A new wave of organizing against anti-Asian racism
On Thursday, April 1, I found myself in a very familiar place: demonstrating against racism and white supremacy on the Oval at Ohio State, just in front of the library at the Thompson statue. As a faculty member supporting student-led organizing for many years, I’ve been at that popular spot for campus protests quite a bit.
But as I looked around at the mostly Asian/AAPI crowd, listened to the mostly Asian speakers, and heard the slogans and chants, I realized—with shock—that this rally and a previous one in downtown Columbus had been the first demonstrations specifically against anti-Asian racism that I had attended in my twenty-five-plus years as an activist and organizer.
In the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, in which six of the eight victims killed were Asian women, the United States seemed to have woken up to the topic of anti-Asian racism like never before.
The trending slogan #StopAsianHate on social media was reflective of rallies and demonstrations across the country, a proliferation of articles and Op-Eds about racist attacks, physical and verbal, and even (for what it’s worth) corporate embracing of the issue.
Laws and events that were mainly talked about in Ethnic Studies classes seemed to become more widely known. It was impressive to see interest in not only the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for instance, but also the 1875 Page Law before it, barring Asian (specifically Chinese) women from entering the U.S.—in the name of preventing the spread of “immoral” behavior among Americans.
The growing movement against anti-Asian racism, attuned to questions of intersectionality from the very beginning, challenged the false idea that the Atlanta murders were about gender and not race. Activists, scholars, and community members supported this political position with historical evidence, showing that Asian immigration to the U.S. has always been intertwined with questions of gender and sexuality.
As director of Asian American Studies at Ohio State, I can tell you that faculty, staff, and graduate & undergraduate students went into high gear after March 16, working tirelessly to forge connections and creating spaces for students and for ourselves in ways that complemented activism in the streets: organizing forums, writing articles, gathering educational resources, speaking at events, and creating networks of communication within an institution that, despite speaking often of race and diversity, has not had much experience with specifically Asian concerns. Such efforts were happening all across the country.
Ohio State faculty and staff generated a statement with an easily usable historical timeline about anti-Asian racism and U.S. imperialism, a series of Op-Eds in The Columbus Dispatch to reach broader audiences and push for action beyond the “stop hate” sentiment (for example, here and here), a public forum that brought together writers, scholars, journalists and students, and a resources page for those who wanted to delve deeper into historical, theoretical, and political questions.
Over the process of this work, a few conceptual questions emerged around Asianness and Asian/AAPI identity that ought to be taken up as we build knowledge about Asian-American history and identity in the U.S. left.
I will mention these in brief, provide some historical context to remember and learn from, and outline how we can integrate the fight against anti-Asian racism with the broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism.
Challenges in discussing Asian/AAPI identity
The relative newness of the topic of anti-Asian racism in our society did not only mean we had to educate non-Asians about this long history of racism against us. No: at the closed and intimate forums and gatherings for campus Asian communities, we quickly found that we also had to educate ourselves. Even as we tried to heal.
In addition to meeting the public demand for more knowledge, we had to both grapple with the trauma of racist violence and to assert that what we were experiencing was, in fact, racism.
While we needed to argue, in the mainstream, that yes, the Atlanta shooter’s sexual obsession with Asian women was about racism, we also needed to dispel popular myths that many Asians ourselves have internalized: that race in the U.S. is a Black/white binary, that all Asians are basically privileged and almost-white Model Minorities, and that what we experience might be about cultural or religious prejudice, or perhaps “hatred,” but not racism and white supremacy.
It was heart-breaking to see that people being targeted by racism, who are part of communities that have borne the impact of white supremacy, colonialism, exile, and alienation (to various degrees) did not have the historical knowledge or language to name and address what they/we were experiencing. This, too, is the intended impact of white supremacy and divide-and-conquer tactics, with the effect of wiping the history of Asians in the U.S. from our consciousness.
