Building Asian American Liberation from Below
Linking Antiracism and Anticapitalism
April 16, 2021
Anti-Asian violence is hitting a new high, fueled by the racialization of the Covid-19 virus as a “Chinese virus” by the Trump administration and more recently, by the Biden administration’s “tough on China” stance. Last month, 6 Asian massage workers, who have long been criminalized and stigmatized, were brutally murdered. Nearly 3000 firsthand reports of anti-Asian attacks were logged by Stop AAPI Hate between just March and December of last year, with countless other incidents gone unreported by local police departments. Asian American organizations have responded with rallies and vigils in major cities and suburbs with large Asian American populations.
There is a long history of structural anti-Asian violence aside in the US, from the anti-immigrant policies starting from the nineteenth century to the vigilante murders of Vincent Chin and Rock Springs workers. Thus, community organizations are quick to point out that systemic violence against Asians has long afflicted Asian American communities, and fueled this vulnerability in the face of this crisis. Asian American leftists and progressives have offered a useful starting point as a corrective: organizers must resist efforts to use this issue to bolster policing, refusing to drive a wedge between Black and Asian Americans. The “model minority myth” has helped to obscure Asian Americans’ relative privilege and access to whiteness by homogenizing their socio-economic diversity and historical contexts of entry into the US to demarcate them against Black and Brown people. Recent state initiatives have split Asian American communities, ranging from the increase of policing in New York and Atlanta following the Atlanta shootings to the Biden administration’s plan to strengthen anti-hate crime legislation. Many of these solutions empower policing in ways that exacerbate this divide with Black activists who have been resisting policing institutions, and as Tamara Nopper notes, hate crime framing and legislation have historically bolstered the legitimacy and power of law enforcement, deepening the structural violence against Black communities without offering real solutions for Asian Americans.
Instead, Asian American leftists, like those in Los Angeles-based grassroots organization Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) to New York’s Asians 4 Abolition, have called for an alternative: connecting the recent surge of violence to other symptoms of capitalist exploitation from gentrification to poor labor conditions that daily harm communities of color. In New York City, unemployment among Asian Americans skyrocketed to 25 percent during the lockdown—the largest increase out of all of the city’s racial groups. More than 1 in 4 Asians in Boston live below the poverty line, and as experts and activists remark, difficulties with the language barrier and immigration status, among other factors, suggest that the reality of their plight is underreported and poorly documented.
As CCED writes in a recent statement, “Asian American liberation is not a momentary reaction to sudden violence, but a long struggle against racial capitalism”—a struggle rooted in “grassroots community power.” This means understanding how racial hierarchies organize and determine class divisions in the US political system. In this system, Asian Americans—a diverse aggregate category that often negotiates between relative proximity to whiteness and racialized exploitation—are managed in such a way that, as Simeon Man notes, “deadly racism form[s] the underside of liberal inclusion.”1Simeon Man, “Anti-Asian violence and US imperialism,” Race & Class 62, no. 2 (2020): 28 Thus, a true movement for liberation for Asian Americans requires building collective power by linking anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles in coalition with other marginalized communities. The question that the Asian American left face now is asking ourselves what form does this movement take, and how should Asian Americans—newly politicized en masse with the recent events—best connect with one another and with other marginalized forces in US society to concretely shape a world beyond racial capitalism?
Socialist traditions offer an answer : to empower working people to build an independent, multi-ethnic, mass movement that can challenge the power of capital. Despite having the fastest-growing rate of poverty and income divide among all racial groups, Asian Americans often opt-out, or are left out, of these dialogues. The reasons are manifold: just as mainstream socialist movements have been increasingly alienated from the unique contradictions and experiences of the Asian American community, the Asian American community has also been largely delinked from traditions that emphasize empowering rank-and-file workers’ political leadership. In the face of these acts of violence, we need now more than ever to empower working class Asian Americans to relate to a larger multi-ethnic mass movement for systemic change. This task entails rethinking how principles of socialist organization can be practiced by non-white communities on their own terms in relation to established socialist formations. It requires a wholesale reimagining of a socialism for the twenty-first century, one that can effectively shape the objective conditions of Asian American masses alongside other communities of color.
