Against the imperial incorporation of Asian Americans

Against the imperial incorporation of Asian Americans
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Record Group 306. Records of the United States Information Agency, 1900-2003

In this blog, Harleen Kaur and Victoria Tran share the process behind a recent Sociology Compass publication that analyzes and proposes alternatives to current sociological frameworks for the study of Asian Americans.

Our collaboration began, as many pandemics do, in a private Zoom chat. Both students in UCLA’s sociology doctoral program and enrolled in Professor Karida Brown’s inaugural Du Boisian sociology course, we quickly found common ground in applying Du Boisian methodologies and theories to our research on Asian American subject formation. Specifically, our quick back-and-forth began after reading Du Bois’ notes in his 1920 Dark Water: Voices from the Veilabout the indoctrination of a migrant going to the US:

“[America] teach their immigrants to despise “n*****” from the day they land, and they carry and send news to the drowned classes in the homelands (51).

This stark but relevant commentary on the globalization of the racial contract allowed us to contextualize our shared interest in identifying the strategic orientation of Asian American communities to the racism of white supremacy. in 2020 in the fall, when we delve into Du Bois’ work, Asian Americans were already increasingly at the center of mass violence. Earlier that year in 2020 there was a shooting at an Atlanta spa center where East Asian women were the main victims, and in 2020. there was broader anti-Asian sentiment associated with the pandemic. Soon after in 2021 there was a shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, which employs mostly Sikh Punjabis. and so were half the dead. Conflict within Asian American community organizations over new hate crime laws pitted grassroots organizers against larger-budget civil rights nonprofits; the former points to the inevitable harm these laws will have on black and brown communities, and the latter calls for increased representation in the US police and military to ensure greater safety and belonging for Asian American communities.

Meanwhile, while working on the relevant dissertations, we tried to find sociological literature that would not limit the subject education of our community interlocutors. In our coursework, from race and ethnicity to migration, using current Asian American sociological frameworks, we have repeatedly encountered one clear assumption: sociologists’ assumption that inclusion is to the natural final destination of migration. Instead of analyzing the pro-state politics that developed through centuries of imperialism in countries of origin and forced assimilation through white supremacy incorporation, incorporation was unproblematically seen as the unique culmination of settlement in the United States. At the same time, exchanging anecdotes from our fieldwork, we soon realized that our research and education communities (Vietnamese and Sikh Punjabi) had a strikingly similar political and social connection to service in the US military as a primary tactic of US belonging.

Since the first large wave of Asian migration to the United States two centuries ago, there have been several changes in how Asians have been imagined and envisioned themselves as part of the nation-state. Imports of indentured labor from China and South Asia increased in the 19th century, initially due to the need to quell slave revolts in the southeastern United States, and later to address rising labor costs after the United States legally abolished chattel slavery (a de facto practice that continued until at least 1865). In the 1800s and early 1900s, selective citizenship policies continually recast Asian subjectivity to support the racial capitalism and settler colonialism central to US development. No longer creating plantation-type work, Asian American labor in the westward expansion of the railroad created the economic, political, and social conditions for the expansion of US settler colonialism and the denial of indigenous sovereignty. As the United States continued its imperial expansion in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia through several world wars, military service also became a means of separating Asian Americans who were worthy of citizenship from those who were viewed with suspicion and imprisoned.

Such dual-trajectory subject formation might have continued had non-diasporic Asian students been drawn into the collective social and political upheaval of the mid-twentieth century in the United States. UC Berkeley graduates Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” in 1968. during student strikes over ethnic studies. Asian American later became a social category to group diasporic groups experiencing similar racialization and exclusion in the United States, although its accuracy has been questioned. However, the term became established nationally as an organizing mechanism against the US war in Vietnam. Although Asian American military allegiances initially allowed such communities to gain economic and social status at the expense of black and indigenous populations, Asian American activists of the 1960s forged pan-ethnic alliances and international sympathies, linking US imperialism abroad to their experiences of racial inequality at home. . However, this anti-imperial politics is not so evident in diasporic politics today. Contemporary US Sikh organizations favor the Sikh legacy of the British Imperial Service to advocate for inclusion in the US police and military. Second-generation Vietnamese Americans use the legacy of U.S. military service ancestors to justify their recruitment and support for the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. By incorporating such contemporary political and social connections, our paper challenges Asian Americans’ relationship with imperialism through military service to the extent that it has become a central locus of the relationship with the United States.