Asians’ internalizing of the idea that we do not face racism, that we are not racialized, is in fact a symptom of how race works in the U.S.
Despite the vast differences between Asians in terms of class, caste, nationality, religion, and conditions of migration, despite the differential impact that gender, sexuality, ability and literacy have within immigrant communities, “Asians” are seen as a homogeneous mass that have “made it” in the U.S.
In reality, Asians are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and atheist; trans and cisgender; indigenous and settler; Dalit and upper-caste Hindus; survivors of domestic violence and abusers; undocumented and documented; citizens by birth and naturalization; refugees and entrepreneurs; communists and conservatives, and on and on.
In terms of nationality and cultural affiliation, we are as diverse as the massive continent we call “Asia.”
But in the racial politics of the U.S., our internal heterogeneity (and social divisions and conflicts) are erased, and Asians as a whole are turned into the Model Minority Myth, ready for use by the U.S. ruling class. And unfortunately, not only do Asians internalize this myth, but it sinks roots into our movements, too.
Before Atlanta, if I was asked to speak about building solidarity between Asian and Black struggles, the expectation was often that I would talk mainly about anti-Black racism in the Asian community and not what we ourselves experience as targets of racism. Of course when I have asked if I could speak about both, people agreed. But I always had to ask, to push the point.
Undoubtedly, anti-Black racism in Asian circles needs to be urgently taken up. Those of us who are Asian/AAPI activists know this all too well. Asians need to actively oppose anti-Black violence and be present in that struggle—and reject white supremacy’s manipulation of us in its hierarchies of racial oppression.
But—as I have insisted elsewhere—we need to do this not by erasing our own racialized experiences and identities, but by drawing from them in order to empathize with what Black people are facing and stand alongside them.
Above all, we—Asians and non-Asians—need to learn about the long history of Black-Asian solidarity over time—not because obstacles don’t exist, not because we and our struggles are “the same,” but because there have always been people from both groups who have found connections between us, and seen that our liberation is intertwined.
The many conversations and forging of collectives, the public rallies, and the sudden explosion of interest in learning about and combating anti-Asian racism has done much to give support to Asians/Asian Americans, moving many of us from feeling helpless to becoming active in organizing responses.
The mainstream U.S. interest in this topic, as we know from experience, is going to ebb-and-flow. But Atlanta was a watershed moment for Asians/Asian Americans, and the (non-Asian) Left can take lessons from it. Here are some historical contexts that can integrate Asian histories and identities into the U.S. history we already know, and help us combat the divide-and-conquer tactics of white supremacy.
Historical frameworks for understanding Asian history and identity in the U.S.
At the broadest level, bringing Asians more firmly into the histories of the U.S. and of modern capitalism requires an awareness and understanding of European colonization in Asia.
A good framework to keep in mind is that the emergence of Europe as a dominant force in the world, including in the Americas, was tied to the exploration of and conquest in Asia since the fifteenth century.
The various and contending European settlements and trading companies in the Americas, as well as the emergence of the transatlantic slave trade, occurred simultaneously with the establishment of similar settlements by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French across Asia and the coasts of Africa, and the wealth gained from one colonial enterprise fuelled another. The history of colonization in Asia was tied up with settler colonialism in the Americas, the enslavement of Africans, and the rise of capitalism in northwestern Europe—and we enrich our understanding of all those histories when we draw out these connections.
Such awareness of a global working class, struggling against the effects of slavery, colonialism and capitalism, is evoked with great power in W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, and given historical depth in Eric Wolf’s classic work, Europe and the People Without History.
Let’s move up to the second half of the nineteenth century, and turn specifically to the U.S., when migrant laborers from China, Japan, British India, and elsewhere came to the Pacific Coast. Globally, this period saw a larger Asian migration to the Americas, especially the Caribbean, but also (for colonized Indians) to eastern and southern Africa.
