Beyond Crisis: The Possibilities and Growing Challenges in Building a Left Asian American Politics

Image by Jason Leung.

This June marked the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man beaten to death by two white men in Detroit.

The two white men who attacked Chin, while Chin was out celebrating at a bar with friends, did so believing he was Japanese. At the time, much like China now, Japan was viewed as the major economic competitor of the U.S., and therefore, the main reason for the economic downturn in cities like Detroit. Aside from the fact that Japan wasn’t the main reason for why there was another U.S. economic recession, Chin had as much control over the machinations of global capitalist order as any individual working person, which was none.

“They made him a scapegoat,” said Annie Tan, Chin’s cousin.

At a very early age, Tan learned about her cousin’s death, about the fact that he’d been beaten to death by the two white men using a baseball bat. To this day, the two men who killed Chin have faced virtually no serious jailtime for what they did.

The murder was significant since it did galvanize segments of the Korean American, Japanese American and Chinese American communities in and around Detroit, organizing themselves under a pan-Asian umbrella. Jesse Jackson, then a presidential candidate, also went down with his supporters to Detroit to express solidarity with the Asian Americans demanding that the two men face long-term consequences for snatching away the life of Chin, who was only 27 when he died.

Although decades separate Tan and her cousin, the past few years under Covid-19 and the subsequent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has made Chin’s murder far too relevant. Tan, who had grown up in Manhattan’s Chinatown and is a teacher in the city, has been increasingly worried about her safety and the safety of other Asians across the country.

Since the pandemic had started in March 2020, there have been over 10,000 attacks against Asian Americans, verbal and physical. The most infamous of these was last year, when a white gunman, consumed by fantasy, shot and killed several women at an Asian spa.

“We are still viewed as an Other, no matter our roots in the U.S.,” Tan said, emphatically.

According to recent polling by Axios, there’s been an increase in the number of Americans who believe that Asian Americans are not as loyal to the U.S. and are to blame for the spread of Covid-19. Trump labelling Covid-19 the “China Virus” and the persistent hysteria in the political class across party lines about the rise of China, treating China as some unique “existential threat”, has tapped into long-standing beliefs about Asians in the U.S. as vessels of foreign governments, as carriers of disease and illiberalism.

Part of this one can argue is projection on the part of European Americans, since it was literally their ancestors who arrived here as part of Europe’s grand designs, stealing land, and spreading smallpox to unsuspecting indigenous tribes/nations. But part of this historical trend has been nearly exclusive to Asians the moment they reached these shores shortly prior to the U.S. Civil War. Since then, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and later, Filipino were repeatedly treated as competitors by white workers and eventually, their employers. They were relegated to the status of the unfeeling but somehow cunning inhuman/machine. The nefarious agent from abroad, plotting on behalf of the global Mongol horde (“yellow peril’). During WWII, that fear and paranoia was specific to Japanese and Japanese Americans as sleeper agents of the Japanese Empire. More recently, in the wake of the attacks on 9/11, South Asians and Arabs, lumped into the racialized category of “terrorist”, faced surveillance and harassment by both law enforcement and those emboldened by Islamophobic rhetoric. It’s worth restating that groups like Al Qaeda have murdered more people in the “Muslim world” than anywhere else and that their existence was very much aided and abetted by the C.I.A. in their “struggle” against Arab and Asian commies, who had the audacity of wanting to reverse centuries of European colonial rule and extraction.

I remember growing up in the aftermath of 9/11, barely a teenager navigating central New Jersey, the land of saree shops and cheap Indian food, along with lush green lawns, glowing like neon, kept up to a standard through a reliance on credit card debt. I grew up surrounded by South Asians and Arab Americans and yet, when the towers fell, shortly after, news spread of Sikh men being shot while working their local gas stations, of women wearing the Hijab being pushed and spat on. Soon, we would also hear about people being detained, disappeared. Till this day, it’s difficult to shake off the paranoia and anger, especially when Trump had won, promising to drop more bombs over the Middle East, to ban Muslims from Muslim-majority nations.

Two years into the pandemic, there’s a similar level of fear and confusion among Asian Americans, especially East Asian. According to NPR, a significant percentage of Asian Americans have expressed worry and anxiety about being targeted for being Asian, almost equal to the fear and anxiety among African Americans about living in the U.S.

