Asian Americans in the 99%
- Sid Brown

Don’t be fooled. “Divide and conquer” may have been a strategy utilized by various colonial powers throughout history to maintain social control, but it has not been abandoned. The Asian American model minority stereotype is no exception. It is not a compliment to the strengths of Asian culture and Asian people. Instead, it serves only to ridicule others, especially others of color, by asking, “If they can do it, why can’t you?” The consequence: many, including Asians, have bought into the idea, disregarding how Asian Americans are targets for and disadvantaged by racial inequality in various spheres of American society. With crumbling economic circumstances and Occupy Wall Street popularizing the rhetoric of the 99%, it is urgent to smash the model minority stereotype.

So, exactly who are the 99%, as opposed to the 1%? Occupy declares these groups signify the wealth and power disparity in society, with the greater concentration of power in the few hands of the much higher income bracket. The gap also represents the gap in access to necessities, such as an affordable home, a livable wage, healthy food, an adequate education, and healthcare. As the Occupy movement spread internationally, the 99% occupied and reoccupied what it meant to be a part of the majority of society who stand united in asserting that they will no longer be oppressed by the minority. Across the nation and even in countries from the Congo to Malaysia, people were declaring themselves to be the 99%. To develop and grow, we must challenge the symbols and vocabulary we adopt into our movements; the criticism of this image not invalid. It simplifies all the various complexities of the struggles, classes and identities of people into one massive category. Even though this limitation is important, it sends a powerful message of solidarity amongst people of various struggles, including Asian Americans. Also, the popularity of this image has given new life to the class debate which cannot be dismissed. While speaking for all Asian Americans is in no way possible, pervasive perceptions of Asian Americans must be challenged. Asian Americans make up the 99% too!

Statistics show that a higher percentage of Asian Americans are more likely to complete high school and go onto college as compared to African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans[i]. They also show that they have a lower unemployment rate than all other ethnic groups, including whites, since the economic downturn in 2008[ii]. What these statistics do not account for, however, are the differences among the many Asian identity groups and nationalities. “Asian American” is a rather broad term. Most people aren’t even aware how this group includes Indians and Arabs, among others. There are also nations within nations such as the Tibetans in China and the Baluch in Pakistan. Further, when individuals from these nations of various socioeconomic backgrounds arrived in the United States, they carried with them their unique histories, languages, and cultures. In reality, there are strong disparities among Asian Americans. A 2010 Current Population Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate of people of Vietnamese descent was higher than people of Indian, Chinese, or Korean descent[iii]. Statistics also demonstrate a higher rate of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Korean Americans with earning college degrees, as compared to a strikingly smaller percentage of Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans. Even though few surveys account for these differences, the little information redeemed from the data cannot be ignored.

Adherents of the myth recurrently point to the large proportion of Asian American workers in high income work, such as the medical, engineering, and financial fields. This ignores the “brain drain” that helps shape the Asian American population, since many Asian individuals are filtered into the States as “skilled” laborers, unless they are sponsored by their family or acquire refugee status. In addition, a 1994 report examined a still relevant trend: how Asian American workers are affected by a “glass ceiling,” artificial barriers limiting women and people of color from rising to managerial and leadership positions. (This is not to say that more Asian Americans should strive to be CEOs. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate poverty and the imbalance of power inherent in capitalism.) The few Asian American “success stories” are exceptions, not the rule. How Asian Americans can concurrently have a higher median income than White Americans and a higher rate of poverty illustrates this. Analysis data from the Employment Development Department in 2010 further found that jobless Asian Americans face even longer periods of unemployment when compared to Latinos and Whites [iv]. All of this research points to show that Asians are not necessarily the “model minority” but face immense immigration barriers, are victims of institutional racism, and face a wealth gap within themselves.

During the winter months, after most Occupy encampments were raided, the movement went into self-reflection mode. Meanwhile, some Occupiers turned to organize around the foreclosure crisis by reoccupying foreclosed homes, preventing evictions, and working to hold banks accountable for illegal and discriminatory practices. The majority of the homes foreclosed on were of African and Latin American families. Though there is a lack of adequate information about the effect of foreclosures on Asian Americans, evidence does show a drop in the equity of homes where there are high concentrations of the community, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Evidence also shows that the Asian American homeownership rate of 59% lags behind the national rate of homeownership at 65.9%, despite higher median incomes and education levels than all other races. [v] Economists now warn the next crisis to burst will be with the bubbling student loan debt that is crippling many, including Asian American families.