In the Americas, the formal end of the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century had created a labor shortage for the capitalists. The British Empire, eager to keep profits flowing, shipped Asian laborers to the Americas as indentured servants—pejoratively known as “coolies.” As Lisa Lowe describes, the first ships carrying Chinese laborers to Jamaica crossed the Atlantic at the same time as the British Parliament was abolishing slavery in 1833.
The story of Asians in the U.S., then, is part of the global history of Asian migration across the world and to the Americas in the wake of rising industrial capitalism, the end of the transatlantic slave trade, the spread of empires across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the many wars and agreements between imperialist powers as they challenged each other to dominate the world.
At the same time, the dynamics of the U.S. as an emerging world power racialized Asians in specific ways. The history of the Civil War and the failures of Reconstruction, the Spanish-American war and the conquest of the Philippines, the expansion “from sea to shining sea” through defeating Native people and conquering Mexico, and the absorption of European immigrants (often indentured as well) as settlers across the land—all of this, taken together, hardened racial categories and shaped Asian experiences.
This period of the mid-nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century in the United States was characterized by a high demand for labor, the importing of cheaper Asian labor, and the anger of white laborers—who were deliberately undercut by the ruling class to reduce labor costs, while actively being fed ideologies of white supremacy. This arrangement kept Asian labor in check, while weakening white labor, too.
Heightened and daily racism from the papers and the pulpits often exploded into full-blown anti-Asian race riots. Chinese migrants, who made up the first wave, faced brutal attacks and lynchings. Eventually, this racism was strengthened by laws like the 1875 Page Law and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Racist groups like the Asiatic Exclusion League, joined by groups like the California State Federation of Labor, targeted the Japanese migrants. While talking about economics and job loss, they propagated racial/sexual fears, warning against racial mixing, alleging that Japanese men were a danger to white women, or that Japanese children would morally “contaminate” white children in schools.
Many South Asian migrants to the West Coast also went to Canada (a Dominion under the British Empire), but whether they went to British Columbia or the U.S., they faced the same levels of hatred, tied up with struggle for jobs in lumber yards and farms. In Canada the episode of the Komagata Maru in 1914 stands as a symbol of Canadian racism; in the U.S., the 1907 riots in Bellingham, WA showed the viciousness of these attacks.
The expansion of the U.S. Empire into the Pacific in the 1890s is another important historical marker for understanding the structural links of dominance between the U.S. and Asian/Pacific Islanders and the sharpening of anti-Asian racism through propaganda and demonization that always accompanies wars.
The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 (following over 100 years of violence from settlers, including Asians), the military defeat of Spanish colonialism (1898), and the so-called liberation of the Philippines, Guam, and the Spanish territories of Puerto Rico and Cuba—all of these intensified the exploitation of the land and extraction of raw materials, the military reach of the U.S., and the migrations of Asians and Pacific Islanders to the U.S.
The impact of these events continues in a variety of ways, as Guam and Puerto Rico remain colonies and the Philippines—occupied until 1946—remains linked to the U.S. culturally, politically, and economically. As David Palumbo-Liu contends, the westward expansion of the U.S. across the Pacific was central to the variety of Asian and American identities that have emerged from the nineteenth century into today, given U.S. imperialism’s ongoing interests in East and Southeast Asia.
1898 was also a key ideological moment for global white supremacy.
Rudyard Kipling, born of British parents in colonial India, articulated the global racial politics of empire through his poem, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), written to encourage the U.S.’s direct conquest and rule in the Pacific. It is significant that at this moment, after the 1890 massacre of Native resistors in Wounded Knee and the post-Reconstruction rise of Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and a wave of anti-Black lynchings, that global imperialism was articulating its racial politics so clearly. Is it any wonder that Asian immigrants in the U.S., too, faced the full brunt of white rage?
The cartoon “School Begins” (1899) reflects, without any irony, exactly what the “White Man’s Burden” meant to say. The ruling elites clearly understood, as the image shows, that the fates of Asians, Latinx, African-American, and Native peoples were intertwined.
