How the fight against displacement calls for New York City’s Asian immigrant communities to defect from the “model minority” narrative.
August 23, 2017
When NYU sophomore Sam Kim attended a rally outside Manhattan’s City Hall in March, he didn’t think that he would be ushered into the spotlight. Kim had learned of the rally through the local housing organization CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), which called on New Yorkers to oppose President Trump’s proposed $6.2 billion cut to the 2018 budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This cut would dramatically reduce federal funding for New York City public housing, which currently provides rent-subsidized homes to 600,000 New Yorkers.
Along the City Hall steps, Kim and two fellow student organizers joined a rare gathering of tenants from otherwise disparate peripheries of the city. Asian immigrants from Chinatown and Queens stood alongside Black and Latino residents of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Unlike many of the high-profile demonstrations that had taken place since Trump’s inauguration, the crowd here was older, more working-class, and majority non-white.
Toward the middle of the rally, City Council Member and Housing Committee Chair Jumaane Williams walked up to the podium and, before launching into his speech, turned to point out Kim’s sign in the crowd. It bore the message: “Tenant Power, F*ck Trump Tower” in brightly colored letters. “C’mon down, c’mon down!” Williams waved Kim toward the podium amidst appreciative laughter and cheers. Kim suddenly found himself at the fore of the rally, facing the cameras alongside the Councilman as he gave his speech.
Later, even Kim was astonished by the unusual optics of this brief, spontaneous moment of solidarity between a Korean American student and a Black councilman and housing justice advocate. “Someone showed me a picture, and it looked kind of odd,” he said. “It’s not something you usually see.” Williams’s generous gesture left an impression on Kim: “Once I saw it from a third person’s view of what I looked like standing there, it kind of dawned on me that wow, that gesture means a lot actually. It means more than him asking me to come down because I had a funny sign.”
In its 1960s file on the legendary activist-philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, the FBI mistakenly described her as “Afro-Chinese.” Grace was born to Chinese immigrant parents. She grew up in 1920s New York, in a house that her father had to purchase in the name of an Irish contractor, due to restrictive covenants that barred non-whites from land ownership. After receiving her PhD in philosophy in 1940, Grace had trouble finding housing near her menial job in Chicago. She went door to door, but no one rented to “Orientals.” Her only option was a damp basement teeming with rats.
One day, Grace encountered a group of Chicago residents protesting rat-infested housing. “That brought me in contact with the Black community for the first time,” she recounts in the 2014 documentary American Revolutionary. Soon after, Grace joined them as a tenant organizer. By the time she was labeled “Afro-Chinese” by the US government, Grace had become a leading activist in the Black Power movement in Detroit. Apparently those at the FBI could conceive of no other explanation for why a Chinese-American woman would identify so profoundly with the struggle for Black liberation.
Today, Afro-Asian solidarity in any substantive form remains an elusive, almost unimaginable thing in mainstream politics, even in a city as diverse as New York. Much as Grace Lee Boggs discovered in the 1940s, housing organizing still serves as one of the few entryways into such solidarity, perhaps because it provides a concrete basis for shared struggle. “Working with the South Side Tenants Organization was an eye opener for me,” Grace writes in her autobiography Living for Change (1998). “For the first time I was talking with people in the black community, getting a sense of what segregation and discrimination meant in people’s lives, learning how to organize protest demonstrations and meetings.”
Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of homes, major American cities today remain segregated along color lines. According to a 2012 analysis by NYU’s Furman Center, nearly half of New York City neighborhoods are dominated by a single racial or ethnic group, with the majority-white neighborhoods earning an average annual household income of $124,470—more than twice that of majority-Black, -Latino, and -Asian neighborhoods. Majority-white areas are also shown to have the highest educational attainment and home ownership rate in the city.
Housing justice work in New York involves coming face-to-face with the ugly schism between the city’s professed pluralism, and the material reality of its racial caste system. For those who advocate specifically for low-income Asians, it also means engaging with an Asian America that has existed largely in the shadows.
The Center for Economic Opportunity reports that in 2014, the poverty rate among Asians in New York reached 26.6 percent, the highest of any ethnic group in the city. This kind of statistic is irreconcilable with the standard model minority narrative, which has since the mid-1960s insisted that Asians are the most successful and upwardly mobile group in the country. As one 1971 Newsweek headline put it, Asians have been able to “outwhite the whites,” and therefore prove America to be a true meritocracy.
