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“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left

February 28, 2012 4 comments

“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left

Tamara K. Nopper

February 28, 2012

One day a friend and I were talking about “Black disappearance” as a phenomenon.  She spoke of it in regards to the new film about Joyce Carol Vincent, a Black woman whose dead body was “discovered” decomposing on the couch in her London apartment nearly three years after she went missing.  We also discussed the numerous cases of missing Black women and how, despite being one of the most policed and surveillance groups—by the state and the public—Black people can disappear quite easily from public view, with the same state apparatus putting little effort into finding missing or dead Black people.

I want to speak here of another form of Black disappearance, that which operates in multiracial progressive politics.  This may seem an odd topic, since African Americans clearly care about and participate in progressive politics, with some becoming famous activists or pundits in the process.  But there are particular ways Black disappearance happens in progressive politics, and the “Be the Help” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its supporters, built around the widely debated film The Help exemplifies this well.

The NDWA is an organization of domestic workers comprised primarily of immigrant women of color.  Following the historic victory of Domestic Workers United (DWU) in getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in its home state of New York, NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo (who had worked with DWU and other domestic workers organizations in New York City that morphed into DWU) and her constituency set their sights on getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in California and putting a national spotlight on domestic work.

In the process, NDWA initiated the “Be the Help” campaign, which played on the popularity—as well as controversy—of The Help as well as Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it is based to bring attention to the 2.5 million women who currently work as domestics.  Marketing the immigrant women of color workers as the “modern day help,” the “Be the Help” campaign brought together a motley crew of supporters, including one of the film studios that produced The Help, Hollywood actors and actresses (including Oscar nominee and winner Octavia Spencer), and domestic employers.  Unusual in that a labor campaign collaborated with the employer—in this case Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association—the “Be the Help” campaign also relied on supportive writers, publishers, and commentators in progressive media.  For example, during Oscar weekend, the “Be the Help” campaign was spotlighted on Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC.  It was also the subject of an article by Applied Research Center president and executive director and Colorlines magazine publisher Rinku Sen, posted on the publications’ website and widely circulated on social media.  An article championing the campaign, written by Ilyse Hogue, a columnist for the Nation, appeared on that publication’s website the Monday immediately following the Oscars.

That the film depicted the story of African American women domestic workers in the legalized Jim Crow era in the south and had been roundly critiqued by numerous African Americans, including historians, Civil Rights activists, cultural critics, actors, filmmakers, and many Black people whose concerns might not reach a public stage seemed to go unnoticed by the NDWA and its allies.

Or did it?  Was it a case of not noticing Black people’s concerns about The Help’s homage to the racist and sexist archetypal Mammy figure—which as one writer points out, is not, in racial politics, to be confused with the domestic worker—or was it a case of Black disappearance?

There is a lot to suggest it was the latter.

Read more…

The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian.  The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others.  The full article can be accessed for free here.

Abstract
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.

“Race, Illegality, and Detention”: My Remarks at Imprisoned, Forgotten, and Deported

December 18, 2011 Leave a comment

In October I presented on a panel that examined how race and notions of illegality intersected at the conference “Imprisoned, Forgotten, and Deported: Immigration Detention, Advocacy, and the Faith Community.”  Below are my remarks.

“Race, Illegality, and Detention”

October 13, 2011

The questions that we have been asked to explore are ones that I have thought about a great deal in the last decade, as a former activist in Asian American and immigration politics and as a scholar and educator who researches, writes about, and teaches about these issues.  These questions are:

  • How does race and racism operate in U.S. immigration and detention policy?
  • How is whiteness implicitly or explicitly operative in U.S. detention policy?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the criminalization of African Americans and newly arrived immigrants?  Why are some groups of immigrants welcomed and others criminalized?
  • How might the criminalization of particular racial others in U.S. detention policy be changed legally, politically, and culturally?
  • Given the social and political polarization of U.S. society, what are the limits and possibilities of changing the role of race in U.S. detention policy?