The turn of the century to the 1920s saw tremendous pushback against Asian immigration, land ownership, and Asian citizenship.
The 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan appeased the racists by sharply reducing Japanese immigration while also desegregating San Francisco’s public schools (despite Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that established “separate but equal”), and allowing for the immigration of Japanese women.
When immigration wasn’t banned outright, efforts were made to restrict what Asians could do.
Alien Land Laws in several Western states restricted property ownership to U.S. citizens. They were originally written in the nineteenth century to give legal property ownership to white settlers and disavow Native claims to the land. In the twentieth century, they were used to keep Asians out without mentioning race.
Aliens who could not become citizens, the Land Laws decreed, could not own land. The 1870 Naturalization Act, revised after the Civil War, had been expanded to include “persons of African descent,” but not Asians; therefore, Asians were kept from owning property.
In 1906, the Naturalization Act was amended to allow immigrants who learned English to naturalize—and to denaturalize those who had been granted citizenship in the fairly decentralized system that existed before. The Act did not specifically say the immigrants had to be white—and Asians set out to test it. Two major Supreme Court cases arguably enshrined anti-Asian racism into law, and gave a legal definition for “whiteness” as linked to “Americanness.”
In Ozawa v. United States (1922), Takao Ozawa—born in Japan, but a resident of the U.S. for over 20 years—applied for naturalization as someone who was fluent in English, a Christian, and an alumnus of Berkeley High School and the University of California. Ozawa sought naturalization as a “free white person,” but the Supreme Court said no. Admitting that the 1906 Act did not specify who was a “free white person,” they argued: “the words ‘white person’ was only to indicate a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) raised the question: if Indians could be categorized as Aryan and Caucasian, as the archaic racial categorization of the time said they were, could they become naturalized citizens?
Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh man, had arrived in the U.S. in 1913, served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War I, and actually gained citizenship in 1918. Days later, however, his citizenship was rescinded on the grounds that he was not white. Thind was granted citizenship again by a lower court in 1920—despite the government’s attempt to deny it because he was a member of the Ghadar Party, an organization of Indian students and workers on the West Coast dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in India.
The case went to the Supreme Court. Thind also said he was a free white person but, unlike Ozawa, he added that as an upper-caste Sikh he was Aryan and, therefore, Caucasian. But the Court ruled unanimously in a refreshingly clear way that linguistic and anthropological classifications or the definition of “Caucasian” did not matter. The question was whether he would be recognized as white:
The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu [sic] parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.
What arrogance to say that the Court was not interested in “racial superiority,” but “merely racial difference!”
The Immigration Act of 1924, including the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act, finally put an end to all Asian immigration (saying those who could not become citizens could not enter). It also severely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, while expanding immigration from England and Northern Europe.
In short, it was a ruling for racial homogeneity. Congress had already tried to bar “undesirables” by adding a literacy test to immigration law and creating an Asiatic Barred Zone—but they felt more was needed. Strict quotas now governed immigration, and Asians were kept out.
The presence of Asians in the U.S., thus, slowed to a trickle, and those who remained were told—legally—that they could not become citizens, could not own land, and, often, could not build communities and start families. As always, people found ways to live despite the conditions created by racism, capitalism, and patriarchy: many Punjabi men married Mexican women in California, or Black women in Harlem or Louisiana, and many lived queer, transnational lives, creating spaces for themselves.
The racist targeting and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II as suspected enemies and traitors is more well-known, perhaps, but the history of this atrocity is understood better with the preceding context in mind. The isolation of these targeted communities seems even deeper when we think of the racial hatred they had faced before.
Seen as “forever foreigners,” Asians in the U.S. have always been marked as outsiders, shaped and tossed around by U.S. imperial policies, and available as easy targets for scapegoating at moments of international conflict.
What happened to the Japanese has also happened, in different ways, to Arabs and Muslims (and those perceived to be such) after 9/11, to Chinese (and those perceived to be such) during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Serbians, Turks, and others in West and South Asia throughout the long history of U.S. wars in the Middle East. Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and others from Southeast Asia have had their lives fundamentally shaped by U.S. militarism, combined with their own ruling classes’ ambitions.
