I think this should be called what it is: US imperialism, not white supremacy. The presence of US bases in Germany today doesn’t mean that Germany is no longer an imperialist power in its own right, same for Japan. This is a reflection of the inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and the countries of Europe (and Japan), which the concept of white supremacy doesn’t manage to describe. It’s part of the normal operation of the imperialist system that imperialist powers strive to subjugate other, weaker imperialist powers.
I really appreciate your critical engagement here. You clearly know your shit and you are raising some excellent critiques which keep us on our toes. I hope we can reciprocate that. I also appreciate your attempt to downplay our differences on Maoism and to approach the whole debate in a non-sectarian way. While those differences are important and worthy of debate in their own right, I agree let’s set them aside for now to focus on the more interesting questions at hand. Here goes….
I agree that Japan and Germany are imperialist powers in their own right. So is China. All three, in very different ways, function at times like “head servants” for US Empire. They are not equal to the US in global economic and military power and Japan and Germany have US bases in their countries. But this does not mean they are subordinated nations, at least not in the same way that the Philippines, Cambodia, Antigua, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, etc. are subordinated nations. That being said, I do think that US Empire justifies and structures its relationships with China and Japan by recycling and revamping some aspects of white supremacist ideology that the US ruling class had created in its earlier imperial and colonial escapades in Asia. This is especially true in how US policy towards these countries is justified internally in the US. My sense is you are saying there is a possibility for inter-imperialist rivalry between say the US and China or some combination of states in Asia. Is that correct? If so, I agree. But I do think that if this happens, the wars that result could take on highly racist overtones, throwing Chinese Americans or whoever else is attacked back into the position of being a “yellow peril” and a 5th column threat to national security as the Jalan articles suggest. I think it’d be a lot harder for US Empire to “sell” inter-imperialist wars with European countries than with China though this might not stop them from pursuing them if they have a strong enough interests to do so. Of course, this is somewhat irresponsible speculation on my part… who knows what could happen in the future, maybe the globalized economy will collapse into nationalist protectionism and we’ll see a trade war between the US and some combination of European and Asian states which would certainly scramble and transform the connection between white supremacy and US imperialism.
It seems we have clarified that we all agree that Asian unity is a political project not a given organic identity. We share similar critiques of essentialism and identity politics. But that leaves us with the question of whether pan-Asian unity is the best political project for achieving international solidarity against imperialism. I agree with you that pan-Asian solidarity is not the ONLY potential form of internationalist anti-imperialist solidarity. It may not even be the most promising or powerful form today or in the future. Perhaps alignments along the terms of “immigrants workers unite”, “Afro-Asian unity from below”, “people of color unity”, specific national alliances like the Ireland-Palestine alliance, or even Muslim or Christian solidarities might be stronger. These are also not mutually exclusive and may reinforce each other. If these alignments grow from below, from workers, lumpen and peasant folks, we will support them and help build them as long as they lead to true internationalism and liberation and we will oppose them as long as they lead to chauvinism, authoritarianism, divide and conquer, or inter-imperialist rivalries. In my mind I don’t think it’s necessary to decide firmly whether to advocate a united front of particular national movements, a pan-people of color multiracialism, or some intermediate “pan-African”, “pan-Asian” or Guevarian “pan-American (defined hemispherically)” solidarity. All of these have independent validity as long as they contribute to struggles against oppression. It’s like our discussion over on Advance the Struggle’s site: http://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/creating-racial-unity-in-the-class-struggle/#comments. I argued there that there are many ways to build multiracial unity in the class struggle: “one way is to build people of color only groups that come together in a united front; another is to build multiracial organizations. Both approaches I think are valid and important.”
The Jalan journal’s articulation of a pan-Asian solidarity was linked to our organizing efforts in Seattle at the time we published the journal. Maybe my comrades can articulate more clearly than I can why we felt a specifically pan-Asian appeal was an effective strategy for building people of color unity against imperialism in the context we were organizing in. I can say though that the strategy we laid out in the journal and lived out in Seattle is not the only approach we take in our work. Right now in Democracy Insurgent we are group that is about a third Asian and about a third Black and we are exploring visions of Afro-Asian unity. We also focus more on building unity among workers and students of color, among immigrant workers, among specific oppressed ethnic groups inside the custodian workforce (e.g. Eritreans and Chican@s.) All of this is part of a broader vision that involves doing what the AtS piece called for, which is to build multiracial solidarity in the class struggle. I think you agree with us at that, at least in the US, fighting white supremacy is a decisive part of this (and internationally fighting imperialism is a decisive part of this). I would say that we are not opposed to the strategies you put forward for how to achieve this, we just wish to keep pan-Asian solidarity as one more valid strategy.
Finally, I disagree with you that immigrant workers by and large do not self-identify as Asian or Asian American. Many of my working class Cambodian students identify as Asian and/or Asian American. And even though the model minority myth was primarily applied to East Asians, not to them, the lines blur significantly: many Black and white students assume these Khmer youth are smart, upwardly mobile, etc. and sometimes they apply these stereotypes to themselves or their communities. The reality is in many parts of the country white folks can’t even tell the difference between say Vietnamese and Chinese folks. Also, I agree with you that things have changed since the 60s – back then “Asian American” was a radical political project linked to people of color solidarity, not a narrow and divisive identity but now it is used more in a conservative way as a cultural identity to hold back militant organizing. I agree that a lot of “Asian American students associations” for example are either careerist or just channel the energy of their members away from antiracist organizing and towards cultural events that build cultural capital for the university administration that is oppressing them. BUT, in our experience in Seattle groups like Bayan, Khmer in Action etc. do use the concept of “Asian American” in a radical political way like in the 60s. These groups may be based in specific ethnic communities like you argue but they also tend to attract Asian American members or fellow travellers from other ethnicities. They have also reached out to our circle on an explicitly “Asian Pacific Islander contingent” basis which really helped us get started organizing when we first moved to Seattle. Would we have been able to forge these alliances if we were not specifically doing anti-war work in a “pan-Asian” way that focused on getting US bases out of Asia and smashing the model minority myth and white supremacy? We have marched with informal API contingents in at least 3-4 major protests in Seattle, including queer liberation, immigrant rights, and Palestine solidarity actions. This API unity did not preclude other forms of unity on the basis of, for example, being an explicitly political and militant pole in the queer liberation scene or being an explicitly class struggle pole in the immigrant rights scene…. in fact, it overlapped with these and helped reinforce these and actually helped us build up our ability to do other forms of work under an “immigrant rights”, “people of color”, and “working class” banner. Also, significantly, white folks, Black folks, Latinos and others marched with and were openly welcomed as part of these API contingents so as far as I can tell it’s never been about narrow identity politics. Now maybe all of this is just local conditions and maybe I’m missing the bigger picture about what’s happening in the US and and Asia. Also, I can see that maybe these temporary alliances will be superseded by a deeper basis for unity and solidarity if a mass movement breaks out that creates new forms of political allegiance, but in the meantime I still think that pan-Asian unity can be one way among many to build international solidarity.