Asian American activism today is split between a radical left wing comprised of small groupings lacking a mass base, and staff-based non-profits that do have substantial bases but are unable to empower rank-and-file community leadership. In other words, there are few efforts to organize working Asian Americans to collectively make political demands and build power. This includes efforts like self-organizing to facilitate the discussion of Asian American concerns led by community members beyond professional activists like NGO staff or like-minded academics. While radical left organizations in the past have supported and built mass movements and strikes, these formations became fatally bureaucratized, and rank-and-file organizing was often subsumed under the dictates of party leadership. As many of these dissolved, the Asian American left became dominated by cultural activism, service provision, and non-profit-led organizing.
Of course, there was no lack of mass organizing based on the rank-and-file power of Asian American workers, from Chinese restaurant workers in San Francisco in 2004 to the South Asian-led New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike in 1998. But conspicuously absent by the turn of the century was the sustained tradition of rank-and-file workers that aimed to take collective political power on the basis of these struggles beyond the charismatic leadership of Asian American progressive heavyweights like Ai-jen Poo. This is not to say that such organizers have not worked to politicize the Asian American workers they organize; but most of these formations are structurally limited in their capacity as staff-driven non-profits, determined in the last instance by state and philanthropic funding and unable (or unwilling) to organize a mass movement that can challenge Democratic Party politics.
In the meantime, Black-led organizing in recent years, from the workers’ co-ops of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi to the New Directions rank-and-file-led reform caucus in the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York, offer a different model of political work. This is not to say that ordinary Asian Americans—from Chinatown tenants to Chinese homecare or garment workers—do not collectively organize for political demands, but that there had been few vehicles in recent decades for them to organize for and take political power and leadership. More often than not, Asian American working-class communities are depoliticized or only spurred to action under the leadership of professional organizers who are materially separated from the communities they organize. This political reality is also exacerbated by the wide gaps in language, cultures, and economic positions within the Asian American umbrella.
This began to shift in the late 2010s, with increasing housing-related campaigns led by alliances between younger activists and Chinatown tenants, such as the hunger strike led by tenants at 85 Bowery in Manhattan Chinatown in 2018, supported by local community organizations like Youth Against Displacement. In Los Angeles, Chinatown tenants and allies have self-organized tenant associations through CCED to connect site fights to local and state-wide efforts to build grassroots coalitional actions with groups like KTown for All and LA Tenants Union.
What this mode of politics offers is a sustainable politics beyond (but not excluding) community self-defense and an alternative to the culture of professional activism: in other words, a holistic solution to both immediate anti-Asian violence and structural exploitation of Asian communities that centers on strategies that empower working-class Asian Americans. These efforts are still scattered and inchoate, but these infrastructures can serve as not only the building blocks for the future of Asian American organization-building that centers on rank-and-file community power, but the key links between Asian American organizations and mainstream left organizations. The principle of self-determination calls for the right of our own ethnic communities to figure out our own contradictions to build a democratic movement from our own political needs. But as Patricia Hill Collins2 reminds us, “group autonomy fosters effective coalition with other groups,” which means that our organizing as Asian Americans must connect to other like-minded political efforts in order to foster genuine systemic change from below.
In the meantime, Asian Americans are rarely seen en masse or discussed in the traditional bastions of the organized left on a national scale like the Democratic Socialists of America. In the DSA and other national formations that give space to independent mass organizing, the few dedicated Asian American organizers are pulled into myriad leadership and committee positions, left with little time and few resources to develop programs and organizing priorities that can attend to our own communities. Meanwhile, these structures are often disconnected from or have little to offer to Asian American organizers situated outside of organized socialist formations. At the same time, there are few opportunities for working class Asian Americans to start getting involved in politics beyond simply volunteering or filling the few staff positions in progressive non-profits, in the relative absence of independent mass organizations dedicated to Asian American concerns.
What Asian Americans need are mass, independent, and democratic platforms geared toward connecting and empowering local, rank-and-file-led struggles, built on strategies and paradigms unique to the struggles of our communities. This means situating the fight against racism in a larger movement that models an accountable and collective process to build democratic power against capitalism from Asian Americans’ own diverse positionalities as workers and tenants. We can develop programs for political change led by everyday Asian Americans themselves in our own communities, including but not limited to unionizing boba shop workers, campaigning for full decriminalization led by massage parlor workers, or caucusing as Asian American student workers in national and local unions. Not only would this uplift the right of communities of color to self-determination and organize on the basis of their identity, but also for these communities to develop paradigms that would allow everyday people to take political leadership on a sustainable and democratic basis on their own terms. And by political leadership, I do not mean simply elevating this worker or that tenant leader into an organization’s staff infrastructure. Instead, we must radically rethink how we build our movements and organizations such that political leadership comes from the collective democratic power of Asian American working people.