You know we at the R love us some Scot Nakagawa. His organization, ChangeLab, just published a study on Asian Americans and racial justice movements.
In order to better understand the racial position of Asian Americans, and how Asian American identity functions in the realm of racial politics, ChangeLab conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 82 Asian American organizers, leaders, intellectuals, and artists working in the racial justice field throughout the United States. We also talked to five non-Asian American racial justice leaders doing promising work that cuts across all communities of color. Our informants represent some of the strongest, most influential racial justice efforts taking place across the country today, including some of the most prominent Asian American organizations. We asked a series of questions about Asian American racial identity, Asian American attitudes toward other people of color, approaches to racial justice work, and gaps and challenges in the field. Following is a summary of our initial findings.
This is a time of great racial confusion, with divergent views of what justice means.
There is a lack of clarity about what racial justice means in this political moment. The problems of structural racism are dense and vast, yet rather than pushing for transformative change, most efforts today seek to protect the gains of the Civil Rights Movement against rightwing attack. The prevailing framework of liberal multiculturalism limits the political terrain for fighting back to questions of representation. This leaves underlying structural problems unchallenged, or worse, reinforced. In this environment, Asian American organizations face pressure to elbow for political clout in a zero-sum game of racial inclusion. Some argue that advocating for the rights of Asian Americans constitutes a racial justice strategy, regardless of the impact on other communities. Others believe that there can be no justice for Asian Americans without justice for all people of color.
Many Asian Americans don’t think about race.
The dominant view among our participants is that Asian Americans do not think about race at all. Many attributed this to the racial position of Asian Americans, and to how the political right has manipulated ideas about Asian Americans. There is a belief that in particular, those Asian Americans with class privilege have internalized the model minority myth along with the notion of American individualism. Some noted how harmful this was to Asian Americans who have no resources to identify and address their own experiences of racial discrimination, and no understanding of the roots of anti-Asian hostility. Many participants said that low-wage Asian American workers have the highest level of race consciousness.
“Asian American” serves less as a political identity than as a demographic category.
On the question of Asian American identity, participants expressed concern that the Asian American construct represented an awkward coalition of ethnic subgroups, and not a racial group with shared experiences and political interests. People said that deep disparities in power and access within the Asian American or API coalition created too much fragmentation to allow for meaningful political unity. Particularly since 9/11, certain South Asian and Muslim communities have faced a level of targeting and alienation that has driven them to organize outside of the Asian American or API construct. In addition, many progressive Asian Americans hesitate to identify as Asian American, because of political disagreements with the most dominant expressions of Asian American identity.
Various factors contribute to whether people identify as Asian American.
Those who do identify as Asian American tend to be younger, later generation, or living in geographic areas where there is no single, dominate Asian ethnic subgroup. Some described how the media and technology served as a way for isolated Asian Americans to find a sense of identification with one another.
Check out the report, available as a downloadable PDF.