If Asian Americans were a niche political problem for revolutionaries for most of the 20th century, they are no longer that today.
For the last 120 years, outside of California and Hawaii, it was unlikely that a Black or white American would meet an Asian American person. Even in cosmopolitan New York City, Asian Americans were 1.2% of the population as late as 1970. They were often a curiosity surrounded by all kinds of Orientalist imaginations. Most importantly, they were too small a population to have any meaningful impact on class struggle, revolutionary strategy, and politics at a national level. To the extent that demographics play a role in such calculations, their importance is growing.
Politics in the 1960s was about standing together with Asians across the Pacific, with the most important countries being China and Vietnam.¹ While this addressed geo-politics and imperialism, it was an entirely different phenomena from class relations inside the United States.
Today, Asian Americans are everywhere. Pho, biryani, and sushi can be eaten not only in Seattle, but in lily white suburbs across the country.² Asian Americans are mayors of several large cities and even occupy the office of the Vice Presidency.³ Some Asian Americans have become the spearhead in taking down affirmative action at universities. Others fought in the marches and riots of the George Floyd Uprising.
It is clear that Asian Americans have become a political force that can no longer be ignored. However, this essay is not about electoral politics, admissions to elite universities, or culture, but about what role Asian Americans can play in the upcoming years of class struggle and revolution.
Asian Americans currently constitute 7% (or 22 million people) of the U.S. population.⁴ By 2060, they are projected to be 11.7% (or 48.5 million people) in the United States. In comparison, today the Black population is 14% of the U.S. population. For years academics and even Asian American revolutionaries have struggled to place Asian Americans in a society defined by Black and white racial polarization. The debates have been extremely academic, trapped in an intellectual hall of mirrors, or romanticism and delusions of Afro-Asian Solidarity and Third Worldism, or guilt ridden politics centered around the whiteness of Asian Americans. The one perspective that is never considered is the relationship of Asian Americans to class struggle, the George Floyd Uprising, and revolution.
If Asian Americans created academic programs and departments in the 1960s with the hopes of using the university for radical ends, it has been the opposite which has occurred. The university has made Asian American politics just another lackey of bourgeois and middle class politics. And if the promise of the Red Guards and I Wor Ken was to develop a radical Asian American movement, today this is little more than a niche historical experience taught in the university.
However, the George Floyd Uprising has placed Black liberation, race, and class struggle back on the agenda of American society. It is within this matrix that the meaning of Asian America emerges most dynamically and clearly.
What Asian Americans did in the past would have little impact on class struggle politics. Their demographics simply made them small time players.⁵ The influence largely came from overseas, via Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, or India’s anti-colonial movement, the NLF in Vietnam, and Maoism in China. But there was little Asian Americans could do inside the United States that would fundamentally impact class struggle. This story is now changing. In particular, what Asian Americans do in relationship to Black liberation will decisively position the former as either a reactionary or radical movement.
Asian Americans are a strange category. It is an entirely invented one, born out of the struggles of the late 1960s, inspired by anti-colonial struggles overseas, and Black liberation in the United States.⁶ It does not have an organic relationship to the material lives of many immigrants from Asia, nor do masses of people from Asia experience oppression as Asian Americans. My usage of the term refers to Americans who are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation people from Asia, especially those who have gone to college, have taken a course on Asian American history, or have a degree in Asian American Studies. Even for American born Asians who are not college educated, being Asian American is a process they go through. Politically, it means taking a position on Black movements. It means that the connection to one’s country of origin is no longer the defining sensibility or political calculus of how one acts.
A subgroup of Asian Americans are the political whites. These Asian Americans want to assimilate into whiteness, basing their assimilation on racism towards Black people and closeness to whites. Their political and social behavior is inseparable from white middle class people and their politics. This does not automatically mean right wing conservatism, but can also include the liberal spectrum of politics.
In contrast, immigrants from Asia have a stronger tendency to identify as nationals from their country of origin and I will refer to them accordingly.⁷ Solidarity with their homeland is the most important political orientation for immigrants. This often creates a niche subculture of politics divorced from the day to day concerns of most Americans, even first and second generation Asian Americans. This reflects a generational split where immigrants have one set of politics and their offspring having another set. This divide will continue for the upcoming decades, creating the basis for two different movements.
