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API: MUSIC ART CULTURE & RESISTANCE

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"

excerpt from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen: The Roots to the Black-Asian Conflict: through a Socio-Historical Comparative Analysis Between Asian Americans and African Americans”(originally published in the Brooklyn African American newspaper, The City Sun):

In my view, neither Asian Americans nor African Americans are to blame for the prejudices, ignorance, misunderstanding and racism (2) held against the other. In a white-racist, oppressive society, the victims of that racism and oppression can be expected to harbor the racist attitudes, xenophobia and even self-hatred fostered by segregation, Eurocentric education and endemic powerlessness, which fuel frustration, fear and mistrust. What is needed from educators, activists and intellectuals is dialogue and knowledge about each other's experience and social history of oppression and struggle rather than convenient, copout (quick) explanations of “cultural differences.”(The “cultural differences”thesis presumes that what is needed is greater “cultural sensitivity”and not political consciousness and organizing around common interests as peoples of color).

The primary difference is that the experience and historical process of slavery forged African Americans into a distinct nationality while Asian Americans are a composite of diverse minority nationalities: Chinese American, Japanese American, Korean American, Filipino American, Thai Pakistani, Asian Indian, Cambodian, Hmong, Vietnamese, etc.(3) Generations of slavery fused the diverse West African peoples brought to the Americas into one common people who no longer trace their ancestral origin to a specific West African people; the varying languages of Yoruba, Ibo, Wolof, etc. were replaced by the language of the slave master (English in the British colonies). Their identity, religion, music and history were no longer any specific African tradition, but became definitively African American. Thus, some contemporary African Americans, endeavoring to reclaim their African heritage, divest themselves of “slave names”such as Smith, Jones, Johnson, Washington, etc. for a range of self-identifications, such as X, Islamic and other non-European adoptions.

Asian Americans are a plurality of nationalities that retain their ancestral family names and specific national cultural heritages including language, customs and traditions, as well as national histories. Chinese Americans are quite different from Japanese Americans, who are also quite different from the more than a dozen varying Asian/Pacific Islander minority nationalities in the United States. They are Wongs, Chins, Yamaguchis, Salvadores, Parks, etc. Obviously, the first generation of Asian peoples in American retain more of their ancestral identity, while subsequent generations in the United States experience identity crises and cultural confusion.

Under slavery, African Americans could not hold illusions about their status in U.S. society. They were simply property, a condition maintained by total force for virtually two and a half centuries prior to the mid-19thcentury. Asian immigration into the United States began in the mid-1800s, and was the result of a combination of what social historians term “push/pull”factors.”Pushed”by the devastation of their ancestral homelands from crushing poverty, semi colonial penetration, government and social corruption and varying types of cheap-labor recruitment (a semi slavery or indentured servitude). “Pulled”by hyped promises of America as the “Mountain of Gold”(the Chinese _expression for the United States was literally that) and promises for opportunities to make a new and better life. Because of this combination of ambivalent, contradictory impulses, between the sojourner (who came to work with the idea of returning to Asia) and the immigrant (who came to stay), Asian Americans reflect ambivalent responses to their conditions in America, rooted to the questions: Is American home? Immigration has prefigured as a critical and dominant characteristic in the Asian American experience.

In U.S. society, one is either white, Black or foreign. American racism has lumped its Latino, Asian and even Native American groups into “other.”Even fourth-generation Asian Americans still face this condition of subtle racism when told to “go back where you came from” or that they “speak good English”as well as not-so-subtle racism as targets of racist violence.

Prior to the 20th century, the concentration of African Americans had been the “Black Belt”region of the South. For Asian Americans (mostly Chinese until the 1900s), it was the West Coast and Hawaii. Even well into the 20th century, there was little social intercourse or contact between these peoples, except for a small population of resettled Chinese laborers in the South as a short-lived experiment to replace slave labor. Two significant contrasts between African Americans and Asian Americans were evident in late 19th century U.S. society: the failure of Reconstruction for African Americans and the period of exclusion for the Chinese in America, which eventually befell to all Asian immigrants until well into the second half of this century.