I want to explore how race and racism are conceptualized and the implications for how we consider criminalization, legality, and the similarities and differences between African Americans and immigrants of color.  While I and many of us here can discuss how white supremacy informs immigration policy, I think our point of departure for thinking about race cannot be whiteness or white supremacy.  And I say this as an Asian American who is all too well aware, from research, from observation, from shared stories, and from the lived experience that I take on my body every single day, that white supremacy is ubiquitous and banal.  White supremacy is the stench of dog shit left all over gentrified neighborhoods and the smiles of white children who, as babies, already have more power than the majority of grown people of color will ever possess.  But despite the mundane nature of white supremacy, I think a Black/non-Black divide framework is much more useful for analyzing racial realities as well as for pragmatically addressing the issues of criminalization, surveillance, policing, incarceration, and deportation.

The Black/non-Black divide framework posits that being Black in the world is much more significant in terms of shaping life chances and ontological realities than being non-white.  Sociologists, notably George Yancey, author of the book Who is White: Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, have studied the social rejection and isolation of African Americans and the implications for how we understand assimilation.  As Yancey notes in his book, “A black/nonblack dichotomy produces more understanding about contemporary race relations.  It suggests that the informal rejection of African Americans, rather than a tendency by the majority to oppress all minority groups in a roughly equal manner, is the linchpin to the American contemporary racial hierarchy.”

Most social scientists of assimilation don’t generally address the issue of surveillance and incarceration and have focused on indicators such as interracial marriage rates, residential segregation, educational obtainment, and income, and increasingly wealth.  Instead, they tend to focus on how African Americans do not tend to empirically demonstrate the assimilation patterns of not only whites but also non-Black people of color, including the “new immigrants.”  But anti-Black racism cannot be simply identified at the level of individual cases of suffering, of which, a significant number becomes a social problem, according to the celebrated sociologist C. Wright Mills.  Rather, anti-Black racism is a political project, a generative force, and a logic of social organization.  As Jared Sexton puts it, there is a “fundamental social truth” and it is “not simply that antiblackness is longstanding and ongoing but also that it is unlike other forms of racial oppression in qualitative ways— differences of kind, rather than degree, a structural singularity rather than an empirical anomaly.”

Considering anti-Blackness as a logic of social organization gives greater clarity to the nature of the state, of which immigrant rights activists constantly engage and confront.  While scholars such as Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the state is a racial state, some have made it clear that the state is not only racial but racist and not only racist but specifically anti-Black.  For example, Anthony Monteiro describes the U.S. state as “the principal organizer of racialized power.  As an instrument of racialized power, i.e. the power of white people over non-whites, especially black people, it functions to mediate class conflict and fissures among whites and to exert primarily command-and-control functions with respect to blacks.”

This is not to suggest that African Americans are the only ones affected, targeted, or criminalized by the state.  One of the common strategies for not dealing with anti-Black racism is to claim that African Americans are not the only ones who experience racism or state violence, a sentiment that some could say animates this very gathering.  But the scholarship that has informed my thinking never contends as much and only a willful misreading could lead to that conclusion.  Instead, an emphasis on anti-Blackness brings into clearer view what Sexton describes as “the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system”: that Blacks serve as “the prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure built up around them”—what Monteiro termed the “command-and-control functions” of the state.

Explained by Sexton:

Every analysis that attempts to understand the complexities of racial rule and the machinations of the racial state without accounting for black existence within its framework—which does not mean simply listing it among a chain of equivalents or returning to it as an afterthought—is doomed to miss what is essential about the situation. Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation—it is not the beginning and the end of the story—but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system.

What relevance does the anti-Black nature of the state have for immigrant detention, deportation, illegality, and criminalization?  Whereas I could give numerous examples, there is one major point I want to address here: immigrant rights advocates need to re-examine their beliefs about Black citizenship.