For most of my political life, I had written off Asian Americans and immigrants from Asia as a reactionary mass of people, as adjacent to whites, and saw them as a guaranteed reservoir of counter revolution, particularly against Black movements.⁸ But the experiences of the George Floyd Uprising have forced me to reevaluate that position. Instead, I see Asian Americans as another identity not too different from women, Queer, Latinx and even Black. None of these identities or groups can claim to be revolutionary but are instead divided by class, and of equal importance, by political divisions – conservatives, liberals, and social democrats. All are fighting to assimilate into American society, the key difference is that Black people⁹ continue to face particular difficulty in doing so, a problem expressed most sharply in police murders, resulting in the most powerful and important class struggle we have seen yet to date.¹⁰
Asian American Solidarity
The concept of linked fate seems to be a key factor in the formation of post 1960s identity movements.¹¹ The idea is to what extent do people in a given group see their individual success or failures tied to the broader group that they belong to. If it is high, the idea is that mobilization is possible. We can think of it in terms of the murder of Black people by police. There is a strong sense amongst Black people that the murders of Black people they do not know will have an impact on their family members, their friends, and their own chances of surviving an encounter with the police. We can use linked fate amongst African Americans as a baseline for comparison, which might tell us whether there is enough of a shared sense of oppression amongst Asian Americans to result in mass mobilization.
Figure 1 “Perceptions of linked fate, 1984 and 1988: ‘Do you think that what happens generally to the black people in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?’”¹²
This data shows that over 60% of African Americans have some or a strong sense of linked fate. We can roughly use this percentage as a very rough approximation of what it takes to cohere a group identity and potential mobilization based on that identity.
Taken as a whole, Asian Americans with the strongest sense of linked fate only constitute 12% of the survey.¹³ This is considerably lower than the 34% of African American respondents. This layer can be considered the activist, vocal, and most militant layer of the community. They not only mobilize themselves, but they arguably mobilize those who are immediately below them in terms of linked fate. Still, the strongest linked fate groups are small amongst Asian Americans. And where linked fate is strongest, amongst South Asians, it runs into the problem that Asian American identity is dominated by the Japanese and Chinese middle class.
A lower sense of linked fate is not about false consciousness, but a reflection of material reality. There is no single mechanism like police brutality which unites Asian Americans. The experience Asian Americans have around oppression is strongly fractured along the lines of country of origin. It is fairly simple. South Koreans are not a target of the US security state, while Muslims from Asia tend to be. Even amongst Muslims, those from India are not particularly the focus of the FBI, while those from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East and East African countries are. Since common oppression is the key variable in creating a common sense of identity and linked fate, it’s easy to see why linked fate amongst Asian Americans is lower.
At the same time, linked fate exists amongst Asian-Americans, and the core demographic of this linked fate is made up of 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation Asians who identify more as Asian American than from their country of origin. These bonds are much weaker than Blackness, resulting in smaller movements and less militancy. At the same time, becoming Asian American signifies a particular process of positioning in relationship to whites and Blacks. What does the relationship of Asian-American movements to Black and white proletarians mean on a larger political and strategic level? This remains to be seen.
Trapped in Black and White
If the struggle of the 20th century was defined by a Black and white polarization, the 21st century looks much more confusing. In the last quarter of the century, it was Latinx people who became a significant demographic and political group, which challenged a neat Black and white polarization. In the last couple decades immigrants from Asia and their children – who are more likely to identify as Asian Americans – have emerged as well, forcing a debate about whether Asians are becoming white or are a distinct racial formation.¹⁴ Both frameworks have strengths and weaknesses.
The daytime protests during the summer of 2020 saw Asian Americans holding signs in support of Black Lives Matter. An Asian American and a Black person were arrested for supposedly distributing molotov cocktails during the riots. The spectacle of Asian American business owners voicing their support for Black Lives Matter after their stores were looted was another novelty. Asian Americans were participants in riots as well, although exactly how many is unclear. These stories are hard to square with the “Asians are white” narrative, or that Asian Americans are a particularly reactionary bunch.
If these Asian Americans are not white, then what are they? Are they politically Black? Or are they still just Asian Americans? The answer in the affirmative or negative for each of these questions clarifies some things and makes other things more confusing. If the polarization is one of white and Black, and if we say they are not white, then it leaves us with explaining how they might be Black. This arrangement, alongside class, is the most important dynamic in U.S. politics. It also affirms the central legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
The Black white binary is so powerful that groups are pulled in one or the other direction. While all this is true, it is ridiculous to see Asian Americans as Black. The most obvious reason is the high median household incomes of many Asian American groups. The Black median household income is $46,073. That puts Black household slightly above Burmese, but below all other Asian American groups. In terms of poverty, 18.8% of Black households live in poverty. While the percentage of Burmese and Mongolian people living in poverty is greater, it should be noted that both nationalities are a very small population in the United States.
How can such a range of income distribution produce a common identity called “Asian Americans”?¹⁵ This is a problem with the identity movements which emerged out of the 1960s. They were all cross-class movements, regardless of their politics, reflecting the defeat of the workers movement, and the emergence of a powerful social democratic middle class filtered through the gigantic university system of the United States. Asian Americans were the weakest identity due to their small size, their differences in country of origin, and given that there was actually no common form of oppression which united all the immigrants from Asia or their children. But for each middle class to have any clout, particularly in electoral politics, they have to speak to have a program for their respective proletarians. This is the decisive relationship of all identity politics in that none are revolutionary, and all are benevolent masters of their respective proletarian constituencies. In this sense, it is not the proletarians leading the middle class, but the reverse, the middle classes leading the proletariat. To accept the reality of identity politics isn't a glorification of those politics, but to recognize that it is on that basis that politics and class struggle is taking place.
