Philadelphia’s mayoral race is heating up, and Asian American community activists are deeply invested in the fight to be the city’s next political leader. Pennsylvania has been a crucial swing state for recent presidential and congressional elections, and politics in Pennsylvania are increasingly influenced by its growing Asian American electorate, which has doubled since 2016. Although still only 2 percent of Pennsylvania’s voters, Asian Americans are increasingly commanding attention, and organizers assert that their recent 70-80% support for Democratic candidates has proven crucial in hotly-contested political races.
This year, many of Pennsylvania’s progressive Asian American activists – including many who previously worked on campaigns for President Joe Biden and Senator John Fetterman – have turned their attention local. They are throwing their support behind Korean American progressive Helen Gym in Philadelphia’s mayoral race. Twice-elected to the Philadelphia City Council, Gym stepped down last year to announce her candidacy for Philadelphia mayor. She is now a leading candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, which will be held on Tuesday, May 16 and which usually determines the outcome for mayor in this strongly Democratic city.
As Asian Americans living in the years of Amy Chua, Ajit Pai, Peter Liang and Nikki Haley, it’s easy to romanticize the Movement: those revolutionary years when “brothers and sisters” from Chinatowns, Little Tokyos, and Manilatowns across the country came together to stand with Black Power and confront the racist war in Vietnam. Together, they made pilgrimage to Manzanar, sat in at Wounded Knee, and walked out at San Francisco State University. Somewhere along the way, they invented “Asian America” as we know it.
A crash course in the history of the Asian American Movement has become part of the initiation process for young newcomers to the Asian American left, and for good reason. And yet, the images that get circulated from that era—of Black, brown, and yellow brothers wearing leather jackets and berets, fists raised and packing heat—hint at a masculinist underpinning that’s worth unpacking.
Take, for instance, the iconic image of Richard Aoki with Berkeley’s Asian American Political Alliance at a 1968 rally to free Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. Aoki (who in 2012 was implicated as an alleged FBI informant) looks decidedly chic: clad in a black beret and sunglasses with a cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth, he raises one hand in a fist while the other balances the now-iconic sign: “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” But reading this image and its circulation critically, we might ask: Is it Aoki’s revolutionary politics that resonates? Or is Aoki, as a Japanese American man embodying a militant kind of hypermasculinity, rendered iconic for easing modern anxieties about Asian male “emasculation”—that which Tamara Nopper calls “a homophobic and sexist preoccupation among many Asian Americans and our ‘allies’”?
By most accounts, Gary Locke — former governor of Washington (and the first Asian American to do so), and later Secretary of Commerce for the Obama administration in its first term — has excelled in his most recent position, which he has held since 2011: that of America’s Ambassador to China.
The first Chinese American to hold the position (his predecessors have all been White), Locke has earned himself the reputation of being a fair and unassuming ambassador (a virtual prerequisite for this specific type of position); one whose low-key nature has helped ease relationships between America and one of its largest economic and militaristic peers on the global stage. Although his position requires Locke to firmly but diplomatically represent American positions to the Chinese government — positions that aren’t by definition always going to be popular with China’s top officials — Locke has reportedly performed this task effectively.
And, it is precisely this firm but low-key persona that has made him something of a superstar with street-level Chinese residents, a tactic he might have learned from his train-riding, man-of-the-people compatriot, Vice President Joe Biden.
In the wake of the #AsianPrivilege response hash-tag to #NotYourAsianSidekick and #BlackPowerYellowPeril, it appears as if (among other misguided ideas) there is a prevailing notion out there that, in contrast to other minorities, Asian Americans “lack a history of resistance” (or that we think we do), and that this invisibility and dearth of civil rights history actually confers upon the Asian American community a form of racial privilege.
Putting aside the second half of that assertion regarding privilege for a minute, there’s one other major problem: any argument that relies upon the assumption that Asian Americans lack a history of resistance is patently ahistorical.
Like really, really, really wrong. Like insultingly wrong.
After the jump, here are 10 examples of Asian American’s history of oppression and political resistance.