As migrants who were drawn to North America to serve as cheap labor, questions of money, economy, and class have been central to Asian American experiences from the mid-19th century, and Marx’s critique of capitalism has circulated almost as long among Asian Americans and anticolonial, nationalist movements in Asia. However, the long history in the communist movement of the subordination of racial and gender inequality to a narrowly defined class struggle alienated many in US racialized communities. Subsequent interventions in Marxist theory leading to non-economically determinist accounts of social transformation have resulted in a post-Marxist Asian American literary and cultural studies. This is a theory, though, that is largely devoid of specifically economic inquiry, and this has led to the marginalization of questions of class, labor, and whiteness that might complicate questions about resistance to domination and capitalist hegemony. These elisions are only exacerbated in the turn to global and transnational frames of analysis, since the complexities of local racial dynamics are often lost in more abstract narratives and conceptual paradigms. The history of Japanese internment provides a case study that exemplifies some of the difficulties of evaluating the multiple forces motivating racial discrimination.
Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism. The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Contemporary South Africa exhibits widespread and persistent poverty and an extraordinarily high level of inequality. Historically, poverty and inequality were forged by forms of racial subordination and discrimination shaped successively by slavery, by colonial settlement and conquest, and by a mining-based industrial revolution in the last quarter of the 19th century. The explosive growth of capitalism and urbanization in a colonial context shaped a set of institutions and social relations—the “native reserves,” migrant labor, pass laws, job reservation, urban segregation, and the like—which reached their most stringent form under apartheid legislation, from 1948 on. The political, social, and economic system of apartheid entrenched white wealth and privilege and intensified the poverty of black South Africans, particularly in rural areas. By the 1970s, the apartheid project began to flounder and the National Party government launched a series of concessions intended to stimulate the economy and to win the support of black South Africans. A historic transition during the late apartheid years saw a shift from labor shortages to a labor surplus, generating structural unemployment on a massive scale. This was a problem that the African National Congress (ANC), in power since 1994, has been unable to solve and which has been a major factor in the levels of poverty and inequality during the democratic era. The ANC has made some advances in combating poverty, especially through the rapid expansion of welfare in the form of pensions and social grants. This has reduced ultra-poverty or destitution. In addition, the provision of housing, water, sanitation, and electricity to black townships has seen significant growth in assets and services to the poor. Yet since 1994, inequality has increased. South Africa has become a more unequal society and not a more equal one. Two factors have caused inequality to deepen: increasingly concentrated income and wealth, and a sharp rise of inequality within the African population. The ANC continues to commit itself to “pro-poor” policies; yet its ability to reduce poverty, and especially to achieve greater equality, appears to be substantially compromised by its failure to reverse or reform the structure, characteristics, and growth path of the economy.