At the same time, this cross-class relationship exists in particular ways with Asian Americans – in particular, the hegemony of the middle class. In comparison, the Black middle class has a much more difficult time controlling Black proletarians, as seen in the George Floyd Uprising. But the Black middle class is also able to mobilize Black proletarians more effectively for the vote.¹⁶ Just as the framework of civil rights is about controlling Black proletarians, the idea that Asian Americans are the “model minority” is about class collaboration. Neither are purely false ideology, but rooted in material reality.
Alongside this is the size of the Asian American middle class, which in comparison to the Black middle class is richer, more stable, and robust.¹⁷ Asian Americans do not face the same obstacles as the Black middle class. In comparison to Black people, many Asian Americans have a considerably higher rate of living next door to whites¹⁸, marrying whites¹⁹, and going to school with whites.²⁰ Nor do Asian Americans face the type of discrimination Black people do with the police, teachers, the boss, or real estate agents.
However, the problem with categorizing Asian Americans as white is Islamophobia and Sinophobia. The former was sharpened with 9/11 and the latter has grown since the rise of COVID and the growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. It has made the assimilation into whiteness more difficult.
In terms of class struggle, why does it matter if people are categorized as white or Asian? Is this just a matter of intellectual categorization and discourse amongst leftists, academics, and census bureaucrats? What is the concrete impact of this in terms of how proletarians fight?
It is worth considering here what whiteness means in terms of class struggle. During the era of slavery and Jim Crow, whiteness was a material fact, ultimately preventing a revolutionary coalition of groups from coming together to defeat capitalism. Even when white proletarians fought alongside Black proletarians, a powerful current of anti-Blackness was inseparable from class struggle. However, today, with 40 years of declining wages of whiteness, whites have experienced some of the suffering that Black proletarians have known. This has been difficult for radicals to parse through, as for generations whiteness has automatically meant privilege. This paradigm confuses ontology for history. Whiteness is not some inherent privilege, but a historical and malleable construction. Today whiteness is both privilege and downward mobility. However, most radicals cannot let go of whiteness as defined through the era of Jim Crow.
If race is the grammar of class struggle in the United States, then how do we construct relationships and language that speaks to each group’s particular experiences and at the same time keep Black liberation front and center? This is an impasse with no answer so far. This has given the Republican Party and the right wing an opening, creating divisions amongst proletarians which have devastating consequences in terms of class struggle. There was never a guarantee that so many white proletarians would align with Trump or the right.²¹
But what does this all mean for Asian Americans?
To the extent that all non-Black identities are defined against Blackness, Asian Americans (like Euro Americans) are trapped in Black and white. There is no way around it. A choice must be made, yet it remains unclear what it is. A common solution proposed amongst revolutionaries is the concept of class suicide, however voluntarist conceptions of class suicide do not do much for mass struggle.²² There is no record in history of masses of middle class people committing class suicide. Inspiring individuals might do this, but millions of people will not. This is because calls for class suicide are an activist fantasy. Masses of middle class people will not voluntarily give their money away, send their children to underfunded schools, live in polluted neighborhoods, take risks that land them in prison, or work in low waged jobs. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Black proletarians are trying to escape their condition, the opposite of class suicide. What will it take for masses of non-Black proletarians to overcome their separation from the Black proletariat?
The only way class suicide can occur is through capitalist and geopolitical crisis, such as when the US Government stole all the land from Japanese-Americans on the west coast. Or when stagnation and deindustrialization destroyed the unionized layers of the white working class, sending them downward into the lower rungs of the proletariat and unemployed. This is an uncomfortable truth which revolutionaries struggle with – the role of crisis in relation to class struggle and revolution.
Capitalism itself has to deny, for significant periods of time, the class mobility of non-Black groups, and even has to sustain a dynamic that keeps those groups in positions close to what Black proletarians experience. This can only happen through geo-political and economic crises. While this does not guarantee class unity across racial lines, it is the precondition of it. As long as the current differentials between Asian Americans and Black people exist, it is hard to imagine a basis for revolutionary solidarities.
No More Romance Stories
In US radical left politics, whites are often a stand in for reactionary or liberal politics. The Klan, Trump, Hillary, Biden, or immediate family experiences are invoked to make these sweeping claims. Black or Indigenous automatically means revolutionary, or something along those lines. The Black Panthers or the American Indian Movement are carted out to demonstrate the inherently revolutionary nature of Black or Indigenous movements. These surface observations fulfill a need amongst many radicals to make sense of society and at the same time virtue signal their wokeness. Whether these neat divisions were true in the past are debatable, but their limitations today are beyond doubt.
