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Excerpted From: Kevin Shawn Hsu, Empowerment, Discrimination, and the Facade of Leadership: Asian American Political Elites' Failed Assimilationist Strategy, 14 Asian American Law Journal 85 (May, 2007) (Student Notes and Comments) (191 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KevinShawnHsuOn November 8, 2006, the day after the midterm Congressional elections, the 2008 presidential campaign season officially began. The media began to tell and will continue to retell predetermined stories regarding the role of Black Americans as core to the Democratic Party, the rising political power of Latino voters, or the importance of certain demographics of White voters. The story that likely will not appear on the front page of the New York Times or as CNN Headline News' top story of the hour is the political force of Asian Americans. Though Asian Americans are the second-fastest growing racialized population in the United States, they are not yet a key demographic in United States elections. To the contrary, the most recent foray into national politics by Asian Americans trying to claim electoral influence has been described as a “scandal,” and one can question whether or not the Asian American electorate is seen as little more than as a pariah.

This situation can be blamed on leadership failures within the community. The perceived leadership, Asian American elites, has adopted an assimilationist discourse. This leads to two problems: first, it undermines the empowerment value of pan-ethnic Asian American identity, leaving Asian American communities underserved; second, it leaves all Asian Americans vulnerable to recurring and predictable discrimination. For the purposes of this paper, the “elites” of the Asian American community are individuals who are perceived to legitimately claim to represent or lead the community. This perception may be satisfied either internally or externally; though claims to leadership may be advanced through significant community recognition, elite status may also be ascribed to individuals or groups by influential or powerful outsiders. Though this definition may encompass more than one group of Asian American leaders who purport to represent the community, the Asian American elites described in this paper are entrepreneurially-minded, business-oriented individuals who took up the mantle of leadership after the dissolution of the grassroots, community-centric Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I argue that in the case of Asian American elites, perceptions of leadership have been conferred initially by external recognition, but that the failure of Asian American community activists--primarily those former Asian American Movement veterans inhabiting influential pulpits within academia--to critique the elites as possessing no more than a façade of representative value makes these activists complicit in the elites' mistakes. By legitimizing Asian American elites, these veterans of the Asian American Movement have betrayed not only their legacy of pan-ethnic unity, but also the motto of the Movement to “serve the people.” Rather than legitimizing the façade of leadership and assimilationist discourse adopted by the elites, those concerned with Asian American empowerment should engage in issue-centric mobilization, a process wherein campaigns around “bread-and-butter” issues affecting Asian American communities are utilized to develop trust, relationships, and a stronger pan-ethnic coalition.

In Part II, this paper will describe how Asian American identity was shaped, first by external ascription and then through community self-definition. The development and history of Asian American identity explain the rise of the elites, and also serve as a backdrop against which the damage they have done to the goal of community empowerment can be measured. Elite adoption of an assimilationist discourse is analyzed, and shown to subject the Asian American community to both material harm and threats of violence.

In Part III, this paper examines three routes to empowerment taken by other “outsider” groups and determines that frameworks designed by and for other groups do not provide a viable empowerment blueprint for Asian Americans. Instead, this paper proposes a program of issue-centric mobilization that addresses the specific characteristics of Asian American populations.

Finally, in Part IV, this paper concludes that issue-centric mobilization can be built upon the work of Asian American legal service organizations, but that true Asian American leadership must come from the communities impacted directly by the issues that mobilization campaigns address.

[. . .]

“Serve the people,” the motto of the Movement, was to be applied not just in the most obvious way of providing social services where they were needed, but also acted as a call to action for the civil rights and dignity of all Asian Americans. The elites have not heeded this call, instead opting to serve their own perceived interests. There are some organizations, however, which appear to be following in the tradition of the Movement. Providers of direct legal services and civil rights legal outfits appear to be taking the first steps towards a true leadership; organizations like the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, although having participated in the 1996 strategy, include among its affiliates direct service groups such as the Asian Law Caucus, a hopeful sign that national advocates might be held accountable to those on the ground. Although they are not the only groups capable of issue-centric mobilization, direct service organizations, given their daily contact with members of underserved communities, are more likely to prove responsive to actual community needs, rather than those perceived from on high.