Under the racial state, there is no such thing as Black citizenship.  The myth of Black citizenship scaffolds immigrant rights activism as well as the academic scholarship that supports it.  Regarding the latter, in Asian American Studies, numerous scholars are quick to emphasize that African Americans gained citizenship before Asian Americans and their comparisons of Blacks and Asians tends to argue that the racial formation of which the latter is subject is civic ostracism and exclusion—as if the racial subjugation of African Americans is somehow unrelated to the practices and logic of civil society.  In Latino Studies, there is an evident animus to African Americans, expressed as concerns about Black xenophobia and Black insensitivity to illegality.  The thread that binds Asian American Studies and Latino Studies scholarship is a belief in Black American citizenship, a hostility to which actually demonstrates that the legal document, in the case of Blacks, does not actually matter. What both Asian American Studies and Latino Studies, as well as immigrant rights activism and non-Black liberals and progressives in general presume, is that Black people have citizenship but that spectacles of anti-Black racism—such as the recent Troy Davis execution, the Oscar Grant murder by a white police officer at the Bart station in the Bay, or hurricane Katrina—demonstrate the contingent and flexible nature of citizenship.  Such gestures attempt to re-imagine African Americans as akin to immigrants of color, whose status is tenuous, contingent, and flexible to the demands of the nation-state, capital, and whites.

But for Blacks, there is no such thing as circumstance, pretext, or even, to use the words of immigrant rights activists, legality or illegality.  To assume as much means that we can identify historical moments in which Blacks are not guilty.  Of course, Blacks are not always guilty of committing the criminal acts they are accused of and in some cases, the courts have affirmed as much.  But Black people are never not guilty of being Black and thus their experience of being criminalized—which is ontological and not behavioral—cannot be conflated with or subsumed under frameworks common among immigrant rights advocates.  Or, as Kenyon Farrow, in his remarks at the recently held New York City Troy Davis Memorial succinctly put it: “we must come to accept that to be Black and ‘innocent’ is an oxymoron in the world we live in.”

My new encycloped​ia entries “Chinese Exclusion Act” and “Eugenics”

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I have two entries in the new encyclopedia Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Kathleen R. Arnold. 

My entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act is an effort to challenge the dominant accounts of the act, promoted by those who subscribe to the Commons School of History approach or to progressive colorblind approaches, both of which defend or apologize for white racism against Asians by arguing it was economically and morally justified.  Since I had first learned of the act over a decade and a half ago, I have been bothered by this defense of white anti-Asian racism, too often found in history books and promoted by too many white lefties and liberals.  Books written by Asian Americans and a few others have tended to take a more critical view of the economic argument and showed how much more was at play; increasingly more scholars are looking at the racial politics of immigration policies.  In addition, we can always consider, even when economics are involved, as they always are, why does white suffering (real or imagined) get to be used as a justification for white on non-white violence, a violence that has never been mutually inflicted to the same degree and with the same level of sympathy?  For my entry on eugenics I wanted to address how anti-Black racism and anxieties about the importation of “Black blood” among race scientists was a feature of eugenic approaches to immigration.

The entries “Chinese Exclusion Act” and “Eugenics” start on pages 105 and 189, respectively, and can be read in full in the Google Books edition

Black unemployment in the multiracial small business industry

January 13, 2011 3 comments

Black unemployment in the multiracial small business industry

Tamara K. Nopper

January 13, 2011

A while back, my colleague, an African American college professor, and I were discussing Black unemployment in conversation with one of my areas of research, immigrant and minority-owned business.  She recounted a recent visit to a Dunkin’ Donuts in which she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a middle-aged African American man working at the store.  As she described, she pointed to this man as she thanked the manager of the store, a South Asian American, “for hiring him.”  When I asked what the manager’s reaction was, she told me he beamed instantly in response as if he was paid the highest compliment.  She also mentioned that the African American worker later whispered to her the same reply as expressed by his manager—“thank you.”