In this framework, Asian Americans are seen as junior partners to white supremacy, or white adjacent, and sometimes white. This has been my own analysis for many years, but the George Floyd Uprising has forced a reevaluation, partly because Asian Americans did fight in the uprising, but also because the uprising itself was so reformist. If the uprising itself was reformist then I had to ask myself, why should I expect anything more from Asian Americans?
When it comes to Black struggles, Asian Americans were in line with the official Black Lives Matter Movement. They were noticeable in the daytime protests. If the Black struggle is in NGOs, then Asian Americans are in line with them, as plenty of Asian Americans have created ‘radical’ NGOs.
If the horizon of struggle is Black social democracy through the medium of identity politics, Asian Americans are generally in line with that. This is seen through the support for defund and Black Lives Matter which tracks with other non-Black groups.²³
Why does this matter? Because it shows us two phenomena. The first is that Asian Americans are not as homogeneously racist as sometimes argued. And second, that while their support for Black Lives Matter is right behind Hispanics, it is the intensity of support which is the most glaring difference between them and Black people. But this difference is found in Hispanics and whites as well. There is no revolutionary benchmark rooted in class struggle in the U.S. to measure Asian Americans. And if this measure was to be imposed, no group passes it. None have proposed or tried to overthrow capitalism and the state – the central mechanisms which create anti-Blackness. What movements have posed since 2008 is a lessening of inequality, an acceptance of LBGTQ people, stopping various kinds of sexual violence towards women, and stopping gratuitous violence towards Black people. Asian Americans have supported these movements as much as any non-Black group.
Moreover, Black Americans themselves have powerful conservative strains. The UNIA, the NOI, the Million Man March, Hoteps, ADOS are just some of a few of the conservative movements amongst Black people in the US. What’s confusing is that some of these conservative movements are often understood as radical, but this is precisely because of the antagonism that whites have had towards Black upward mobility, Black pride, and Black politics in general for most of the 20th century. The key difference is about interpretation. Unlike conservative trends among Asian-Americans, these Black conservative movements are not seen as ‘whitening’ Black people. If they were, a sizable number of Black people would be white. But the crisis of race, in terms of ‘whiteness,’ does not register amongst Black people, however, it does for Latinx and Asian Americans. Why is this the case? Why do Black liberals and conservatives maintain their authentic hold on Blackness, while their Asian or Latinx counterparts slip towards whiteness?
Part of it is the historical-ideological victory of Black liberation. No one’s Blackness is questioned anymore. This is not just a conservative argument, but one whose origins also originate amongst radicals. Blackness for most of the 20th century was about men, so it had to be expanded to include women and Queers. The collateral damage of that expansion was that conservatives snuck into the door as well. Now Clarence Thomas is no longer a white man with a Black face, but a Black conservative. This move places discussions of Black conservatism on a completely different register than Asian Americans and Latinx people, which are seen as becoming white. This is not just about discourse and how we see the world. There is material truth. As discussed earlier, Asian Americans marry whites more, send their children to integrated schools, live in integrated neighborhoods with whites much more so than Black people. This has material consequences around class struggle.
Nonetheless, whiteness is a story as much about class as it is about the general comfort whites have with Asians in comparison to Black people. This situation has created a dual discourse about whiteness that obscures either the ‘whitening’ of Black people, or obscures the fact that Asian Americans are generally in line with contemporary Black struggles. The truth is that the concept of ‘whitening’ has lost its analytical power with the growing number of poor whites, radical whites, and anti-racist whites. In particular, whiteness today cannot possibly mean only rich, conservative, and racist. There are too many whites who are poor, not conservative, and not racist. So, whiteness, as a category of analysis, while not completely shattered, has begun to crack, and if the trajectory holds, will fall apart in the next few decades. Meaning that it will have no analytical relevance.
If this is the case, then why has Asian American theorization been so focused on whiteness? It comes from four places. The first is the success of Asian Americans. The concept model minority captures this success. The second is assimilation into white society measured in schools, neighborhoods, and marriage rates with whites. The third is in class struggle where Asian Americans have made huge ethical and political mistakes such as the LA Riots of 1992 and the protests in support of Peter Liang. The fourth place is the competition for university spots,²⁴ philanthropic dollars,²⁵ government grants and government contracts to minority businesses.²⁶ (To be clear, Asian Americans should not be included in any affirmative action programs.) So there are materialist reasons for seeing Asian Americans as white.
What whiteness still holds in liberal and revolutionary imagination is a proxy for class, success, and stability. Whiteness still means having made it under capitalism. It means having property and protection from gratuitous violence from police. It means not having to represent your whole group, but getting to be an individual. So the critique of Asians as white is one that only recognizes the social relations of capital. In this sense, everyone either wants to become white or at least live next door to whites. In contrast, a revolutionary perspective wants to destroy the conditions which create that desire in the first place, i.e. capitalism and the state, tout court.