Other factors disproportionately affect Asian Americans regarding access, further serving to challenge the model minority myth. One is the effect of the anti-immigration fervor for those both documented and undocumented, from the exploitation of low-wage immigrant workers to the increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants currently held in detention centers. Language barriers additionally exacerbate the prospects of working for a livable wage (which needs to be much higher than the minimum wage) or even access to information on social services. Gender norms in some cultures debar girls and women from higher education or entering fields deemed unsuitable for women. The class background of immigrant parents on second generation Asian Americans also influence access, as their children find themselves having to help their parents navigate through an educational system that is new to them as well. Many working-class families, who tend to live in ethnic enclaves of major cities where the standard of living is high, lack the financial resources to support their children in school, unlike their middle-class counterparts who often send their children to private schools or well-resourced suburban public schools. Institutional racism most notably manifests itself in the way Asian Americans, especially of Muslim, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent, have experienced intense police surveillance and racial profiling since September 11th. To top this, Asian Americans have also experienced racial violence from Balbir Singh Sodhi to Private Danny Chen.

The most important factor to consider, however, is that most Asian Americans have ties to a homeland where their people have faced a cruel colonial past, nations that are now variably shaped by neoliberal practices by the hands of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, multinational corporations, wars funded or fought by foreign powers, and class warfare within their nations. Additionally, this fear played up by the media where India and China’s economies will soon eclipse that of the United States completely disregards the widespread poverty within these countries. Discarding these truths and perpetuating the model minority myth plunges a wedge between oppressed peoples, globally and in the US, and diminishes any future for all oppressed nationalities to work hand-in-hand for revolutionary change.

While it is true that a handful of Asians compose the elite 1%, the struggles of the majority of Asians thrust them into the 99th percentile. With the Arab Spring and the growing number of international protests against capitalism, austerity, and the debt crises, the momentum for solidarity must not be breached by false perceptions of one another. Occupy has been criticized for being a mostly white, male, college-educated movement but considering what is at stake, why aren’t more Asian Americans out on the streets? That is, on the streets standing with Occupy or the plethora of local organizations doing profound work within their communities. We must hold ourselves accountable in shaping the changes we want to see. If a new, just world is the vision, old colonialist strategies, like “divide and conquer,” must not be permitted to undermine this momentum. Asian Americans who have internalized the model minority myth must challenge their thinking and its colonial roots. Privileged Asian Americans must acknowledge the discrimination and oppression faced by the majority of Asians, and Americans in general. The importance of all people in recognizing these experiences does not mean the struggles of Asians in the U.S. eclipse those of other oppressed groups, but that Asian Americans also have a stake in the struggle for building a more just world. It is only through first reaching an understanding of a common struggle by dismantling such divisive myths that people can link to work to make this new world a reality.

i. Austin, Algernon. Economic Policy Institute. “Hidden Disadvantage: Asian American Unemployment and the Great Recession.” Washington: 28 May 2010.

ii. National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE). “Federal Higher Education Priorities and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community,” 2010.

iii. U.S. Department of Labor. “Asian-American Labor Force in Recovery.” Washington D.C.: 2011.

iv. Semuels, Alana. “Unemployment Lasts Longer for Asian Americans.” Los Angeles Times, 7 September 2010.

v. De La Cruz-Viesca, Melany, and Brian Chiu. Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) & UCLA Asian American Studies Center (UCLA AASC). “Following the Path to Asian American Homeownership Report: An Analysis of the United States, California, New York, Texas and Select U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” November 2010.
Him Mark Lai, A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Fall 1972

An important essay by Him Mark Lai, the pioneering scholar on the history of Chinese people in the US, who did not need some (dis)honorary certificate, a.k.a. a degree, from white academia to research and teach in the field.

A point to the Asian American studies / ethnic studies majors and grad students out there: what did our people do before these departments were created? Where did figures like Him Mark Lai (or John Henrik Clarke who did not even have a high school diploma) come from?

In comparison, why do many of us believe today that we need validation from white and/or ineffectual “poc” professors who are on some critical race theory nonsense, who are detached in academia and have no ties to our peoples’ national struggles, to research history and develop living theory for our movements? Where is the initiative to create new things (publications, distribution-publishing houses, conferences, associations) outside of and in opposition to the ruling institutions, as generations before us had to do?

And, sorry, but prefacing “ethnic studies” with the word “critical,” as some are trying to do, isn’t going to rescue its revolutionary character, when the entire ideological framework and vocabulary that one operates in is alienating to the people. Next, we’ll have critical critical theory … like, really critical, you know.

We need to use and develop the concepts of historical materialism, national oppression, and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, which will never be academically acceptable and never should be, because they are the negation of the university and the mental-manual labor divide. We can take as a model the shipyard workers of Shanghai studying Wage Labour and Capital and Critique of the Gotha Programme during the Cultural Revolution.