The smashing of Reconstruction by what DuBois noted as an alliance between Northern finance capital and Southern agrarian interests thwarted the possibility of genuine emancipation for the African American people. Furthermore, without “40 acres and a mule”the granting to African Americans basic capital through ownership of land and basic means of production, African American economic (as well as political) empowerment was restricted and suffocated. While a tiny African American middle class (petite bourgeoisie) did emerge under segregation, it was not until the Great Migrations of World Wars I and II to Northern industrial urban centers did African Americans achieve some measure of social mobility and economic advancement. Indeed, the proletarization of the African American masses, with increasing presence and activity in the burgeoning labor movements and trade unions, was probably the chief means of economic advancement. African Americans joined the ranks of trade union workers in steel, auto, municipal and public-sector employment. African American economic life, though having a distinct segregated market, increasingly became part and parcel of the general functioning of the U.S. capitalist, industrial and urban economy.

This was not the case for Asian Americans. The anti-Asian and Yellow Peril racist movements of the late 19th century were in large part led by the white labor movement, culminating in a series of Exclusion Acts passed by Congress that halted Asian immigration to the United States with the exception of members of the merchant class and students. Heretofore, Asian laborers were overwhelmingly single, young men. The few Chinese women in the mainland United States invariably were prostitutes. The halting of immigration made it impossible for the wives or families of these male laborers to join them. Thus, these single Chinese male workers were condemned to an enforced existence as a bachelor society, unable to find love and to procreate. It was tantamount to genocide. Consequently, the Chinese population in the United States severely declined from 1890 until the mid-1960s.

The ghettoization of the Chinese, from a rural/farming-based existence, to Chinatown urban, isolated communities, led to the formation of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant and laundry trade employment in which the Chinese would not find themselves in competition with hostile white labor. The Chinese and other Asian laborers were effectively denied proletarization; confined to marginal small business economic activity, dispersed to West Coast cities such as San Francisco (which were not industrial centers). Since their days as workers on the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese have tried their hand at every possible kind of work, only to be scapegoated and targeted by hostile white labor. They were eventually excluded from virtually all forms of economic activity except for a small handful of occupations. By World War II, African Americans, however, had become a significant presence in key industries and unions.

As noted earlier, merchants were one of the classes of Asian immigrants who were not excluded. Trade between Asia and the United States made for the presence of a merchant, entrepreneurial class in the various Asian communities scattered across America. These merchants ran the social-political-economic life of these communities through clan-based merchant associations. The Asian continent was penetrated by European colonization to varying extents (from total colonization as in the case of India to total independence as in Japan, which made for Japan undisturbed development into an independent industrial capitalist power by the 20th century whereas most of the non-European world had its economic course of history dominated and disrupted by the West). Africa, in contrast, was thoroughly colonized; its very borders redrawn and parceled out to European powers. Asian merchants, one the one hand, serviced a unique Asian American market in these ghetto, urban, isolated communities (the demand for Asian foods and other cultural-based products, sharing a common language); on the other hand, import-export trade influenced relations with the mainstream of American economic and political life; e.g., the silk trade was big business until the development of nylon.

African Americans had no African merchant class that maintained a distinctive connection to Africa. Both African Americans and Asian Americans have been greatly influenced by the geo-political changes in Africa and Asia, respectively. Malcolm X so forcefully made the connection:

“There was a time in this country when they used to use the _expression about Chinese, 'he doesn't have a Chinaman's chance.' You don't hear that saying nowadays. Just as a strong China has produced a respected Chinaman, a strong Africa will produce a respected Black man anywhere that Black man goes on this earth.”(Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, Pathfinder Press, 1970, p. 136.)

Middle class Asian Americans grew in part due to the influx of merchants and educated classes. African American mobility was largely a result of unionism and industrial urban concentration.

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