Around the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, and the end of British- and French- colonial rule, the bans on Asian immigration and naturalization were modified—in the classic American way that claims to be fair-minded, while maintaining clear racial hierarchies and pursuing foreign policy interests.
In the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, the absolute anti-Asian restrictions of the 1924 Act were removed, but the quota system was so skewed in the direction of Northern and Western Europe that it made little difference. In fact, Asian racialization was solidified as Asian parentage, not nationality, became the basis of quotas for Asians. The fear of communists entering in was a major reason given for the limited nature of the change.
It was only after 1965 that Asian immigration opened up under the pressure of the Civil Rights Movement on one hand and the space race with the Soviet Union on the other, creating a demand for scientists and researchers from countries (like China and India) that had invested heavily in science education after throwing off the colonial yoke.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, was specifically seen as extending civil rights beyond borders and rejecting the “un-American” restrictions by race and region beforehand—ending the quota system, and giving preference to family members (“family reunification”), scientists, and labor “requirements” (employer sponsorship). In 1990, this Act was further expanded and modified.
The post-1965 immigration of Asians to the U.S. has fundamentally shaped who we know as “Asian Americans.” On the structural level, scientific training and employer preference, rather than family reunification, was dominant in Asian migration and shaped who came. In terms of identity, Asians are seen as newcomers despite being in the U.S. since the mid-nineteenth century. These are the roots of the Model Minority Myth, which has lasted even though the social demographics of Asians as a group have changed significantly.
The Model Minority Myth serves three purposes: to buttress the myth of the U.S. as the land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded; to identify “good minorities” against “bad” ones, and use Asians as a club to beat down Black and Latinx peoples; and to erase the existence of millions of working-class Asians, often (but not limited to) Southeast Asians and other populations directly impacted by recent U.S. wars.
If Asians can come to this country with nothing and do well in terms of economic and academic success, the story goes, why can’t Blacks and Latinx people succeed? Asian success—real and projected—is used to refute claims of structural racism in the U.S. Recent efforts to connect Asians with the white Right in fighting affirmative action, with conservative Asians willingly joining in, are a manifestation of how the Model Minority Myth aids white supremacy—while Asians who disagree are muted, and experience racial attacks.
The Model Minority Myth is so pervasive that it sinks roots within movements against racism, as well. Asians are seen to be privileged, and racism against this group is not actually recognized as being that significant. On the Left, this has meant an inability to understand Asian history and the complex history of our racialization, which is intertwined with global histories of colonialism, slavery, and their legacies. It has meant implicitly accepting a class-first model of race, in which the real and perceived wealth of Asians has minimized the racial targeting we have experienced—and ignoring class and social differences within and between Asian communities.
The specific histories of Asians in the U.S. are not the same as those of Native, Black, and Latinx people. But when we think globally and across national boundaries, we see that the conditions from which anti-Asian racism emerges are the same: legacies of war and imperialism, migration of peoples from poorer to richer countries, forced labor of various kinds, etc.
We see the same destruction of families, the sexual objectification and exploitation of the oppressed, the imposition of colonial knowledge, gender/sexual norms, and laws for the sake of “civilizing the savages.”
We see a reluctance, even in the twenty-first century, to grant us citizenship—not only papers and documents, but the recognition that we belong here. That our lives, and not just our labor, our cooking, our mediation, our yoga, our music, our films, belong wherever we choose to make our home.
For Asians ourselves, too, the divide-and-conquer aspects of racism have worked. The Model Minority Myth and any material privileges corresponding to it have allowed us to be defenseless when we are attacked, to distance ourselves from Black and Latinx communities, to run to policing and patriotism as a defense against prejudice, and to accept that empty American dream, forgetting and ignoring the targeting we face on a daily basis.
