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  • Who Studies the Asian American Movement?A Historiographical Analysis
  • Diane C. Fujino (bio)

The Sixties are a Stretched-Out Decade synonymous with political protest. Yet Asian American activism barely registers on any political radar for a number of reasons, including being conspicuously understudied. Here, I seek to develop, for the first time, a historiography of the Asian American Movement (AAM).1 The study focuses on grassroots and non-institutionalized discourses and practices from the late 1960s, when longstanding resistance by Asian Americans became characterized as a "social movement,"2 to the decline of the AAM in the late 1970s.

My analysis generates four periods of study. The first (late 1960s to mid-1970s) was dominated by activists and activist-scholars producing knowledge in the zenith of the AAM. The second (late 1970s to late 1980s) represented a vacuum in AAM research. The third (late 1980s to late 1990s) saw a slow upsurge in AAM scholarship and a greater inclusion of scholarly works and civil rights frameworks. The fourth (2000 to present) can be seen as the "coming of age"—the adolescence, but not full maturity—of AAM scholarship, with the greatest number of scholarly works, a re-emphasis on the radical roots of the AAM, and attention to Steven Lawson's "interactive model" that calls for connecting local and national, social and political issues.3

Unlike historiographies of established fields that focus on books, my analysis also includes journal articles, book chapters, Ph.D. dissertations, [End Page 127] and Masters' theses.4 Three types of works are excluded. First, based on conventional definitions of social movements, this article does not explore participation in establishment politics, including the electoral arena.5 Second, it is beyond the scope of this essay to include the rich and varied novels, poetry, films, music, and other cultural productions created within and, in turn, generative of the AAM. Third, as is common with historiographies, this article does not analyze primary-source materials, including the many vibrant AAM newspapers.6

Five areas of struggle were critical to the 1960s–1970s AAM. First, Asian Americans of diverse ages helped to transform the Antiwar Movement from its emphasis on saving American lives to exposing racism, sexism, and capitalism at home and abroad. Activists linked the U.S. war in Vietnam to critiques of U.S. imperialism and militarism in Cambodia, Hiroshima, Okinawa, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Second, given the predominance of youth in the AAM, it is not surprising that educational transformation, particularly establishing ethnic studies, captured their imagination. More than simply including marginalized groups on campus and in the curriculum, activists contested the very structures and purpose of the educational system and redirected learning toward community service rather than self- or corporate interests. San Francisco State College's five-month strike that birthed ethnic studies remains the longest student strike in U.S. history. Third, "serve the people" programs and connections to the community, particularly working-class communities, became central guiding principles of the AAM. Activists developed programs to meet basic human rights, including the provision of housing, jobs, healthcare, and education. Fourth, labor struggles were integral to the AAM, not only because of the working-class location of many Asian Americans in that period and historically, but also because of the influence of Marxist theory, which identifies capitalism as the primary source of oppression and class struggle as key to liberation. Fifth, the AAM originated a new political and pan-Asian identity and a new vocabulary, creating the very term, "Asian American," to signify a common experience with racism and a shedding of the passivity associated with the "Oriental."7 [End Page 128]

Mainstream Social Movement Literature

Mainstream social movement scholarship, primarily in the fields of sociology, political science, and history, has produced a voluminous literature on the 1960s–1970s social movements.8 Yet there has been scant attention paid to the study of the AAM, with a few exceptions.9 Two frameworks—the logic governing U.S. race relations and the tendency towards liberalism—help to explain this erasure of memory in relation to Asian American resistance. First, two mainstream newsmagazines popularized the image of Asian Americans as the "model minority" in 1966, the same...