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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 163-190

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Pan-Ethnicity and Community Organizing: Asian Americans United's Campaign Against Anti-Asian Violence 1

Scott Kurashige

Rooted in the radical politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, pan-ethnic Asian American identity first emerged from within the Asian American movement. Seeking to transcend the ethnic divisions that had characterized prior decades, activists of the movement generation forged a new "Asian American" consciousness by linking the experiences of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Korean Americans. In order to build such bridges, two key historical and ideological connections were stressed: (1) a shared resistance to Western imperialism, inspired by anti-colonial revolutions in Viet Nam and China; and (2) a common struggle against American racism, in many ways modeled after black and Chicano revolutionary nationalism. 2

Originating in this same era, pan-ethnic community organizing was developed by Asian American activists seeking to extend movement organizing from the campus to the community by building "Serve the People" programs targeting sectors such as youth, seniors, and workers. Similar programs had been popularized by the Black Panther Party, which viewed them not as a band-aid response to crises, but an integral step towards exposing societal injustices and mobilizing mass political involvement. However, the changing climate of the late 1970s and 1980s led to a reframing of Asian American pan-ethnicity. Asian American identity came to be seen less as a political condition of structural oppression and more as a vehicle to promote the institutionalization of service and advocacy programs by linking the interests of Asian American professionals. 3 [End Page 163]

As pan-ethnicity became increasingly divorced from radicalism, the construction of anti-Asian violence as a social "problem" became an important vehicle for promoting what Yen Le Espiritu calls "reactive solidarity." 4 Through the production of "reactive solidarity," Asian Americans of diverse ethnic, national, class, gender, sexual orientation, ideological, and geographical backgrounds are united by the common burden that racist antagonists can't tell us apart. Indeed, last year's random, deadly attacks by white supremacists on Korean American student Won-Joon Yoon in Indiana and Filipino American postal worker Joseph Ileto in Los Angeles remind Asian Americans across the country that any one of us could be the target of racist violence.

While such instances of blatant racism, reminiscent of the murder of Vincent Chin, deserve to be fully publicized and brought to justice, my contention is that such "random" instances must be understood alongside more patterned forms of racist violence and oppression that strike Asian communities. For instance, the New York City-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a pioneer in its field of work, defines racist violence as "the repression, exclusion, and disciplining of people of color by the state in order to control labor in the interests of capital accumulation, as well as to consolidate a white, male, heteronormative citizenry." 5 Although "reactive solidarity" has been absolutely crucial to the construction of movements for justice in the legal arena, my investigation focuses on proactive efforts to draw together working-class Asian Americans from diverse backgrounds at the grassroots level through pan-ethnic community organizing against anti-Asian violence.

Is there a material basis for such organizing efforts? What are the strategies employed by grassroots community activists, and how do these strategies compare and contrast with those used by professionals, social service providers, politicians, and college students? Is class exclusively a site of cleavage among Asian Americans, or can the concerns of working-class Asian Americans unite the grassroots with class-conscious members of the intellectual strata? 6 Can organizing in response to anti-Asian violence be used to promote solidarity by addressing the underlying social, political, and economic roots of racist violence rather than just symptomatic outbreaks? [End Page 164]

Through a study of Asian Americans United (AAU), a pan-ethnic community-based organization in Philadelphia, this article begins to address questions of this nature. AAU's work has sought to transplant the movement-era model of community organizing into...


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