In one sense, Asian Americans have successfully integrated into white-American society, the very vision of the Civil Rights Movement, and yet it is not seen as the fulfillment of Civil Rights, but instead of becoming white. A couple decades ago, it was common for me to hear Black people compliment Asian Americans for their hard work and success and that they were a model minority for Black people as well. At times it felt like the success of Asians reflected the success of all people of color.²⁷ Today, that seems less so. What changed? A couple differences stand out. If in the year 2000 Asians were 4.2 percent of the US population, today they are 7 percent. More Asians has meant that enough of them exist for them to have specific group interests, and these specific interests do not always match up with what Black people want. Second is the growth of the Black middle class, which also means competition between the Black and Asian American middle class. This is seen at the university level with battles over affirmative action.
In one sense, it does seem like positioning Asian Americans as white is very beneficial for the Black middle class. If they are white, then they are no longer recipients of affirmative action and of government based aid to minority groups. If this is the terms of white and Black polarization, does it map onto revolution (Black) and reform/ reaction (white) respectively? Today we can say no. This tells us something about the positioning of Asian Americans as white. It is not about revolution, but about group interests, fighting for limited seats in universities, philanthropy, government aid, grants, etc. We shouldn't discount this, considering the herculean efforts it has taken Black people to integrate into this society and be successful. But it is in the group interest of the aspiring Black middle class that more non-Black people of color are categorized as white.
At the same time, nowhere has the Asian equals white argument produced a revolutionary practice. This should tell us that somewhere a limit is lurking. And that limit is that that perspective is not about revolution, but about group interest. And if this argument serves Black group interests over Asian American group interests, then why do so many Asian Americans agree with it? Is it class suicide? Is it self-hating Asian Americans? Asian American race traitors? Paradoxically, middle class Asian Americans support this argument because it is the language of mobility and solidarity with their Black middle class peers.²⁸ But nowhere have Asian Americans actually put this politics into practice. In fact, when specific Asian American group interests are at stake, they are often defended, even against their supposed Black middle class allies. This is the paradox: rhetoric/discourse versus material reality/practice. And this is where the confusion lies. Middle class Asian Americans talk about Asians being white and talk about solidarity with Black struggles, but all this rhetoric runs up against the material interests of the group. That’s why the measuring stick of solidarity is not language, but action.
The question then is not “are Asians becoming white?” but “which Asians are becoming white?” This framework also allows for non-white Asians to exist, in particular Asian Americans and Asians who identify by country of origin. But asking “which Asians are becoming white?” only makes sense if we make the George Floyd uprising the benchmark for how we understand identity and politics.
Where is the Past?
There are two ways that the Asian American category is used today.²⁹ The first is rooted in a history of oppression and the second is the reverse, a history of resistance. What both miss is their relationship to the present.
The first is a strategy of declaring their oppression by pointing out a specific history of oppression. It can be the Japanese-American internment camps,³⁰ the anti-Chinese riots in California,³¹ or restrictions on immigration.³² A history of past oppression is used to argue that Asian Americans are oppressed today.
The second often points to groups like I Wor Kuen,³³ the Ghadar Party³⁴ or extraordinary individuals such as Yuri Kochiyama³⁵ or Grace Lee Boggs.³⁶ These examples are meant to show that Asian Americans are a potentially radical community. It is for this reason that Asian Americans today belong in coalitions and struggles with other oppressed groups. But the reality is that unlike the history of the Panthers or Malcolm X, which are widely known in society and form a memory of struggle for people, no such memory of Asian American radicalism exists amongst Asian Americans outside of those attending elite schools where this history is taught. Nor have any of the struggles of the last two decades been influenced by this history.
When it comes to histories of radicalism, the past has no relationship in shaping contemporary Asian American politics. Besides some rambling professors, a few irrelevant Maoists, anarchists, and communists, the legacy of anti-colonialism means nothing today to the broader masses of Asian Americans. When the radical past is discussed it is for cultural, lifestyle, and aesthetic reasons, not strategic ones. After hours of talking about Mao, the NLF, or the Huk Rebellion everyone votes for the Democrats or opens up another lame NGO.
While the broken relationship between the past and the present is clear regarding histories of resistance, it is more complex regarding histories of oppression. Asian Americans find themselves discriminated against in very particular ways. Their discrimination is no longer rooted in the workplace, schools, or policing, but in very specific areas of the state and a popular discrimination from below. The origins of this discrimination can be pinpointed to geo-politics and economic rivalry with China. The second origin is with Islam and 9-11.³⁷
While Asian-Muslims face discrimination rooted in U.S. wars with Muslim countries, this discrimination is strongest in aspects of the state that are oriented towards national security and transportation of people, particularly airplanes. Once outside of this space, Asian-Muslims can generally move about no differently than whites in the United States. Asian-Muslims are persecuted by the FBI and CIA. But the CIA’s jurisdiction is overseas, so we can discount that for our purposes, and the FBI is not a mass phenomena like the police.³⁸ The majority of Muslims have never even met an FBI agent. In contrast, Chinese Americans do not have such a relationship to the security apparatus of the state, but have experienced a populist grassroots backlash due to the pandemic.³⁹ The sites of oppression are radically different. The connections that leftists hope to make often fall flat.