This story may seem odd for several reasons.  For one, it is difficult to imagine a white person walking into a business and thanking a manager (of any race) for hiring a fellow white person.  Second, when conversations about race and employment are discussed, a job working at Dunkin’ Donuts is not generally treated as the ideal opportunity by policy makers and advocates.  But let’s consider the significance of this story in relation to several issues: the crisis of Black unemployment, the increasing reliance on small business as a source of employment, and the growing number of non-Black people of color and immigrants in positions to hire employees in small firms.

Read more…

Why I oppose repealing DADT & passage of the DREAM Act

September 19, 2010 9 comments

Why I oppose repealing DADT & passage of the Dream Act

Tamara K. Nopper

September 19, 2010

One of the first books I read about Asian American feminism was the anthology Dragon ladies: Asian American feminists breathe fire.  In one of the essays, author Juliana Pegues describes scenes from a “radical Asian women’s movement.”  One such scene involves lesbian and bisexual Asian and Pacific Islanders marching at Gay Pride with signs reading “Gay white soldiers in Asia?  Not my liberation!” and “ends with the absence of all soldiers, gay and straight, from any imperialist army.”

Although it has been over a decade since I read this passage, I return to this “scene” as I watch far too many liberals and progressives praise the possible repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) as well as the possible passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act).

In some ways, I understand why people are supportive of such gestures.  The idea that certain identities and status categories, such as gay or lesbian or (undocumented) immigrants are either outlawed or treated as social problems has rightfully generated a great deal of sympathy.  And the very real ways that people experience marginalization or discrimination—ranging from a lack of certain rights to violence, including death—certainly indicates that solutions are needed. Further, far too many non-whites have experienced disproportionate disadvantages, surveillance, and discipline from both DADT and anti-immigrant legislation.  For example, Black women, some of whom are not lesbians, have been disproportionately discharged from the U.S. military under DADT.  And anti-immigrant legislation, policing measures, and vigilante xenophobic racism is motivated by and reinforces white supremacy and white nationalism.

Yet both the repeal of DADT and the passage of the DREAM Act will increase the size and power of the U.S. military and the Department of Defense, which is already the largest U.S. employer. Repealing DADT will make it easier for gays and lesbians to openly serve and the Dream Act in its present incarnation may provide a pathway to  legal residency and possibly citizenship for some undocumented immigrant young people if they serve two years in the U.S. military or spend an equal amount of time in college.

Unsurprisingly, the latter, being pushed by Democrats, is getting support from “many with close ties to the military and higher education.”  As the Wall Street Times reports:

Pentagon officials support the Dream Act. In its strategic plan for fiscal years 2010-2012, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness cited the Dream Act as a ‘smart’ way to attract quality recruits to the all-volunteer force…

‘Passage of the Dream Act would be extremely beneficial to the U.S. military and the country as a whole,’ said Margaret Stock, a retired West Point professor who studies immigrants in the military. She said it made ‘perfect’ sense to attach it to the defense-authorization bill.

Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton, said that as they struggled to meet recruiting goals, ‘recruiters at stations were telling me it would be extremely valuable for these patriotic people to be allowed to serve our country.’

Additionally, in a 2009 Department of Defense strategic plan report, the second strategic goal, “Shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force,”  lists the DREAM Act as a possible recruitment tool under one of the “performance objectives”:

Recruit the All-Volunteer Force by finding smart ways to sustain quality assurance even as we expand markets to fill manning at controlled costs as demonstrated by achieving quarterly recruiting quality and quantity goals, and through expansion of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program and the once-medically restricted populations, as well as the DREAM initiative.