However, as Marx noted when nearing the end of his life, human history and eras are rarely one thing or another. Certainly, there can be an overwhelming tide of evidence describing an era as mainly oppressive, such as the period between the “founding” of the U.S. up until the Civil War. Though there would continue to be Africans revolting against their enslavement in those decades, and indigenous nations successfully routing U.S. militias on the frontier, most non-white people were stripped of their most fundamental basic human rights, including our right to their own bodies and to the land. Nevertheless, this was also a time when the French and Haitian Revolutions had occurred, when the seeds were gradually planted for the U.S. Civil War to sweep away the slaver class of the confederacy.

Centuries later, WWI had seen European empires dominate the globe, but soon, another Revolution would sweep through Russia, stunning the “West”. Subsequently, anti-colonial movements, led by African and Asian socialists, would spread, at the same time as fascism gathered momentum, sneering.

Since the 1960s, U.S. society has liberalized politically, or at least in ways that have allowed for segments of people of color to be seen and heard in ways that were unheard of prior.

For Asian Americans, the last few decades have seen an enduring loop of scrutiny and harassment, but also, a level of political visibility and visibility in mainstream media that was not possible around the time Chin had lost his life.

“There’s definitely been a shift over the years in terms of Asian Americans being taken more seriously politically,” said Timmy Lu, executive director, and founder of AAPIs for Civic Empowerment, a left-wing group organizing working-class Asian Americans in California for electoral campaigns and government policy.

Unlike the 1980s, we now have multiple Asian Americans elected to congress, Asian Americans leading the progressive caucus, and an Asian American as Vice President. Asians serve as CEOs of major companies (proving themselves to be as awful as white capitalists). Shows featuring Asian stars have become popular hits on major streaming services like Netflix.

More importantly, since the liberalization of immigration in the 1960s, the population of Asians in the U.S. has grown, and subsequently, our significance as voters. The Asian population inside the U.S. is still below 10 percent but our presence is in areas that are economically significant, such as California and New York/New Jersey.

Even in states like Georgia, where women at Asian spas had been shot and murdered, the Asian population has grown into a significant swing vote that the Democrats needed in order to snatch away an historic two senate seats from the GOP, the party that’s been the traditional power holder in the region.

Yet, whose interests among Asian Americans are being promoted? In New Jersey, the few Asian American representatives in statewide office generally can be seen attending major Asian parades, like the various Independence Day celebrations, taking pictures with the main organizers of such events, which include major Asian business owners and sponsors. At the national level, a similar style of pro-business “moderate”, pro- “entrepreneur” politics, is expressed by major Asian American figures such as Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang. It is a politics of some political liberalism but centered on the hope of an inclusive more equitable capitalism, of Asian small business owners heralded as the solution to forms of oppression and racial discrimination.

Most Asian American leaders continue to speak on important issues like anti-Asian hate and on maintaining the remnants of the social welfare net, which is necessary, but rarely emphasize the stark economic reality for most Asians living and working in the U.S. A reality that won’t be easily resolved by diversifying corporate boardrooms or with more Asians owning businesses, albeit that “dream” too is also a delusion as Amazon and Walmart dominate the market, with independent stores shuttering across the country.

Since the late 1970s, neoliberalism has been the dominant political form for how government and private enterprise function. Under neoliberal policymaking, which emerged during the Carter administration but was reinforced through Reagan, government’s main responsibility, at all levels, is to facilitate the ability for business to accrue profit and control. Neoliberals, like Reagan, believe that government regulation, labor unions, taxes on companies, hinder business and therefore, hold back the creation of wealth which would apparently trickle down for everyone otherwise.

Instead, after forty plus years of gutting social programs, lowering taxes for the wealthy, and the government backing away from protecting labor unions, U.S. society has become far crueler and challenging for most working people, including Asians. Overall, across the diaspora, Asians are workers, or laborers and peasants. Inside the U.S., most Asians, like African Americans and segments of Latinx and some white people, are having to work longer hours, multiple jobs, and sinking deeper into credit card debt to somehow keep pace with the rising costs of living amidst a lack of government support. Most Asians are left to fend for themselves and in the process, are barely making it, including those of us who come from middle-class homes.