In any case, the piece begins: “The history of the left among the Chinese in America is a neglected chapter in the history of the Chinese community. This is a preliminary survey of the left movements until the end of the 1950s.” -HTT

let a hundred flowers bloom

likethefruit re-blogs our analysis on the neocolonial ECAASU conference at UMass-Amherst and says, “A conference I will be attending and opposing.”

In an earlier unrelated post, someone from an Amherst-based company that sells Japanese stationery and other products expresses similar apprehensions about ECAASU 2011, which no doubt cross the mind of any non-comatose thinking person upon glancing at the conference website:

"As great as the conference sounds, I also have to admit some hesitancy. What is up with the sponsorships? Heavy, heavy, heavy on the military and related agencies … Looking at the variety of workshops that are available, I think they are as varied as the Asian American population and I would hate for the sponsorships to undermine that reality. Was this the only set of options for sponsorship? If so, that’s kind of sad and there has got to be more."

(via Japanistic/Blog). Jury’s still out on whether many Asian students these days are “non-comatose” and “thinking.” The dope of white supremacy, assimilation, and self-hatred is a helluva drug, man.

Our piece was also re-blogged at SELUCHA, which by the way has some wonderful revolutionary tunes from Latin America, where the people are well familiar with US militarism and why it is bad.

Write your own thoughts on the assbackward politics of ECAASU and the Uncle Tomization of the Asian student movement - or reblog ours - and hit us up by email. -HTT

Update (2/13/11 1:30 AM): The API Movement website is now running the piece. Keep reposting it on Facebook and listservs, passing it on to the youth, the movement elders, and anyone who has had ties with the conference in recent years. A protracted effort is needed to take back ECAASU, but it can begin by creating a groundswell of opposition and public opinion.

Dedicated to the opportunists and the compradors, the bananas and the coconuts.

How does it feel to sell out your people for free? At least the subject of this song is getting paid. -HTT


a.k.a. why is Vijay Prashad speaking at a conference funded by the US military?


ECAASU today has become a neocolonial institution that betrays the legacy of the Asian American movement, especially its principles of anti-imperialism, autonomy, and Third World solidarity. Asian students need to take the conference back from the opportunists and comprador traitors within ECAASU who have sold out our people.

The East Coast Asian Student Union (ECASU) held its first conference in 1978, a product of the long sixties (60s-70s), two decades of intense struggle by Third World people in the US against the forces of imperialism and white supremacy. Asian students founded ECASU as a political and cultural instrument for our liberation.

Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) rallies against the Vietnam War in 1968.

Through ECASU, Asian campus groups got together to protest the Bakke ruling, a Supreme Court decision giving legal cover to the spurious claim that affirmative action policies constituted “reverse discrimination” against white men. Campus groups got together to defend the Asian American Studies Department at CUNY’s City College, at the time the only one on the East Coast and under attack by administrators. They got together to demand justice for Vincent Chin, to protest racist anti-Asian films, to speak against the removal of working-class tenants in Chinatown, and to organize cultural events as sustenance for our people.1

ECAASU today (renamed in 2004) is funded in large part by the US military. It allows the US military to participate in its career fair to sign up Asian youth to kill other colonized-oppressed people elsewhere in the world and to die for the US Empire. It features workshops that celebrate service to US imperialism, such as “Duty, Honor, Country: The Asian-American Experience at West Point” at this year’s conference.

ECAASU today is also funded by big white-owned corporations, such as Target, who are allowed essentially to buy workshops and turn them into advertising space for their companies, such as the Target Corporation’s workshop “Taking the Lead: Leadership Skills from Campus to Career” this year. Yet, no apparent ties are made with Asian-owned small businesses as sponsors and workshop facilitators.

At the same time, panels are held on topics such as “Solidarity: The Concept in Practice” (discussing “anti-colonial, international solidarity among student leaders”) and workshops are held on student, labor, and community organizing.

The contradiction cannot hold. Keynotes, cultural workers, workshop presenters, and attendees who participate in the conference and fail to speak against the sources of funding and the participation of the US military and the white monopoly bourgeoisie only lend legitimacy to the betrayal.

There needs to be creative exposure, protest, and disruption at every ECAASU conference until the politics of anti-imperialism, autonomy, and Third World solidarity are put back in command. All students who disagree with the current direction of the conference, both outside ECAASU and on its leadership body, need to step up.

1. See the articles “ECASU: Strength through Collective Action” and “A Look At Today’s Asian Pacific Student Movement” in East Wind Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 2 (1983).

tumblr hit tracking tool