For over three decades, the housing justice and movement building organization CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) has served New Yorkers who do not exist within this sunny version of Asian America: low-wage laborers, service workers, non-English speakers, public housing residents. In addition to institutional invisibility, low-income Asians also face particular challenges such as language barriers, cultural and social isolation, and elderly status that render them vulnerable to exploitation and neglect by landlords.
Based in a modest office at the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown, CAAAV does outreach in both its own neighborhood and the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, the largest public housing development in the country. In addition to assisting its tenant base—mostly low-income Chinese, Korean, and Bengali speaking immigrants—with individual legal and bureaucratic issues, CAAAV also connects them to broader, multiracial housing justice coalitions in the city.
Naved Husain, a lead organizer at CAAAV who works primarily with Bengali tenants in Queensbridge, emphasized that in practical terms, the fate of his tenants is closely intertwined with that of other people of color. As New York City public housing (NYCHA) is made up of 90 percent Black and Latino residents, the only way for Asians to organize effectively against the looming threat of displacement is to join forces with their non-white neighbors.
The threat looming over NYCHA in general, and Queensbridge in particular, is manifold. Trump’s proposed budget cut for 2018 would exacerbate NYCHA’s existing infrastructure crisis, with its current $17 billion backlog in repairs, and leave more broken elevators, leaky roofs, and dysfunctional boilers unattended. It could also lead to potential rent hikes and time limits for occupancy. The city’s proposed rezoning of Long Island City and the privatization of NYCHA land are more gradual, but just as deadly: both would bring in private developments that drive up living costs and price out local social and cultural institutions integral to the fabric of the community.
On the most concrete level, fighting these changes involves getting Asian tenants, many of whom are first-generation seniors with limited English proficiency, into the same organizing spaces as other NYCHA residents. One such space is the Justice for All Coalition, a multiracial group of Long Island City and Astoria residents who have been organizing against the gentrification and rezoning of their neighborhood.
On a deeper, more existential level, the fight against displacement calls for Asians to defect from the narrative that they are, or could be, the “model minority.” In tenant meetings, CAAAV organizers try to steer members away from the logic of the “good versus bad minority,” which not only pits Asians against Black and Latino communities, but also East Asians against Southeast Asians, Indian Americans against Bangladeshi Americans, and second-generation against first-generation immigrants.
“What we try to get our tenants to understand is that we’re all in the same boat. None of us has anything,” Husain explained. “I find a lot of people’s tensions come from that—even within our own groups, Bengalis may not want to help other Bengalis because they think, ‘Well that’s less resources for me.’ And this happens across groups. So we try to get them to understand that, yes, we come from different backgrounds and different struggles, but when it comes to housing, the only way we can fight is if we do it together.”
This message seems to have resonated with at least some Asian public housing residents, to whom activism might have otherwise remained an abstraction. A month after the first rally against Trump’s housing cut, another demonstration took place outside the regional HUD office in downtown Manhattan. This time, turning out alongside CAAAV organizers was Mr. Zhu, a retired garment worker and first-generation Chinese immigrant. He has lived in Queensbridge for 18 years, and never before attended a housing justice rally.
As his English was limited, Mr. Zhu was accompanied by CAAAV’s Roxy Chang, an organizer of Queensbridge Chinese tenants, who gave periodic updates in Mandarin. Zhu looked a bit out of place, as the only elderly Chinese man in the crowd, but seemed glad to be there.
“I wanted to come and see, because when it comes to housing, this concerns us Chinese tenants too, ” Mr. Zhu said in Mandarin, when I asked why he had come. “Before, we never knew about these kinds of events. No one told us. Now CAAAV provides this service to help us get organized, to come out and participate. When they decide to raise our rent, or cut our services, it doesn’t just apply to one household, but to all of us, and so all of us should be concerned.”
When I pointed out that he was the only Chinese NYCHA tenant in attendance, Mr. Zhu heaved a sigh. “From my experience, we Chinese people are not used to caring about others. If we see each other we don’t even say hi. We’re too reclusive and private, always worried about others finding out about our problems. Living in suspicion and fear of others.” All around us, demonstrators began chants of “no more cuts! No more cuts!” and “we have the power! We have the power!”