Upon closer examination, this is the situation we find with most Asians. None of the specific nationalities from Asia face the kind of discrimination Black people do. Being Asian, on a daily level, does not make much of a difference in terms of discrimination. In other words, Black people encounter discrimination at every point in daily life, while Asians encounter it at very specific points.⁴⁰
Anti-Asian hate crimes surged due to Covid and the propaganda of it being associated with China. This type of violence has long been a reality all too familiar to Black people. Any discussion of such violence cannot be separated from the fact that the majority of hate crimes regarding race are still committed against Black people.⁴¹
It is helpful to think of Asian Americans as a category in comparison to Black as a category. Black people like any people have plenty of internal differences which should make us think that mobilizing around Blackness would be impossible, however, white supremacy squeezed those differences into one category which we know as “Black.” So even though Black people came from different parts of Africa, with different languages, cultures, and customs, they were molded into something different – Black. The beginning process was slavery but it did not end there. The next four hundred years of their experiences in the United States resulted in a distinct identity.
In contrast, there is a duality within Asian America, where older Asian Americans come out as specific nationalities, and younger Asian Americans come out as Asian Americans. We have seen this in a variety of movements: the Korean shop owners in the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, South Asian cab drivers in New York City, and pro-police Chinese in the defense of Peter Liang. In contrast, younger Asian Americans came out in Occupy Wall Street and the George Floyd Uprising. It was particularly important for Asian Americans to express support for Black Lives Matter as Asian Americans. It was under the banner of inequality and stopping police violence that the broader group of Asian Americans mobilized. This shows that 2nd and 3rd generation Asian Americans do develop a broader conception of themselves, transcending their specific nationality.
Ultimately, Asian Americans of all generations are basing their politics less on their home country of origin and more within the context of the United States. It is important to engage with the revolutionary implications of this dynamic. While intellectuals and activists will cry about internationalism, it is Asian American people themselves who are dropping any sense of internationalism, and increasingly navigating a very national set of politics rooted in the United States. The radical internationalism of previous generations, having little bearing on Asian Americans today, is both a problem and a gift. Opening the gift we find Tronti’s wise words: “We have no models. The history of past experiences serves only to free us from those experiences.”⁴² Instead of searching for a past, we must fight in the present, for a different future.
Many Asian Americans complain of the ‘racism’ of the model minority myth. The irony is that the model minority category has been immensely beneficial for Asian Americans. Being a model minority means that teachers, employers, and police are less likely to see you as a threat and more likely to see you as compliant, hard working, etc. and that means your chances of living, earning higher incomes, and job security are higher than other groups. This is shown in Asian American educational status, income, and the extremely low number of Asian Americans in prisons. If the model minority is a form of ‘racism,’ it is strangely one that African Americans have been working for 400 years to achieve. A fundamentally new way of looking at the model minority needs to occur.
If we compare this to African Americans, we see an inverse story. Slavery created a broad and deep proletarian composition. When the Black middle class finally emerged, it had to both distance itself from Black proletarians and fight on the latter’s behalf, because white society perceived all Black people as the same. The issue for Black middle class people was to prove their own existence as model minorities.
Class politics between the middle class and proletariat is about the former assuming the role of political and economic boss of the latter. In response to the model minority myth, many progressive Asian Americans first establish that there is in fact a mass of proletarian Asian Americans, and second, that they can speak for these proletarians. In this polarization there is no possibility of class struggle, because the model minority debate is really about middle class people managing their respective proletarians.
The critique of the model minority myth presents itself as some profound insight. It is not. It should be common sense that no category of race is composed of entirely middle class or bourgeois people. Anyone who thinks so is dangerously close to anti-semitic tropes that all Jews are rich and powerful. Every racial or religious category is divided by class. If there is an actual critique of the model minority, it is its anti-Black foundation. This has been proven historically and needs no further comment.⁴³ The model minority category is also similar to whiteness in that it glues Asian American proletarians to the boss, the police, the teacher, and the politician. The category is about disciplining proletarians and middle class deviants.⁴⁴
Here is the key point about class and race in terms of Asian Americans and Black people: Asian Americans experience more upward class mobility than Black people.⁴⁵ This is a remarkable fact that shapes proletarian perceptions of their future. Asian American proletarians can look around and see their peers moving up the class ladder, while Black proletarians see their peers stuck, leaving little choice but militancy. This must be seen as one of the primary reasons why Asian American proletarians have yet to express their own class politics.
But the issue is not the simple sociological existence of Asian American proletarians, but instead what they actually do. Do they riot? Do they go on strikes? Do they occupy or blockade? The answer is generally no. And this is the crux of the problem, because it is from here that a potential independent set of politics from the Asian American middle class might be formed.
