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  • The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power
  • Daryl J. Maeda (bio)
The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power, by Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2008. Xix + 209 pp. $32.95 paper. ISBN 0-7391-2720-9.

The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism offers a refreshing reassessment of the Asian American Movement's (AAM) length, breadth, and effects. The first comprehensive monograph on the movement published since William Wei's pioneering The Asian American Movement (1994), The Snake Dance rejects the dichotomization of the movement's participants into reformers and revolutionaries, extends its periodization to include the 1930s through the 1980s, and emphasizes to a greater extent its grassroots and labor-organizing work. Rather than simply describing the past, this account explicitly aims to inform current-day social justice activism by Asian Americans and others. The book begins substantively with a chapter arguing that social movement theory is the proper lens through which to consider the AAM. It then proceeds chronologically with a chapter that explores the movement's historical background and four chapters that chronicle the movement from the 1960s to the 1980s. The final chapter explains the evolution of the movement in the 1990s and connects past mobilizations to contemporary issues.

An interpretation of the AAM as a social movement driven by a vision of fundamental social change, yet encompassing multiple ideologies and strategies, constitutes The Snake Dance's most critical and necessary intervention. The authors consistently foreground the centrality of radicalism to the movement's politics and credit the contributions of radical individuals and organizations to its struggles. Rather than portraying the movement's history as a series of pitched internecine battles, the authors emphasize the multiplicity of actors and perspectives around issues such as opposition to the Viet Nam War and the Jung Sai strike (a contentious labor struggle in San Francisco)—though they also acknowledge the tensions inherent in such coalitions. Thus, they avoid analyzing the AAM in bifurcated terms and instead emphasize cooperation and commonality rather than conflict. This flexible approach allows the authors to recognize the shift in the 1980s toward electoral and mainstream politics—embodied in the campaign for redress and reparations and participation in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition—as the inauguration of a new phase of the movement, rather than an abandonment of prior radical commitments. Their explanation of the end of the AAM follows along the same general lines as Max Elbaum's discussion of the demise of the New Communist Movement in Revolution in the Air (2002), pointing to the rise of conservatism in the West and the collapse of Eastern-bloc and Asian Communism. However, they also emphasize that Asian American communities [End Page 250] were particularly impacted by dramatic demographic and class changes wrought by post-1965 immigration.

Authors Liu, Geron, and Lai all participated in the AAM, but rather than operating simply from their own experiences, they declare their desire to include a diversity of perspectives. That the introduction begins with Asian American parents in Boston demanding protection for their children subjected to mandatory school busing is indicative of the authors' commitment to broadening the scope of their analysis beyond the usual geographical suspects of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and New York City. Indeed, one of their major contributions is to incorporate Asian American activism in Boston, Seattle, and, to a lesser extent, Hawaii.

One of the book's most promising features is its claim to use social movement theory to analyze the AAM. The primary perspective that it employs is the resource mobilization model. The best example of how social movement theory can provide useful insights appears when the authors correctly assert that in contrast to the African American civil rights movement, the "Asian American Movement had virtually no outside economic or political support or strong community institutional support" (49). This explains why the AAM initially drew upon college and university campus resources, as well as Great Society programs, to build its own organizations and institutions. However, the book could apply social movement theory to even greater effect. For example, the authors resist interpreting the AAM in...