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The power and the perils of an Asian American political awakening

The surge in hate crimes is feeding a new spirit of solidarity. But it’s also renewing a longstanding question for the movement: How do disparate sets of people unite without flattening their substantial differences?

Bystanders watch as demonstrators march against anti-Asian violence in New York City on March 27.
Bystanders watch as demonstrators march against anti-Asian violence in New York City on March 27.Stephanie Keith/Getty

An odd thing about the term “Asian American” is that it’s more often used by nonprofits and census-takers than by the people it’s supposed to describe. Most Asian Americans — two-thirds according to some surveys — choose to identify themselves along ethnic, rather than racial, lines, calling themselves Korean or Bangladeshi Americans, for example, as opposed to Asian.

This statistic reflects a broader assumption among Asian Americans that the different ethnic groups lack a common heritage and political agenda. “Asian” covers a huge geographic territory that contains a wide range of cultures, religious traditions, and languages. Due to a history of intra-Asian violence back on the continent, many of these groups actively distrust one another, and moments of solidarity between them are rare.

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This has posed a challenge to activists like Suraiya Sharker, a Georgia organizer at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “In the past, we’ve had a lot of issues canvassing in certain communities,” she says. “For example, sending South Asian canvassers to certain East Asian supermarkets, you wouldn’t get the same rates as sending East Asian organizers to those supermarkets.”

This dynamic has played out in disturbing ways. Asian Americans as a whole have often failed to stick up for specific ethnic groups when they’ve been targeted for discrimination. It also has likely contributed to disproportionately low Asian representation in government. Studies have found that Asian American candidates can cause voter turnout to spike among voters of similar ethnicities but not among Asians overall, a phenomenon that appears to be unique among minority voting blocs.

But something started to change over the last year as Asian Americans across the country sounded the alarm over a series of attacks, many of which appeared to be racially motivated. The assailants often indicated that their intended targets were Chinese, but brutal stories began to stack up featuring Asian victims of all ethnicities: a six-year-old Burmese child stabbed in the face in Texas, an 89-year-old Chinese woman set on fire in Brooklyn, an 84-year-old Thai man killed in San Francisco.

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The deaths of eight people, including six Asian American women, in the Georgia spa shootings on March 16 felt like a tragic and inevitable culmination to a buildup of bigotry. In the immediate aftermath, even the strongest ethnic divisions seemed to dissolve as Asians throughout the country released pent-up rage. Rallies and vigils in major cities featured a diverse mix of Asian Americans without a single ethnic group predominating. Organizations like Sharker’s that seek to foster conversation between different Asian communities saw spikes in donations, event turnout, and social media engagement. Ethnic religious institutions like Korean churches urged their flocks to come together and rise up against anti-Asian racism.

According to Sharker, the shootings were both a unifying and a politicizing force that prompted Asians across ethnicities to realize that their fates are bound together. “We’ve been getting inundated with members from very different communities who’ve been telling us, ‘I’ve never been interested in politics, but now I can see how these issues can impact me and my life,’” she says.

Other organizers expressed similar observations. “I don’t think that I’ve had a single conversation — and I’ve been having a lot — where an Asian American person has not had some political analysis of why it happened and why it matters,” says Salonee Bhaman, a member of the Asian American Feminist Collective.

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Much of the conversation after the spa shootings has focused on whether they fit the legal definition of a hate crime, given that the killer did not specifically say he was driven by anti-Asian hatred. Less remarked upon has been the extent to which the massacre and the surge in xenophobia that preceded it have shaken up past assumptions about Asian American-ness within the community itself. As diverse Asian ethnic groups gather together in the streets, they may be awakening a pan-ethnic political coalition that has eluded Asian organizers since the term first came into use in the 1960s.

Asian Americans remain an extremely diverse group, however, and there are real perils to a broad political alliance that glosses over the ways that power within it is stratified by ethnicity, class, culture, and gender. It seems likely that a coalition that spans so many different identities will allow the voices of its most powerful members to drown out its most marginalized, collapsing the distinct needs and concerns of its different groups into a single, legible narrative.

In the face of this newfound solidarity, the central question of Asian American movement building has become even more urgent: How does one unite disparate sets of people without flattening their differences?

A term from the 1960s

The divide between Asian Americans was clear during World War II, when Japanese Americans were scapegoated and interned after Pearl Harbor. Chinese and Korean Americans on the West Coast offered them little support, instead hanging signs in their windows and wearing badges that read: “I Hate the Japs More Than You Do.”