In Los Angeles, as just one example of many dedicated organizations, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) was created to provide a hybrid of legal services, education, and civil rights support and has expanded to become a center of Asian American activism in Southern California. In determining their goals, APALC actively surveys the community, as they did in designing their Legal Services component. Thus, for sixteen years, the Legal Services Unit has served clients in domestic violence, wrongful eviction, consumer fraud, health care decision, debtor-creditor dispute, immigration, government benefit, and other poverty law- related cases. Moreover, APALC has been dynamic, participating in redistricting and electoral litigation and education, as well as creating projects targeted towards the most underserved of Asian Americans, such as trafficking victims and undocumented migrant workers. In 1999, for example, APALC's Worker's Rights Unit was lead counsel for one hundred Thai and Latino garment workers subjected to sweatshop, slavery-like conditions, winning over $4 million in settlements; rather than rest on its laurels, however, APALC has recognized the need to accompany such litigation with public education and outreach efforts. Issue-oriented, APALC has not shied away from working in coalition with other groups, as they did in 2003 to 2004, working with other communities of color in opposing California's Proposition 54, which sought to impose the “color-blind” mythology forcefully on state agencies in a way that would have resulted in massive public health crises and the invisibility of continued racism and discrimination against Asian Americans and other people of color. Organizations like APALC, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco, and the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund in New York, are doing the incremental community development work that creates trust in the Asian American pan-ethnic identity. In both the high-publicity victories, such as the successful suit on behalf of abused workers, and the everyday aid, such as the crucial legal assistance provided to countless pro bono clients, these efforts are in many ways a model of what issue-centric mobilization work might look like.

One major difference between this work and issue-centric mobilization is that this work is professional, rather than developmental. The danger of relying solely on civil rights and legal services organizations for leadership is that these types of interactions are provider-based; that is, these organizations provide individuals services and legal assistance, rather than tools of empowerment for communities. There exists a danger in such power relations when applied to mobilization efforts. A study twenty years ago found that while legal service attorneys are more likely than business lawyers to espouse egalitarian political views, they had “substantially less egalitarian relationships with their own clients than do the business lawyers,” viewing themselves as more educated and thus more qualified to make decisions than the client. Bill Ong Hing describes a more ideal lawyer-community relationship in the context of a case where Japanese American community groups fought the San Francisco Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) for the rights to a building the YWCA had held in trust for Japanese immigrants restricted from ownership first by the Alien Land Laws and then by World War II internment. Attorneys participating in a community struggle should allow the community leaders to “call the shots” and respect the wishes of their clients; attorneys best serve as effective allies by supplying media savvy, government contacts, and contacts with other community allies. In the words of community lawyering guru Gerald López,

[L]awyers must know how to work with (not just on behalf of). . . . They must understand how to educate those with whom they work, particularly about law and professional lawyering, and, at the same time, they must open themselves up to being educated by all those with whom they come into contact, particularly about the traditions and experiences of life on the bottom and at the margins. The ideal lawyers for assisting in issue-centric mobilization are those who “lawyer against subordination.” It is feasible that in some situations lawyers may develop into community leaders; for example, in the type of case described by Hing, wherein lawyers are themselves members of the affected community in a way that transcends mere shared racialization. However, all professionals must recognize the dangers in failing to acknowledge that true leadership comes from those directly affected by an issue.

To tie direct service contributions into a framework of issue-centric mobilization, and to prevent lawyers at these organizations from devolving into no more than a slightly better variation on the present-day Asian American elite, communities concerned with particular social justice issues must lead themselves. Issue-centric mobilization requires community-based leadership composed of those who are directly affected by the situation addressed in the campaign, in addition to institutional expertise and resources from strategically-minded organizations or attorneys. Though there is a role for national advocates as those who primarily support and supplement the efforts of local leaders, the true Asian American elite will be representative individuals who will arise organically with the opportunity to mobilize their community for an issue of social justice.

An important foil to any model of Asian American empowerment is the mythology of American individualism and meritocracy that stems from assimilationist discourse. Whether it is necessary to develop a pan-ethnic Asian American identity as sought by the Movement, which operates within a political ideology dedicated to combating social injustice depends on whether a constituency or community exists for the aggregate efforts of issue-centric mobilization. It would appear from the above discussion regarding the continuing and pervasive discrimination and racialization of Asian American populations that a community of interest exists, regardless of whether various segments of the group identify with the problems of the others. The substantive need for community empowerment did not simply vanish in the 1980s and 1990s; though it is possible that the elite “leadership” downplayed the need for progressive political projects within the community, that need has continued, as evidenced by the state of Asian American communities as discussed in this article. While the issues facing the community have changed with the dramatic demographic shifts, the underlying understanding of Movement activists remains: that pan-ethnic Asian American identity is foremost a tool for achieving social justice through empowerment. Issue-centric mobilization allows for communities to take the lead in their own empowerment while also creating an organic identity built upon the understanding that success in ending discrimination and injustice will rely on the power of shared interests.

J.D., 2007, Georgetown University Law Center; B.A., 2004, University of California, San Diego.

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