What concerns me is that far too many liberals and progressives, including those who serve as professional commentators on cable news and/or progressive publications (and some with a seemingly deep affinity for the Democratic Party) have been praising the passage of the DREAM Act.  Unsurprising is that many of the same people support the repeal of DADT.  While a  sincere concern about discrimination may unite both gestures, so too does a lack of critical perspective regarding the U.S. military as one of the main vehicles in the expansion and enforcement of U.S. imperialism, heterosexuality, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and repression against political dissent and people’s movements in the United States and abroad. Far too many liberals and progressives, including those critical of policies or the squashing of political dissent, take an ambivalent stance on the U.S. military.  It is unclear what makes some of these folks unwilling to openly oppose the military state.  Perhaps it’s easier than dealing with the backlash from a variety of people, including the many people of color and/or women who are now building long-term careers in the military.  Or maybe it’s more amenable to building careers as pundits in both corporate and progressive media,  both of which may be critical of some defense spending or “wasted” (read unsuccessful) military efforts but not necessarily of U.S. militarism.

Whatever the case, the inclusion of more gays and lesbians and/or undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S. military is not an ethical project given that both gestures are willing to have our communities serve as mercenaries in exchange for certain rights, some of which are never fully guaranteed in a homophobic and white supremacist country.  Nor is it pragmatic.  By supporting the diversification of the U.S. military we undermine radical democratic possibilities by giving the military state more people, many of whom will ultimately die in combat or develop PTSD and health issues and/or continue nurturing long-term relationships with the U.S. military, including a political affinity with its culture and goals.  We will also have a more difficult time challenging projects of privatization, the incurring of huge amounts of debt, and the erosion of rights and protections in other countries—efforts buttressed by the threat of military action—which ultimately affects people in the United States.

Read more…

The myth of imported immigrant success

July 21, 2009 Leave a comment

The Myth of Imported Immigrant Success

By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard people claim that Asian immigrants do well because they migrate with the human capital to succeed, I’d be able to…do many things.

A common sociological explanation for economic inequality between Asian immigrants and “native born minorities,” the importation thesis posits that the “development” of third world countries and policy dictates for skilled and educated labor have resulted in imported success. In other words, immigrants come in with more human capital and thus are able to effectively compete against and sometimes economically surpass other racial groups.

Whereas biological and cultural explanations focus on ethnic group characteristics as facilitators of success or failure, the importation thesis is preoccupied with the selectivity of immigration policy that has diversified the types of migrants the U.S. recruits and receives. Emphasizing the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which set in motion the increased immigration of ethnicities previously restricted from entry or naturalization, scholars have refocused our attention on the state’s role in shaping contemporary economic inequality between racial groups.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to this approach.

To read the rest, go here.

Obama and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders

December 13, 2008 1 comment

December 13, 2008

There has been little discussion among mainstream media about Obama’s election and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).  While I can’t provide a detailed analysis of AAPI party politics or voting patterns, I want to provide an account of a community forum held in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that I attended in mid-October.  Sponsored by Pennsylvania Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Obama, the event featured NYC Councilman John Liu and two Asian American politicians from California: Congressman Mike Honda, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Chair of the Asian American Congressional Caucus, and Dr. Judy Chu.  In attendance were several of the old guard Chinatown “community leaders” and a diverse group of AAPIs involved in local and regional politics, with translation provided for the former.

Three issues stood out.  First, despite the tendency to perceive AAPIs as unconcerned or unwilling to talk about race, the topic was addressed many times at the event.  This was unsurprising since the event was held to bring together a specific racial group.  Also unsurprising but nevertheless troubling was how race was talked about.  The rhetoric was consistent with most AAPI’s uneasiness dealing with racial hierarchies as well as Obama’s emphasis on being “NJB.” As described to me by one of my African American students at the University of Pennsylvania, some Black students there categorize other Black students as either “JB” or “NJB”: “just Black” or “not just Black,” with the latter being those who identify as African or Caribbean.

Such an approach to race was part of the sales pitch to AAPIs.  For example, at the event people could pick up a brochure targeted at AAPIs (complete with a cover picture of an Asian American man talking to Obama).  On the first page, above a photo of Obama sitting with Asian American school children, there is the following quote from Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “[I am] the child of a Black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian. . . America’s genius has always been its ability to absorb newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the disparate lot that arrived on our shores.”

Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro, along with her husband Konrad Ng, was repeatedly referenced during the forum.  Indeed, they were not just mentioned, their ethnicities were cited.  We were reminded several times that Soetoro is Indonesian and that Ng is Chinese.  At one point, Dr. Chu said that if elected, Obama would be the first president to have Asian “blood” relatives.  At another point in the speeches, someone (and I forget who—my notes from the meeting are unclear on this matter), actually said that Obama would be the “first Asian president.”  What was revealed in these appeals was the belief that to win over the crowd, Obama had to be “NJB,” and more explicitly, had to be related (literally and figuratively) to Asian Americans “by blood.”  Whether this was an effective strategy among the people in the room was unclear but it was a noticeable effort nevertheless.

The second and related issue was the attention given to Obama’s Hawaiian roots.  At one point in his comments, Congressman Honda mentioned that Obama was a “native son of Hawaii” and had the appropriate “aloha” spirit to lead.  According to Congressman Honda, the “aloha” spirit is characterized by openness and is exemplified in Obama’s willingness to work with and listen to others.  Such comments are consistent with sound bites that Soetoro has given to newspapers.  For example, an AP story has Soetoro saying about her brother: “Hawaii is the place that gave him the ability to. . . understand people from a wide array of backgrounds. . . People see themselves in him. . . because he himself contains multitudes.”

Such depictions of Hawaii are disturbing for a few reasons.  First, while Asian Americans have a long history in Hawaii, that a Japanese-American congressman was able to claim Hawaii—to the point where he could determine who was a “native” son of the state—made me think of Native Hawaiians who don’t embrace Asians as fellow Hawaiians.  As some Native Hawaiian critics point out, Asian national interests and labor have contributed to the trajectory of Native Hawaiians, which is marked by high incarceration and poverty rates and territorial and political disempowerment.  Second, the notion that Hawaiians are an “open people” also reproduces sexualized racial fantasies of an open territory with happy natives warmly “receiving” outsiders—a perception that requires non-Hawaiians to imagine native Hawaiians as eager to provide visual, edible, and sexual pleasure to newcomers (think dancing, food, and sex here).  In other words, colonialism is rearticulated as amalgamation.

The third and final issue was how AAPI ”concerns” were defined.  Both in the brochures and speeches, AAPI issues were characterized as education, small business ownership, health care, and immigration.  Along with these points, the issue of racial profiling was listed, noticeably at the bottom of different materials.  The topic of immigration was discussed by many speakers.  Immigration was always referenced in relationship to family ties.  While the (not overwhelming) majority of AAPIs are foreign-born, unsurprisingly absent—at least for the hour that I was present—was how concerns regarding immigration may also be shaped by economic interests.  Some of the people in the room were either business owners in Chinatown or part of organizations that worked with and benefitted from companies in the neighborhood.  Given that many such businesses rely on immigrant labor, the issue of immigration reform is not simply driven by familial concerns (and this is not to say familial concerns are outside of the logic of capitalism).

Along with these three issues, the event had a few awkward moments.  One that stands out is Congressman Honda leading the crowd in singing “This little light of mine,” presumably prompted by the name of Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine, a well known member of the Black clergy in Philadelphia, who had opened up the forum with a prayer.  Or at least this is what the politician said when he burst into song.  Looking at Dr. Shine, Congressman Honda said that he loved his name “Shine” because it reminded him of a tune. . . and so began the singing.

The story behind the story: reflections on past writings

December 4, 2008 Leave a comment
December 4, 2008

For those interested, you can read two of my academic publications here; they are “The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the Asian American Abandonment Narrative as Political Fiction” and “Why Black Immigrants Matter: Re-focusing the Discussion on Racism and Immigration Enforcement.”