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A scene from a rally in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles on March 28.
A scene from a rally in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles on March 28.Richard Vogel/Associated Press

The Asian American label was coined in 1968, little more than 20 years after internment, by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, two students from the University of California, Berkeley. The purpose was to promote solidarity between disunited groups, says Yen Le Espiritu, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego: “It was established for political reasons. It wasn’t as if there was a cultural affinity between different Asian American ethnicities.”

In its original context at Berkeley, the term “Asian American” had the ring of political radicalism. Ichioka and Gee were inspired by the Black Power Movement, which they saw as a natural ally in a struggle against economic and racial oppression. The term was also aspirational, an attempt to conjure up what these students had always desired: a pan-ethnic political coalition founded on a shared history of immigration, labor exploitation, and discrimination.

But the idealistic qualities of the term also distanced it from realities outside the academy. Not only does “Asian American” lump together a wide range of ethnicities despite their unique languages, cultures, histories, experiences of prejudice, and political motivations, it also erases differences based on class, gender, language access, and immigration status — and it helps validate the tendency of many non-Asians to see Asians as indistinguishable.

One of the most pernicious effects of this “racial lumping” — to use Espiritu’s term — is that Asian Americans as a whole are generally stereotyped as an economically successful, or “white-adjacent,” minority. In reality, income inequality among Asians is the highest of any racial group in the United States, with Hmong, Cambodian, and Bangladeshi household incomes well below the national average.

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The term’s advantages only started to become clear in 1982, when the murder of Vincent Chin set off what is generally regarded as the first major “Asian American” political movement in the United States. Amid alarm that Japanese companies would shut down American car manufacturers, Chin, a Chinese American man, was hunted down and beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit who believed him to be Japanese American. Neither of the killers spent any time in jail, instead serving three years of probation and paying a $3,000 fine.

One of the most important elements of the Chin killing was that it was a case of mistaken identity. For the first time, many Chinese and Korean Americans realized that they too were endangered when Japanese Americans were blamed for something. The outrage and activism over the case included Asian Americans of all ethnic groups.

But in the decades that followed, the sense of pan-Asian identity began to subside, says Frank H. Wu, president of Queens College in New York and author of the book “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.” Asian immigrants who arrived in subsequent years imported highly specific ethnic identities from their home countries, and as their numbers grew, pan-Asian solidarity faded.

Yet Asians like Wu who were radicalized by the Chin killing continued to refer to themselves as Asian Americans. The experience taught them that the term is less a racial category and more a political identity that arises out of necessity when all people of Asian descent face “external threats of the highest order,” as Wu put it. By uniting across groups, Asian Americans found that they were able to exercise political power that no Asian ethnicity would be able to exert on its own.

Survey data seems to show that identifying as an Asian American is linked to the experience of anti-Asian racism. People who refer to themselves as “Asian American” report higher rates of perceived discrimination than those who don’t, although it’s not clear which causes which, says Janelle Wong, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland and senior researcher at the demographic data group AAPI Data. “What you could say is that identity and perceived discrimination are highly associated with one another,” she says. “The Asian American moniker is really an indicator of politicization.”

Anti-Asian racism didn’t go away in the decades after Vincent Chin was killed; there were horrific acts of violence such as a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. But Asian Americans as a whole appeared to have a declining sense of what Wu describes as “external threats”— a feeling of perceived discrimination that affected people of every Asian ethnicity. Some Asian commentators began to question whether the term had outlived its purpose, citing the way it contributed to stereotypes, its unpopularity among Asians themselves, and the damage it did to working-class Asians who were assumed to be just as privileged as the community’s wealthiest professionals. What was the purpose of keeping a term left over from the 1960s that no longer seemed relevant?

Phoebe Yang, 6, marched alongside Xuemei Li during the second consecutive weekend of Stop Asian Hate protests in Detroit on March 27.
Phoebe Yang, 6, marched alongside Xuemei Li during the second consecutive weekend of Stop Asian Hate protests in Detroit on March 27.Nicole Hester

Watershed moment

Many factors contributed to the rising sense of Asian solidarity after the hate crime surge and the Georgia shooting: former President Donald Trump’s xenophobic dog whistles referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and “kung flu”; online videos of racist encounters; the George Floyd protests, which increased racial consciousness and showed the impact of on-the-ground demonstrations. But one of the most important factors is that the attackers didn’t distinguish between people of different Asian ethnicities. “We saw Asians across the board being subjected to hate and discrimination and attacks,” says Cynthia Choi, executive director of the hate-incident reporting center Stop AAPI Hate.