Identity Politics and Asian Americans
Where are the militant solidarity actions with Chinese workers? Solidarity with Muslims being hunted down in India? Solidarity with Uyghers in reeducation camps in China? The struggles against the stationing of troops in South Korea? There are none.⁴⁶ The link to international politics is completely broken.
Having no politics of their own, Asian Americans copy the politics of Black movements. Today they scramble to show that they are part of the story of mass incarceration. Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are incarcerated at a very high level. At the federal level, however, there is not much of a story around Asian American incarceration.⁴⁷ They are there, but actually under-represented. If over-representation is a sign of discrimination, then what exactly does under-representation mean?
In terms of state prison population, California – with the largest Asian American population – tells us a similar story. With 15% of the state’s population comprising Asian Americans, the state prison is made up of 1% of Asian Americans.⁴⁸
In terms of who is deported, a similar story holds.⁴⁹ From 2003-2020 the deportation of Mexicans alone accounted for 63% of all deportations! The next groups, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, accounted for another 27% of deportations. Combined, these four countries alone make up 90% of all deportations for the 17 year period. This means the deportation of all other groups accounts for the rest of the 10%. China, India, Philippines, and Pakistan, which are Asian countries with the highest number of deportations, account for less than 1% of all deportations!
This should give us pause about identity based organizing, which has become the only route of politics in the United States. Reading the websites of AAPI NGOs, it is clear that they want inclusion into the story of deportation and mass incarceration. The former is a story of Latinx proletarians, and the latter is one about white, Latinx, and Black proletarians.
Relationship to Larger Gears
Asian Americans and their respective nationalities are not able to cohere radical movements. If this is because they are just too small demographically, perhaps that will change as their number grows.
When you are a small demographic of a population, you need to connect to some bigger gear. C.L.R. James saw this regarding the Black struggle and the labor movement in the middle of the 20th century.⁵⁰ The Black movement was a small but powerful gear that could move the larger gear of the labor movement. This relationship did not work as James had hoped, but the method was right. The labor movement was defeated and today is non-existent. What remains are different fractions of society carved up as identities. The largest group in the US are the whites and no group that wants social democratic or revolutionary changes can ignore them.
In terms of race, we can think of whites as a larger gear. Black struggles connect to this gear and at the same time force the gear to split. Concretely, Black struggles hit a nerve amongst white people, causing splits at various levels: the family, neighborhoods, workplaces, capitalist firms, and the state. Because whites hold so much power, this generates a crisis throughout society, at a national level and sometimes even at the international level.⁵¹
Asian Americans do not connect to any larger white gear, or Black or Latinx gear, when it comes to revolt. Masses of Black or Latinx proletarians do not mobilize when some oppression falls on the heads of Asian Americans. Nor has Asian American struggle caused a crisis at a national level. This struggle does not impact the ‘consciousness’ or the material world of whites in any significant way. To the extent that Asian Americans are murdered by the police (a very small number) this does not resonate with whites, nor even other Asian Americans.
So much of white understanding of this country is shaped by Black people, and in particular slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Even white racists have to account for it in one way or the other. This does not hold for Asian Americans. Even some of the most violent acts by whites, such as the concentration camps full of Japanese Americans, or the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan, does not strike a chord in white consciousness, let alone divide whites. It is impossible to know if anything can change this.
The "Asian American" category attempts to address this lack of connection to larger gears. Being “Asian American” is precisely about belonging to this country. In this sense, it copies the Black struggle’s methods of positioning the history of Black people as central to the formation of the United States. However, this is not possible through a purely intellectual argument. It was a specific class struggle that forced larger gears to pay attention to Black people, and that has not happened with Asian Americans.
Where is the Proletariat?
There is a proletariat from Asia in the United States.⁵² There is a history of class struggle amongst Asian proletarians in the United States.⁵³ But the past does not necessitate the present or the future, and most importantly, does not address the relationship of class struggle to revolutionary horizons. In this regard, the story of Asian American class struggle at the point of production is no different from the rest of the American proletariat – it is largely absent, if strikes are our measure. Proletarians from Asia have not been able to buck this larger trend and create new dynamics of struggle, unlike Black proletarians, who have rioted for several decades.
It has been difficult to draw radical conclusions, strategies, and politics from struggles at the point of production. It is not where the proletariat in this country is choosing to fight.⁵⁴ The arena of struggle has been the city and the activity has been the riot and blockade. This does not mean that struggles at the point of production are gone forever. The pandemic exposed the centrality of ‘essential workers’ to the economy and has created a labor shortage. Whether workers take advantage of this is yet to be seen, and how workers from Asia will interact with it is also unclear.
In no industry are Asians the majority. Even in nail salons, they constitute 40% of the labor force. In computer manufacturing they are 37%. The numbers drop rather quickly from there. While the number of Asians in the United States is expected to grow considerably, the role Asians will play in class struggle is also contextualized by geopolitics, the specific place in the economy they end up in, and most importantly, whether they will fight.
