The AAPI community has long been painted as uniformly apolitical. We do not learn about Grace Lee Boggs, Richard Aoki, Larry Itliong, or Yellow Power movements in our textbooks. We are taught, if it is even included in our class syllabi, that Chinese and Filipino workers came to America looking for a better life and eventually, through hard work and determination, bootstrapped up and got it; that Japanese Americans resignedly but peacefully entered internment camps and were released from them three or four years later in much the same mental state; that it was mostly white American college students and not radical Asian American organizations that vocally, visibly, and powerfully opposed the Vietnam War. Although we learn little about black radicalism and organizing, we learn even less about AAPI radicalism and agitation for change.
This disparity manifested itself even in my own family: my black mom taught me from a young age that it was harder to be black in America than to be white; that there was a long, long history of black struggle and sacrifice that allowed me to live a free and middle-class life; that to be black was, at least in some ways, to be political. My Chinese dad told me about coming up working in his dad’s restaurant; how he learned to drive at age 14 so he could pick up the other restaurant employees and meat for the day from New York’s Chinatown; how he would visit his grandparents every summer in China and how they lived on somewhere between $5 and $50 a month. But he never put this in political terms. I never had any idea about Asian or Asian American struggle, radicalism, and resistance until I looked it up myself.
Growing up, I thought that was just how it was: Asians didn’t talk about politics, there was no Asian American civil rights movement, Asians were the model minority who had slowly but steadily made it into the middle class and were happily, quietly, and submissively existing there. But now I realize that idea is just an invention of a powerful, insidious system, the system that brought both sides of my family to America: global capitalism. And the idea of the “model minority” exists solely to turn people of color against each other so they’ll be distracted from fighting the actual culprits, big money and big corporations, just as racism is a tool to turn working people against each other for the same purpose. So poor people, working people, and the middle class get poorer, the rich get richer, and corporations turn into people, while capitalism uses all the tools it has to keep us from recognizing it and fighting against it.
The “model minority” idea continues to hurt AAPI communities that are facing many of the same problems that other poor or working class communities and community of colors are suffering from right now. We suffer from the same rigid immigration restrictions that Latino organizers have been mobilizing against for years. Money is being sucked out of our communities; too, by huge corporations that not only put our neighborhood stores out of business but fail to pay the taxes they owe that fund our public services. Many of us can’t find good, living-wage jobs, and that struggle is made even more difficult by immigration laws, language barriers, and conceptions about foreign employees. And of course, we are all hurt by the continuing decline of the climate and health of our planet. But there is little mass consciousness of AAPI oppression or AAPI resistance, even among radical and progressive organizations, because the “model minority” mindset is nearly ubiquitous, and that is because it’s useful and profitable to the 1-percenters and corporate heads in power. Thus AAPI people and other people of color often fail to recognize each other as allies, sisters and brothers, in the same fight, and People of Color and working-class solidarity (and therefore power) suffers as a result.
In 1967, speaking to the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said we must come “to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.” This sounds a lot different from the mass-media sanitized, safe image of Dr. King we’ve come to know so well. That Dr. King’s life and legacy revolves around his “I Have A Dream” speech: he just wanted “little black boys and girls” and “little white boys and girls” to be able to hold hands. He wanted “all God’s children,” regardless of race, religion, gender, or class, to be able to say they were “free at last.” But what the popular image of MLK does not give us is the radical analysis underlying these words: Dr. King believed in anti-racism and love among different people because he realized racism was simply a tool: used to divide the people and make them hate each other instead of hating the system that manufactures the differences between them. So we need to realize that racial justice, economic justice, and peace cannot be achieved separately. They are tied up in one another; they are all equally bound by the system of capitalism.
So we need a movement today that addresses all these problems while realizing their interrelatedness. We need a new “rainbow coalition”—black, yellow, brown, white people coming together to address problems relevant to us all, like corporate greed, low wages, poverty, immigration policies, mass incarceration, disparities in education and attacks on public education, austerity, and our environment, and realizing that economic and racial injustice is at the root of all these. This will not be immediate. There’s a lot of work to be done, and that work must of course include organizing and mobilizing our AAPI communities. But I think right now we have the anger, the analysis, and the hope we need to keep moving forward. It’s time to take the power.
Guest Blogger: Brianna Tong