The gap between the richest Asian American and the poorest is the highest compared to all other racial/ethnic groups. In New York City, a hub of Asian American life, the percentage of the community languishing in poverty is several points higher than the city average. Not to mention all those barely keeping themselves afloat through service-sector jobs, and low-wage work.

Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) are a left-wing organization based in Jackson Heights, Queens, a hub of middle class and working-class South Asians and Latin Americans. When the pandemic first started, and not much was known, parts of Queens were hit the hardest in terms of infections and people dying, since most people had to continue working to pay their bills.

“Many of our members are construction workers, drivers, home health aides, folks who are home caretakers, people within the restaurant service industry, alongside with delivery people, gig workers, as well as folks who are day laborers, who are clerks and cashiers,” said Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s executive director.

Cathy Dang, co-director of Grassroots Asian Rising (GAR), a national network of Asian organizations working to organize low-income Asian Americans. The network includes groups like DRUM, and others in cities and major metropolitan areas where much of the Asian population is concentrated.

Dang explained, “A huge vast majority of Asian communities in the U.S. are still working-class and we have to embrace our class struggles and to collectively envision and fight for the world we want to live in where we feel safe, can thrive, and have economic security alongside other working-class BIPOC communities.”

You head into any Chinatown in the country, a Jackson Heights or an Edison, and you will find sarees glinting in the shop windows. You will find butchers chopping up meat exactly how you like it. You can look up and see the Patel Cash and Carry looming over the freeway, its aisles reeking of coriander.

But you can also spot the men and women, still wearing their store uniforms, smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters. You can see them grabbing crates off trucks, grimacing. An aunt of mine worked at a Desi-owned supermarket and was told to stay on her feet all day every day, even if there were no customers at the registers. At night, she’d have to take painkillers, so the pain would stop shooting up her legs, causing her to squirm, even when sitting down and watching TV shows with her family.

Such pressures are gradually being reflected too in what many Asian Americans want to see politically. AAPI-Data, the premier source for surveying and finding out what Asian Americans actually think on a whole range of issues and topics, has been seeing a general leftward trend among Asians in terms of economic policy, across ethnicities and national-origin.

Janelle Wong, political scientist and lead researcher at AAPI-Data, explained, “Despite differences, a growing number of Asians are leaning toward the government having a role in providing healthcare, in raising the minimum wage.”

But surveys alone don’t justify or move policy. Opinions themselves, in an era in which most people lack any connection to left-wing politics and socialization, are ephemeral, or sporadic. As we’ve seen, a political void remains where a concerted, organized, and disciplined leftist and socialist movement should be. Instead, for those Asian Americans who may be more open to such ideas or come from parts of the world whereby communist parties are part of the mainstream, they may be convinced that the only viable alternative to the nihilism and politics of death exuded by the GOP are members of the Democrat Party, even the most neoliberal, so long as they’re slightly less cruel, which can feel sometimes like a relief compared to the blunt force of a Reagan or a Trump.

Others may choose to lead segments of Asian Americans on the promise of a progressivism that’s about consumer justice, or some form of welfare state and some form of ethical entrepreneurialism, such as having more women and people of color in corporate boardrooms, making sure some more of the profits get properly dispersed, or reinvested in the rest of society.

Finally, there are also Asians in the U.S., who have become willing collaborators with existing conservative forces. Some of this is expressed with Asians siding with whites against affirmative action, although affirmative action has already been watered down. Some of this is exemplified by Asian Americans demanding more “law and order”, echoing the paranoia and anti-black panic among whites. Then again, there are working-class and middle-class Asians who are coming to the U.S., dragging with them anticommunist biases and pro-U.S. sentiment to begin with, mixed in with their religious upbringing. The same patterns can be found among Latinos, and some segments of more recent African immigration to the U.S. Can any of this be that surprising as we’re also witnessing a rise in right-wing politics internationally? There are indeed constituencies at the ready to defend their bastardized versions of “civilization” against the so-called “horde”, which includes members of their group who are poor, of a different faith, of a different gender/gender-identity, caste, social position, or struggling through some other crises that gets personalized, like drug addiction.

To counter such forces, Asians must become incorporated into an active fight for socialism. This fight necessitates the formation and creation of more groups like DRUM, GAR, and others. Groups like DRUM have been obsessed with developing members of the communities into organizers themselves. This process is carried out through a combination of issue campaigns, like on housing and immigration, as well as holding discussions among membership about topics and history that’s relevant to what they’re organizing against.