With that said, it is reasonable to expect workers from Asia to participate in class struggle in the upcoming years. Those struggles will not likely be defined as Asian American, but will have participants from Asia and Asian Americans in it. There is no shame in this future, to be a part of the class wars in the United States.
Revolutionary movements in the USA have been tiny to the point of insignificance. It is the struggle for Black social democracy since the defeat of Reconstruction which has defined class struggle. With this in mind, the social democratic politics of Asian Americans look a lot less like ‘whiteness’ and more as following the lead of the most advanced political movement in the country – the Black movement.
The uprising forced a clarity around the political divisions among Asian Americans, however the most unknown aspect of the Asian American question remains what the proletariat will do in battle against the bourgeoisie. It is well known that such a proletariat exists among Asians in America, but merely existing is not the same thing as when proletarians fight their class enemy, which, on large scale terms, has yet to happen. This creates some ambiguity for revolutionaries. Why aren’t these proletarians fighting? We know that, since the 1970s, proletarians have hardly fought over the wage, if strike activity is the key measure. Why should Asian American proletarians be any different? What American proletarians have battled over is the murder of Black men. It should be no surprise that it is first and second generation Asian Americans who feel as intensely about anti-Blackness as white and Black people do. Immigrant Asian Americans simply do not bear the consciousness of slavery, Jim Crow, or mass incarceration. But this is not particular to Asians, as we have seen generational differences play out with white and Black Americans as well.
The search for ‘identity’ will arguably continue into the next decades, but its resolution is not found in food, clothes, or music, but the political and economic questions of our times, revolving around inequality, nationalism, and geopolitics.
Too often Asian Americans feel they do not have an organic fight of their own. This has two origins. The first is the limits of racecraft, as if the fight against the police, prisons, or any other capitalist institution is not a fight that belongs to everyone. No one owns these struggles. Struggles are not commodities to be owned. Otherwise why did CLR James write about the Hungarian Revolution, the French Revolution, the Indian anti-colonial struggle, etc? These struggles belonged to James as much as to the Hungarians, French, or Indians.
The second origin is the notion of being an oppressed group. Asian Americans from the middle class do not feel secure that their racial status designates racial oppression. It is true in the structural sense, that Asian Americans have benefited more from capitalism than suffered. At the same time, there are proletarians from Asia in the United States, but the problem is that Asian proletarians in America have not fought in the same way as other groups. What gives many non-Asian middle class radicals and progressives the confidence to speak on their group is not that they or their class peers have fought the battles, but that their respective proletarians have struggled. There is no inherently logical reason why this is so, other than how the rules of politics and representation have developed in the United States. The result has been the domination of the middle class over the proletariat.
An international perspective is only partially helpful in resolving the contradiction of Asian Americans. Undoubtedly, the conditions of many Asian countries are drastically worse than the situation of Asian Americans, but the politics of solidarity are weak. Furthermore, second and third generation Asian Americans have no connection to their parents or grandparents' country of origin.
The search for Asian American identity continues because of geopolitics and nationalism. The Asian American search to become “American” is contradictory. On the one hand, every group has to make a claim to the nation in order to participate in the country’s politics, but on the other hand, this reinforces nationalism. Class struggle, while ‘international,’ still remains national.
This contradictory desire to belong seems to be an important characteristic allowing for grievances, a place in a larger story, and ultimately, class struggle. If we look at Black and Indigenous people we can see how important that sense of belonging is for mass struggle. Black people base their belonging on stolen labor and Indigenous people base it on stolen land. Asian Americans do not fit into either frameworks. The frameworks where they might fit, such as anti-imperialism, immigration, or class struggle at the point of production, have found these movements to be profoundly weak.
The project of constructing an “Asian American” group or identity has largely failed, but it will not go away. Instead, like many other identities, they will be zombies, reanimated by racism, radical academics, NGOs, and state bureaucrats.⁵⁵ Marx was right when he said that the tradition of the past weighs on the present like a nightmare.⁵⁶
Whether the category is Asian American, immigrant, or political whiteness, all face the same problem as Blackness. The identity is no longer revolutionary, but can only go so far as social democracy. For revolutionaries, this should reveal one of the deepest limits of identity politics. The implication of this is that the model from the 1960s has reached its limit. Fred Hampton proposed the rainbow coalition as the revolutionary solution to the necessity of separate struggles, but all the partners turned out to be everything but revolutionary.
Until a revolutionary pole emerges in the proletariat, this is all that can be said about Asian Americans, the white Asians, and Asian immigrants. This might not be a satisfactory ending for those reading this text, but to propose something beyond what class struggle has produced is sheer fantasy. It is better to stop at the limits of struggle and let the proletariat write theory on the pages of the streets and workplaces.
–October 26, 2022