Is the Next Civil Rights Leader Asian-American?

Is the Next Civil Rights Leader Asian-American?

By Sanjena Sathian


Because we’ve heard tell of another community organizer who took his ideas mainstream. Could we be looking at the next one?

By Sanjena Sathian

“How does it feel to be a solution?” It’s the question historian Vijay Prashad asked 13 years ago of model minorities in a slim volume of cultural criticism called The Karma of Brown Folk. The query is an inversion of W.E.B. DuBois’ entrée to The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The answer to Prashad’s question among a growing group of Asian-Americans is that it’s time to be a bit more, as the liberal-arts-types would say, problematic. Once a conservative-friendly group of upwardly mobile new immigrants, young, educated Asian-Americans are now increasingly on the front lines of civil rights battles, working as activists and organizers, engaged in assorted leftist rabble-rousing for causes more often associated with blacks or Latinos than Asians.

More from OZY’s series on the rise of Asian-Americans

• Full Supreme Court Press: It’s only a matter of time before we see an Asian-American Supreme Court justice.

• Indian-Americans’ Growing Political Force: Here’s how the second generation is rising leftward.

• Saket Soni: This 36-year-old Indian immigrant could be the architect of America’s next labor movement. 

Like 32-year-old Sheena Wadhawan, head of legal programs at CASA de Maryland, where she organizes on employment and immigration issues with mostly Latino communities.

“I sometimes forget I am a South Asian working with a predominantly Latino organization,” she says. 

Wadhawan moved to North Dakota in the fourth grade, where she and her brother “suffered a lot of getting beat up and called ‘sand nigger’ and getting told to go back home,” she explains speedily. “Our friends were the other kids of color, the outcasts — Native American kids, foster kids.” Which meant Wadhawan fairly quickly identified more closely with the black and other brown kids: a connection that’s stuck around for her career.

Close up of Neal Katyal speaking into microphone

Neal Katyal

Source Getty

Twenty-two years ago, 55 percent of Asian-Americans cast their vote for George H.W. Bush (Bill Clinton earned only 31 percent). But today Asian-Americans — who are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. — are not just overwhelmingly likely to vote Democrat, they’re also increasingly likely to identify as “people of color.” And that identification isn’t just about checking a box. For many, it’s about translating their personal experiences into something political and pan-racial.

Many are lawyers — like Jenny Yang, the new chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (and first Asian to hold the title), or Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general, who made a name litigating civil liberties cases after 9/11.

Still others are social workers, labor organizers, police accountability advocates. 

Lifelong New Yorker Helena Wong’s been an activist for 19 years with CAAAV, a group that organizes Asian-American communities. She just stepped down as the group’s director this year. “I’m the only one who’s graduated from college, out of five kids. … My parents are kind of like: ‘Why can’t you be a lawyer if you want to fight all these battles?’ ” No chance of that, for Wong. She’s a street-level organizer to the bones, she says.

If there’s a model minority, there’s got to be a problem minority.

Many got radical — surprise! — on liberal arts campuses. Like Soya Jung of Seattle’s ChangeLab, who attended Barnard in the early 1990s. When she first began organizing, she said, Asian-American responses to anti-black racism amounted to “a kind of ‘We suffer from racism too!’ … but if there’s a model minority, there’s got to be a problem minority,” she says. 

To be sure, the model minority is no monolith. Eighteen million Asian-Americans live in the U.S., and economically, they seem more suited to conservatism: They’re more likely than blacks and even whites to be wealthy and highly educated, and to work in the private sector. Indeed, some swing to the right, not the left, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. For many in the middle, the idea of being in racial solidarity with blacks is still foreign. A 2009 report by the National Asian American Survey showed 48 percent of Asian-Americans didn’t see commonalities with blacks or Latinos.  

But while most Asian-Americans are still far from the barricades, something distinct has changed. A recession acquainted more Asian-Americans with unemployment, 9/11 precipitated a wave of hate crimes against brown people, ethnic studies reigned on the college campuses to which good model minorities (like your correspondent) flock, and a black president — whose American Dream-tale felt familiar to Asian immigrants — took office. 

BW image of Yuri Kochiyama with 2 african american men at each side as she listens

Yuri Kochiyama

Then again, maybe what’s happening now is just the resurrection of old ideas. In the 1960s, activists like Japanese-American Yuri Kochiyama — a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and follower of Malcolm X — crossed color lines to agitate for civil rights; lesser-known South Asian-American activists like Kartar Dhillon supported groups like the Black Panthers and (mostly Hispanic) farmworkers. “What you’re seeing now is that movement all over again,” explains Prashad, chair of the South Asian history department at Trinity College. This time, there are more brown people in the mix, and like the Japanese-Americans of Kochiyama’s day — who remembered viscerally the days of internment — they remember the days after 9/11.

“They felt that experience of being looked at oddly by a police officer. They weren’t quite at the bottom of the ladder, but they did start to understand that sense of alienation,” Prashad says. From there, it becomes much easier to sympathize with, say, the mother of a teenager killed by police. 

To speak to Asian-Americans on the radical end of the spectrum is to hear many a comparison like that one: mass deportation as not unlike mass incarceration, colonialism as racism, indentured labor as … not quite slavery or undocumented farm work, but oppressive working conditions. 

Empathy, though, is a tough thing to scale, and politics change from one generation to the next. It’s not unlikely that as the new, upwardly mobile minorities get settled in the U.S., they’ll cleave along class lines, and so will their politics. 

“Rather than saying it’s a new generation who are more progressive or not progressive, I’d say, it’s a new generation who are more politicized,” says Prashad — in both directions.

The word diaspora, after all, doesn’t imply #solidarity. It means dispersal.