“We do voter engagement, voter training, organizer training,” Lu explained about AAPIs for Civic Empowerment, adding, “We coordinate among almost a dozen AAPI grassroots organizations on important issues. We train people to door knock and canvass, to answer peoples’ questions. To do whatever it takes to develop interest in our communities on important progressive issues, as well as to get people involved in local and statewide politics.”

It is critical to not only focus on short-term needs but to inculcate a broader political understanding among working class Asians, a clarity, about their situation and the situation of others. It is critical to develop over time an in-depth among people a materialist analysis that recognizes the ways in which broader social forces, such as capitalism, have affected them, and how to break the cycle, which would mean, recognizing the need to build a socialist future.

Ahmed explained,

“That perspective gives a better explanation of our material conditions, why are our home countries poor, why are we forced to be displaced from home countries as a result of war, climate disaster, economic devastation, why once we come here are we relegated to shitty jobs, or at the crosshairs of immigration and police, all the ways we’re racialized. All those questions can be answered if we have an understanding that capitalism inherently creates these conditions. The only alternative to capitalism is going to be socialism, and success in building a socialist system not only improves lives and conditions here but across the world, including in our home countries.”

The potential is there. Objectively, more and more Asians would benefit from a socialist society that values labor for social need, not for private ends. A society in which labor no longer is controlled in the way it is, through immigration policy, and policing. A society where Asian women and non-men are promised resources to be able to live in dignity, and not to be trapped with their abusive partners and family.

Still, none of this analysis and realization of what it takes to win this society comes naturally, especially in a society where most Asian Americans, like most Americans, have very little opportunity to be socialized beyond the neoliberal consensus. Rather than have a left-wing group to spend time in, to mature politically in, to develop an understanding of oneself and others that provides clarity in the difficult times ahead, to develop values of being there for each other, most people are either to left to scramble for what they need, and to compete against others, or find some solace at their churches, mosques, Hindu temples, and bars, places where such topics are never broached, or examined.

As we’d seen during the unrest and over the pandemic, people can become angry, and be willing to take certain actions. When there are no institutions, however, to back them, the anger can give way to fatigue and alienation instead, or to people believing that the best one could hope for is paying the tithe and voting Democrat, or not voting at all. In the meantime, the right wing, however much of a minoritarian movement, gathers, regroups, and taps into the well of white supremacy, patriarchy, and working people beholden to the “American Dream”, people willing to attack, disrupt, and intimidate others to get what they want.

Right now, there is still a lack of groups like DRUM and GAR nationally, whether for Asian Americans and working people of color generally. Can such groups be forged in time? Is that even realistic at this point?

Tan and her partner were recently forced to move out from their previous apartment, after the landlord refused to address issues and decided not to renew their lease. This coincides with a housing crisis of homelessness in the city. While Tan was able to find housing quickly, she had to contend with rising rents this year with the pandemic.

“Most of us are one paycheck away from being bankrupt,” she told me, “We’re all a few steps away from being homeless.”

As a teacher for nearly ten years, Tan has been an active member of her union, and felt compelled to run for a position in leadership. One of her main goals is to push the union to fight harder for what its members need, especially since Covid-19 has been the new reality.

Tan, as I interviewed her over Zoom, talked about the need to respond to what’s going on in our communities, to prepare for what’s ahead. These days, I now think about the oncoming Trump presidency, of explicit forms of anti-Muslim bigotry once more roaming the streets, my parents again calling me whenever I’d be out, even shopping for groceries, asking me where I am, imploring to head back as soon as the sun would start to set, turn blood orange over the IHOP and Dunkin signs. A strange sense of ennui. A strange sense of place.

From Tan’s window, you can hear construction echoing. Jackhammers splitting the earth. Drilling. Soon enough, more luxury condominiums, spiraling into the clouds, will dot the city skyline. These are meant to be miniature societies for the ultra-wealthy, for the few, who can manage to basically pay for bunkers in the sky. To be surrounded by all the private security money can buy. More delusion.

“We have to organize as soon as possible,” Tan said, as the construction grew louder, “We have to get the people to fight. This society is not working.”

Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, Cosmonaut, New Politics, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.