Asian American activism today is split between a radical left wing comprised of small groupings lacking a mass base, and staff-based non-profits that do have substantial bases but are unable to empower rank-and-file community leadership. In other words, there are few efforts to organize working Asian Americans to collectively make political demands and build power. This includes efforts like self-organizing to facilitate the discussion of Asian American concerns led by community members beyond professional activists like NGO staff or like-minded academics. While radical left organizations in the past have supported and built mass movements and strikes, these formations became fatally bureaucratized, and rank-and-file organizing was often subsumed under the dictates of party leadership. As many of these dissolved, the Asian American left became dominated by cultural activism, service provision, and non-profit-led organizing.
Of course, there was no lack of mass organizing based on the rank-and-file power of Asian American workers, from Chinese restaurant workers in San Francisco in 2004 to the South Asian-led New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike in 1998. But conspicuously absent by the turn of the century was the sustained tradition of rank-and-file workers that aimed to take collective political power on the basis of these struggles beyond the charismatic leadership of Asian American progressive heavyweights like Ai-jen Poo. This is not to say that such organizers have not worked to politicize the Asian American workers they organize; but most of these formations are structurally limited in their capacity as staff-driven non-profits, determined in the last instance by state and philanthropic funding and unable (or unwilling) to organize a mass movement that can challenge Democratic Party politics.
In the meantime, Black-led organizing in recent years, from the workers’ co-ops of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi to the New Directions rank-and-file-led reform caucus in the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York, offer a different model of political work. This is not to say that ordinary Asian Americans—from Chinatown tenants to Chinese homecare or garment workers—do not collectively organize for political demands, but that there had been few vehicles in recent decades for them to organize for and take political power and leadership. More often than not, Asian American working-class communities are depoliticized or only spurred to action under the leadership of professional organizers who are materially separated from the communities they organize. This political reality is also exacerbated by the wide gaps in language, cultures, and economic positions within the Asian American umbrella.
This began to shift in the late 2010s, with increasing housing-related campaigns led by alliances between younger activists and Chinatown tenants, such as the hunger strike led by tenants at 85 Bowery in Manhattan Chinatown in 2018, supported by local community organizations like Youth Against Displacement. In Los Angeles, Chinatown tenants and allies have self-organized tenant associations through CCED to connect site fights to local and state-wide efforts to build grassroots coalitional actions with groups like KTown for All and LA Tenants Union.
What this mode of politics offers is a sustainable politics beyond (but not excluding) community self-defense and an alternative to the culture of professional activism: in other words, a holistic solution to both immediate anti-Asian violence and structural exploitation of Asian communities that centers on strategies that empower working-class Asian Americans. These efforts are still scattered and inchoate, but these infrastructures can serve as not only the building blocks for the future of Asian American organization-building that centers on rank-and-file community power, but the key links between Asian American organizations and mainstream left organizations. The principle of self-determination calls for the right of our own ethnic communities to figure out our own contradictions to build a democratic movement from our own political needs. But as Patricia Hill Collins2 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 1990), 36. reminds us, “group autonomy fosters effective coalition with other groups,” which means that our organizing as Asian Americans must connect to other like-minded political efforts in order to foster genuine systemic change from below.
In the meantime, Asian Americans are rarely seen en masse or discussed in the traditional bastions of the organized left on a national scale like the Democratic Socialists of America. In the DSA and other national formations that give space to independent mass organizing, the few dedicated Asian American organizers are pulled into myriad leadership and committee positions, left with little time and few resources to develop programs and organizing priorities that can attend to our own communities. Meanwhile, these structures are often disconnected from or have little to offer to Asian American organizers situated outside of organized socialist formations. At the same time, there are few opportunities for working class Asian Americans to start getting involved in politics beyond simply volunteering or filling the few staff positions in progressive non-profits, in the relative absence of independent mass organizations dedicated to Asian American concerns.
What Asian Americans need are mass, independent, and democratic platforms geared toward connecting and empowering local, rank-and-file-led struggles, built on strategies and paradigms unique to the struggles of our communities. This means situating the fight against racism in a larger movement that models an accountable and collective process to build democratic power against capitalism from Asian Americans’ own diverse positionalities as workers and tenants. We can develop programs for political change led by everyday Asian Americans themselves in our own communities, including but not limited to unionizing boba shop workers, campaigning for full decriminalization led by massage parlor workers, or caucusing as Asian American student workers in national and local unions. Not only would this uplift the right of communities of color to self-determination and organize on the basis of their identity, but also for these communities to develop paradigms that would allow everyday people to take political leadership on a sustainable and democratic basis on their own terms. And by political leadership, I do not mean simply elevating this worker or that tenant leader into an organization’s staff infrastructure. Instead, we must radically rethink how we build our movements and organizations such that political leadership comes from the collective democratic power of Asian American working people.