There are always stories behind what we write.  With both of these articles, I found data that was rarely ever used but relatively easy to access.  In the case of the Los Angeles Riots article, I rarely saw in print any mention of how the federal government publicly responded to the riots.  While the 1992 Los Angeles Riots is indeed a watershed moment in the articulation of post-civil rights discourse, state organization (police, military, and funding), and Asian American identity politics and activism, research and popular writings did not present much data about how then president George H.W. Bush responded.

One day I began searching on the internet, putting in keywords such as “Bush and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.”  What came up were Bush’s public library and several speeches he gave immediately following the events in the greater Los Angeles area.  My article examines 17 of these speeches.  A general weakness of the article is that in one section, I draw from military documents without being critical enough of official state accounts regarding the political in-fighting between then police chief Daryl Gates and military officials.  While this in-fighting may explain some of the LAPD’s response, in-fighting does not necessarily explain why some groups are rescued and others are not—in-fighting is often suspended to assuage white suffering.

Despite this limitation, I do, however, attempt to reframe the notion of Asian Americans as sacrificed than what is typically presented in most Asian Americanist work on the riots.

In terms of the article on race and deportations, I had originally written an on-line article about the topic utilizing data found in another one of my internet searches.  My interest in the topic stemmed from having once been actively involved in Asian American activism, which included working at a progressive Asian American community organization.  I had attended several immigrant rights and anti-deportation gatherings on both the west and east coasts and was thinking about its implications for the Chinatown community in which I worked.  What struck me about both these gatherings and the available activist literature and informational material is that I rarely heard about patterns of deportation.  As a qualitative sociologist and someone who has read about the troubled history of western science and statistical models, I am familiar with the tendency to privilege numbers over detailed stories and case studies—especially that generated and documented by those “from below.”  Yet I also found the emphasis on localized information to be too selective, especially because—and this was in 2001 and 2002—the activists I was around tended to act as if it was primarily Asian Americans and Middle Easterners being deported.

I remember how, following the 2002 signing of the repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the U.S., a South Asian co-worker complained that she didn’t understand why some organizations were focusing so much on Southeast Asian deportation, when, according to her, South Asians have been deported way before 9-11.  Another co-worker, also a South Asian, reminded her that “all immigrants” have been deported.  This, along with the fact that many activists began deportation history with the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), compelled me to find out who was being deported.  I looked up numbers on the BCIS website and found that despite the spectacle of South Asian and Middle Eastern detentions and deportations, Black immigrants had a pattern of being deported regularly.  Further research examining a range of available data from government institutions, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the DHS, and academic scholarship showed that Black immigrants have been adversely affected by both immigrant policies enacted after 9-11 and the growing intersection between immigration enforcement and the criminal justice system.  Indeed, Black immigrants (here operationalized as those from the Caribbean) tend to be deported more for criminal reasons—which results in never being able to legally enter the U.S. after deportation—regardless of nationality.  This is not the pattern for other groups.

My findings were meant to challenge the dichotomy between anti-Black racism and anti-immigration that was taken as real in the existing activist discourse.  That is, I wanted to show that immigrant rights movements must deal with how anti-Black racism is foundational to the experiences of all immigrant groups, even those who are non-Black because anti-Black racism is fundamental to how the state and the general public think and organize around issues of “criminality,” “innocence,” and policing.  My position was at odds with that of the immigrant rights movement, which tends to suggest that African Americans need to stop being ignorant of what is happening to immigrants due to an assumption of an existing “natural alliance.”  What happened instead is that people took my article as a rallying cry for coalition.  Several exchanges over email and in-person—including at panels—revealed that many thought that I was hoping for a diversification of the immigrant rights movement in terms of increased attention on Black immigrants.  Such a gesture does not necessarily address my main concerns but rather encourages Black immigrants to differentiate themselves from African Americans through the existing practices and discourses of the troubled multiracial immigrant rights movement.  While Black immigrants do need more attention, as I mentioned in a radio interview aired on CKUT Radio this past summer, I took my findings to validate African American claims regarding policing and racism, claims that have often been dismissed as overly-selfish by the immigrant rights movement and non-Black groups.

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