Aware of the pro-state sentiment in Asia that continues to manifest as a desire for increased military and policing despite the historical and current harm to these communities, we have been forced to intervene in sociological frameworks of Asian American-US relations that are failing. to contextualize long histories of Asian incorporation into the state. Based on frameworks of race and racism that emphasize such global, historical, and colonial dimensions of race relations, our article provides an anti-imperial theoretical framework for studies of the color line and global geopolitics. By reconceptualizing colonial histories alongside the formation of the modern subject, we problematize incorporation into the United States, particularly through the military apparatus, as a strategic response to racial and economic insecurity. As an alternative to current scholarship, we understand the selective inclusion of “good” immigrants as further strengthening the state’s imperial powers to extract and retain capital, rather than American benevolence. While existing debates take issue with a homogenized approach to the study of Asian American communities, or at best a homogenized subcommunity study, we complicate such approaches by using the bracket Asian (American) to indicate when we are discussing the process of becoming Asian American. a deliberate push against the universalized category of Asian American (discussed without parentheses) and a reclaiming of alternative subjectivities that might emerge in the process of Asian-to-US settlement.

The article provides an overview of existing Asian American sociological schemas and a new framework for “Asian (American) Counterinsurgency” by analyzing two international but US-based case studies: (1) Sikh political radicalization through the anti-colonial Ghadar Party and (2) US state efforts to link diasporic South Vietnamese identity with anti-communist politics. Through these case studies, we show how scholarly representations of Asian American subject formation legitimize imperialism as the sole natural producer of the relationship between the US and Asian American communities. For Sikh Punjabis living in the United States, British racial ideologies associated with a cultural predilection for military service facilitated contemporary engagement with US imperialism. For South Vietnamese refugees, the perception of the war as a benevolent intervention bound the diaspora community to the continued efforts of US imperialism, creating a culture of grateful refugees paying back taxes to the country that rescued them. In both cases, the US state’s policy of enlisting Asians through military service obscured the Asian (American) insurgency as a viable entity. Exploring US surveillance, imperialism and militarization through case studies also shows how important the active management of Asian (American) insurgencies has been to sustaining US imperialism.

Figure 1 Extinguishing the Asian (American) rebellion

Our system, extinguishing the Asian (American) rebellion [Figure 1], brings together WEB Du Bois, Joy James, and Frantz Fanon to explore how scholarly depictions of enslaved communities shift from insurgent affordances to essentially pro-state ones. Here are three questions to guide contemporary and future research into the possibilities of diverse Asian (American) subjectivities:

  1. How did colonial and imperial relations drive migration through WEB Du Bois?
  2. through Joy James, how does the state use violence as a mechanism for diaspora incorporation?; and
  3. through Frantz Fanon, how and why do certain members of the community cooperate with the state?

More importantly, it shows the role of the state through imperialism in encouraging the extinguishment of potential insurgent politics (whether extinguished as self-inflicted or state-induced). Finally, it shows how such a political transformation takes place through the nationalist bourgeoisie of the Asian (American) communities, which promotes the negotiation of a new relationship with the state. Without a critical analysis of the formation of the postcolonial subject, one can create a homogenized focus on nationalist bourgeois groups in the Asian (American) community who support colonial forms of domination to secure their own economic, political, and social benefits, as do many mainstream. sociology did. Instead, the sociological engagement of imperial-colonial studies allows us to better trace how the formation of subjects was shaped by the needs of empire and the conditions associated with the state’s incorporation of migrants. For Asian (American) subjects whose conditions of migration to imperial lands were determined by the economic and political needs of the state, an international analysis of racism explains contemporary modes of integration.

By relegating Asian (American) insurgents to sociological scholarship, we argue that Asian insurgency demonstrates the capacious possibilities for understanding the particularities of violence while acknowledging the shared experience of colonization. By incorporating postcolonial theory and world histories into the study of Asian diasporic groups, we can analyze how empire has shaped racism in ways that do not treat these relationships as natural, but are still important for understanding material realities and coalitional possibilities. Future scholarship can use the program “Quenching Asian (American) Insurgency” to highlight the role of the United States in adopting narratives of Asian (American) insurgency, such as portraying Japanese internment during World War II as an example of patriotic nationalism, while minimizing the role of Japanese Americans. to describe the resisters as an insurgent movement, or to analyze how Spanish and US imperial histories in the Philippines and Guam have shaped the illegible projects of racial and state incorporation of these diasporic communities. Recognizing that Asian devotion to the state has directly and indirectly legitimized the United States as an imperial power, we challenge future scholarship not to take these pro-state relations for granted and to more rigorously incorporate the Du Boisian global color line system created through the narratives of history. colonization and imperialism.

Kaur, H. and Tran, V. (2023). The Limits of Imperial Incorporation: Alternative Sociological Frameworks for the Study of Asian American Subjects. Compass of Sociology, e13069.


Harleen Kaur, Arizona State University, USA

Victoria Tran, University of California, USA

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