As a result, the fear wasn’t limited to Chinese Americans, the intended victims of most of the violence. A survey conducted by AAPI Data found that Indian Americans were just as likely as Chinese Americans to worry about experiencing hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination due to the pandemic. At least 59 percent of every Asian ethnic group surveyed expressed some degree of alarm, and about 76 percent of Asian Americans overall did so.

Moments of racism that target isolated or even a few ethnic groups tend not to have the same effects on pan-Asian unity. Japanese and Chinese Americans didn’t mobilize en masse to support Koreans after their businesses were torched during the Los Angeles riots in 1992, nor did most East Asians offer support to South Asians when they faced racial harassment and discrimination after 9/11. Many recent grassroots movements deemed “Asian American” by the press — such as opposition to affirmative action — were led by or drew much of their support from members of single ethnicities, and voter surveys have consistently found that different Asian ethnic groups tend to support different political parties and platforms.

After the hate crime surge and the Georgia shootings, the reaction was intense and widespread. Some Asian American scholars implied that the effects might even be larger and further-reaching than those of the Vincent Chin murder. “This is probably the biggest watershed moment for Asian Americans as a pan-ethnic group since the creation of the concept in the Asian American movement of the late 60s,” says Scott Kurashige, chair of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University. “I can’t think of any other time like it.”

There are obvious advantages to a broad, energized political coalition that is laser-focused on stopping racial violence. And yet the dangers baked into the “Asian American” term remain: It confounds nuanced analysis and erases diversity, implying a universal Asian experience that doesn’t really exist. This problem isn’t unique to Asian Americans — Latinos, African Americans, and other groups widely called “communities” also wrestle with terms that elide the variation and complexity within them. But it’s become particularly salient among Asians in recent weeks as a new political identity, unified around the experience of racial trauma, goes mainstream.

An example of this erasure, reflected in some of the opinion pieces following the shooting, is the assumption that all Asian Americans were equally subject to violence, regardless of class and gender distinctions. It may be true that all Asian Americans saw themselves and their family members reflected in the faces of the victims. But it’s also undeniable that the working poor and seniors bore the brunt of the violence throughout the pandemic and that Asian women, not men, were targeted by the shooter in Georgia.

This, in turn, gets at a related problem with broad political coalitions: They’re extremely vulnerable to being dominated by their loudest and most privileged voices, says Emi Koyama, a member of the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, which organizes immigrant massage workers in Seattle. “We’ve seen from these bigger movements that when people try to address things in common to everybody, they end up prioritizing the experiences of those who are most powerful in the group and ignoring all the others,” she said. “It’s not really a coalition if people are annexed to these larger groups without having their voices heard.”

The ideological flattening that concerns Koyama has occurred in previous Asian American political movements, Kurashige says. Much of the outrage after the Vincent Chin case revolved around a desire to punish his killers rather than root out the causes of anti-Asian sentiment, with the loudest activists advocating for mandatory minimum sentencing. Activists today are again worried that the political energy around anti-Asian violence will degenerate into law-and-order politics. They’ve strongly pushed back on both liberal and conservative Asian political leaders who have proposed an expanded police presence in Asian neighborhoods. Bhaman, of the Asian American Feminist Collective, says this would have the effect of making matters worse for working-class Asians, many of whom have a bad relationship with law enforcement, because of language barriers or a fear of having their immigration status questioned.

Activists like Bhaman and Koyama, and groups like Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers, are determined to prevent a single simplified narrative from taking hold. In the immediate aftermath of the spa shootings, many penned statements stressing that there was no one cause for the violence, and that sexism, racism, and classism all combined to create the conditions for the massacre.

What the last year seems to have wrought is the formation of a new Asian political identity that bridges vast cultural chasms. This is both an encouraging sign of new political consciousness and an event that lays bare the inadequacies of the term for it.

“Because Asian American is an organizing principle, we have to be really thoughtful about how we navigate” around it, says Jenn Fang, founder of the Asian feminist blog Reappropriate. “We have to be really generous with our time and our energy, pass the mic, step aside. We have to be intentional about the way we bring ourselves together, rather than just to say we’re all the same.”

Asian Americans may be in the process of redefining their identity, but the eventual form of that identity will depend on how well we balance solidarity with nuance, our ability to accommodate more than a single narrative. Whether we do so will determine if we’ll finally get a truly pan-Asian coalition or one that only pretends to be.

Noah Y. Kim is a writer based in Boston.