But there’s a core of progressive and radical Asians who won’t go in that direction.
For example, over 85 Asian American/LGBTQ groups opposed the bill against anti-Asian “hate crimes” signed by President Joe Biden—pointing to the fact that Asians need structural change. As one organizer put it: Asians need “a redistribution of wealth and resources into things like health care, and housing, [and] social services.” Activists have also spoken out against the idea that relying on policing ends violence, based on the experiences of the community, and stated that doing so would cause further harm for Black and immigrant communities.
There’s much work to be done, but today we need to recognize the immense opening in front of us, which I regard as a product of the Black-led uprising of 2020 after the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. In this space, as people come together to share knowledge and experience and to learn from one another, we can shift each other’s thinking quite rapidly.
Building on the previous phase of the Black Lives Matter movement that began in August 2014 after the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO., the Black liberation movement has opened up the space for the U.S. to face, once again, its long history of racism and white supremacy. The Black liberation movement has done this constantly: the anti-Vietnam War movement and the gender and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s had everything to do with the Black struggle, as did the Latinx and Asian radicalism of the time. And the Black struggle in the U.S. itself drew from African and Asian anti-colonial movements of the era.
We are in such a moment again. We see the possibilities internally, with unity between movements in the U.S., but also the assertion of queer and trans people within those movements. We see solidarity across the globe, as the U.S. movement links with struggles in Palestine or Colombia or, increasingly, Kashmir.
What truly moves me is the impact that the struggle is having in the mainstream.
Undoubtedly, some changes feel merely symbolic and performative and are no substitute for the core demands of the movement—which are, simply put, to defund and abolish the police and reinvest in Black lives and communities.
And yet the message has reached the mainstream in ways it does not always do. The horrific rise of the populist white Right during this period has been more than met with an oppositional force, with the Black liberation movement leading the way.
It is in this context that the killing of Asian women suddenly mattered to a wider group of people.
Tracing the cause and effect of ongoing movements is always hard. If anti-Asian violence was peaking in the summer after the spread of COVID-19, for example, why wasn’t it more central to the summer protests? Was it the dramatic nature of the killings that did it? The fact that these killings were committed by a civilian, not the police?
Then again, there are examples of other murders and acts of violence that don’t get attention, that don’t mobilize vigorous protests. The killing of Sreenivas Kuchibhotla in a Kansas bar in 2017 did not lead to this kind of watershed moment. The 2012 massacre at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI, which South Asian activists remember, barely register even in a politically engaged community.
Even the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982, a Chinese-American assumed to be Japanese by laid-off auto workers, is not as prominent on activist calendars as other such events—while progressive Asian Americans tend to have the date and name memorized.
I don’t know if all of this will change now. But I do know that in the contemporary moment, we are witnessing a new dynamic of solidarity.
After Atlanta, we have seen people of many different backgrounds interested in learning about and creating space for Asian American voices. We have had leading Black and Latinx activists speak at rallies against anti-Asian hate. We have raised Black Lives Matter slogans at these rallies, and have debated those Asians who retreat to policing as an antidote to the crises.
In the wake of the tremendous and unprecedented solidarity for Palestine after Israel’s attack on Sheikh Jarrah and its latest war on Gaza in May, it feels like we are now poised to understand and confront white supremacy and racism in this country in all of its component parts, linking it to imperialism and militarism.
And it is through these struggles that solidarity will come, knowledge will come, and mythologies will fade. Consistently linking racism, colonialism, and imperialism, standing up against the oppression of all communities, and learning about the places and people we don’t know from those people themselves will orient us the right way.
Featured Image Credit: Elvert Barns. Modified by Tempest.
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Dr. Pranav Jani is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Ohio State. His research and teaching are in Postcolonial Studies and U.S. Ethnic Studies. Pranav is also currently President of AAUP-Ohio State, and a longtime social justice activist in Central Ohio. You can find more of his writings at [Pranav Jani – Medium]. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @redguju.