The complex diversity of the Asian American umbrella signals a diversity of frameworks for collective leadership and coalitions based on grassroots struggles. This means looking beyond traditional left paradigms, especially those that center on redirecting local struggles into the aegis of internally unaccountable vanguardist party models like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which recalls some of the worst excesses of the revolutionary socialist parties led by Asian Americans during the New Left and in its wake. Asian American leftists are beginning to experiment with new frameworks, nationally and locally, as varied responses to a larger reality of oppression toward our communities in which this recent wave of anti-Asian violence is situated.
Before the pandemic, Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement, a predominantly Asian American coalition that centers grassroots community organization leadership from the US to Canada, empowered community members and activist allies to organize national direct actions against corporate developers while strengthening alliances between grassroots community organizations, from anti-gentrification to sex workers’ rights. The Bernie Sanders campaign energized Asian American voters and offered an opening to think about what a national, democratic socialist agenda for Asian American politics can look like. Recent years have seen a rise in unionizing among non-profit workers against widespread exploitative conditions or lay-offs, especially those with ties to the Asian American communities, from Asian Americans Advancing Justice to Asian Americans for Equality. In New York, rank-and-file Asian female homecare workers are leading a resistance against the Chinese American Planning Council—one of the largest Asian American non-profits—for wage theft, pressuring their local SEIU union to action while connecting to a larger multi-ethnic campaign to eliminate 24-hour work shifts in the state. Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the first and only national organization for Asian American workers, has seen some mixed successes over the years with regard to rank-and-file organizing, but may offer a space for bottom-up reform against the AFL-CIO bureaucracy led by Asian American workers themselves.
Especially important to the development of these self-organized initiatives for Asian American communities is the role of bridging formations that promote language justice and community care. These formations attune to unique disconnections of Asian American communities, internally divided or depoliticized by language barriers, precarious immigration status, among other factors. Independent translation-centered collectives like Gòngmíng Collective for Language Justice and the WeChat Project make political spaces more accessible for non-English-speaking communities and help integrate them into multi-ethnic formations. Mutual aid work and other spaces for community care and grief—which has materially sustained us in a year of public health crisis and heightened racist attacks with minimal protections from the state—may open up democratic spaces for political work. From New York-based Asian sex workers collective Red Canary Song’s mutual aid efforts to massage and sex workers during the pandemic to the various local vigils in recent months commemorating the victims of racist violence, these initiatives deepen bonds within a fractured community that are essential to promoting independent organizing from below.
The deep connections between Asians and the Asian American diaspora, and the nature of transnational capital, mean that we must emphasize grassroots solidarity between mass movements instead of relying on an “anti-imperialist” framework of critical support for certain states. The Trump administration’s brief halt of visa issuances to Chinese student workers last July and recent graduate student union struggles provided a glimpse into the way rank-and-file Chinese immigrant student organizing can take shape, through students in groups like International and Immigrant Students Workers Alliance (IISWA). The widespread displacement of low-income Asian communities in the US, which includes massage workers and other Chinatown tenants, is inseparable from the continuities between US and Chinese systems of control that police marginalized communities, from the Chinese hukou system premised on the exploitation of rural migrant populations to US anti-trafficking and housing privatization programs.
The recent wave of anti-Asian violence amplified the stakes of the political discourse of Asian American organizing. But if we are to connect these instances to a much longer and deeper history of structural violence against Asian Americans, our solutions must also be sustainable in the long-term. We must see the recent calls for community self-defense and mutual aid as part of a larger effort to find national and local structures and organizing strategies that can democratize and empower working-class Asian American political leadership. Community defense and staff-driven organizing in Asian American communities can be useful, but they are insufficient to the challenges at hand. We should instead cultivate democratic political leadership among our own communities to help build a multi-ethnic, mass movement from below, from promoting independent, mass grassroots formations attuned to the complexities of Asian American communities to designing platforms for coalitional dialogue between these formations.