Mr. Zhu went on: “This aspect of Chinese people should change in the future, not only in the issue of housing but in all issues. We shouldn’t always linger behind everyone else, not taking a position. Sometimes I try to tell other Chinese tenants about various organized actions, and they tell me, ‘don’t get involved,’ in the end always leaving it up to others to act. If others win rights, then they benefit along with everyone else, but if others get in trouble, they pretend like they have nothing to do with it.”
With these observations, Mr. Zhu unknowingly touched on a broader tendency within Asian American history: we have often been the silent beneficiaries of the struggles of others—specifically, African Americans. Examples of this can be found in the long battle against segregated housing. In 1948, race-restrictive housing covenants finally lost their power after a Black family fought to keep their home—and succeeded—in the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer. The covenant in this case, eventually ruled to be unenforceable, had forbidden sale of the Shelleys’ house to anyone of the “Negro or Mongolian race”. Here “Mongolian” was being used as a dated anthropological term for Asian.
When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it was under similar pressure from Black protesters, who organized nationwide in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. As a result, when a new wave of Asian immigrants arrived after the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted national-origins quotas (another legislative feat made possible by the Black struggle for racial equality), they faced less overt discrimination in the housing market.
But even while speaking out, Mr. Zhu seemed ready to take his neighbors’ advice, and retreat at a moment’s notice. When a local news reporter asked if he’d like to be included in a group photo with the CAAAV organizers, Mr. Zhu quietly declined. He admitted to me that he had voted for Trump—”I thought he spoke the truth about some things, because he’s not a politician, he’s a businessman. He said he wanted to improve America, and that’s as it should be.” In so doing, Mr. Zhu joined the 22 percent of first-generation Asian immigrants who voted for Trump, perhaps thinking that they would be exempt from Trump’s anti-immigrant measures, and could somehow gain entry to whiteness by supporting the border wall, the Muslim ban, and even, as the administration recently recommended, the drastic reduction of immigration overall.
Faced now with the prospect of massive housing cuts, Mr. Zhu saw things differently. “We never had a problem before Trump,” he observed. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why does he want to cut the housing of poor people? Is he actually just serving the rich?” When I mentioned I might quote him in my article, Mr. Zhu seemed again to retreat: “I was just making casual observations,” he replied quickly. “A lot of what I said may not have much basis. I was just speaking nonsense.” Still, he told me he plans to continue organizing with other NYCHA tenants and the Justice for All Coalition: “I don’t know if it will make a difference. I haven’t been connected to CAAAV for very long. There was so much we didn’t know before, that we know now—housing policies, NYCHA funding—no one ever told us, and we didn’t know.”
If segregation erects invisible barriers between bodies in space, then housing justice organizing works as a kind of momentary de-segregation. It ushers unlikely bodies into spaces of solidarity, and throws into view how wondrously different the world could look when the barriers are lifted, however briefly.
“I actually want to emphasize,” said CAAAV organizer Naved Husain, “from what I’ve seen in the last two years, what we’re trying to do right now in Queensbridge and Justice for All, I don’t see too many other groups doing that—bringing in Asian tenants, African-American tenants, Latino tenants, in the same room. Outside the housing movement, activists of all backgrounds are meeting with each other, which is great, but they don’t necessarily have a base of people. We have tenants that we continue to work with, and our job is to introduce them to these things and get them in these spaces together.”
And these interracial alliances, forged in the concrete struggle for fair housing, can extend beyond housing itself. When tension mounted between Chinese and Black communities last year over the trial of NYPD officer Peter Liang, who fatally shot the unarmed 28-year-old African American Akai Gurley, it was CAAAV that led the local Asian American opposition against Chinese groups who called for Liang to be spared criminal conviction. After the shooting in 2014, members of CAAAV protested police brutality alongside Gurley’s family, and when Liang received no jail time last year, CAAAV executive director Cathy Dang appeared on Democracy Now! to denounce the decision, and implore Asian Americans to oppose white supremacy rather than clamor for white privilege.
In this way, CAAAV’s work seems to invoke the original sense of the term “Asian American,” now largely forgotten, when it first emerged in the late 1960s as a radical political identity. In Serve the People, historian and curator Karen Ishizuka writes movingly about this golden period of Asian American activism when, galvanized by the Black Power movement at home and the Vietnam War abroad, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and other previously disparate ethnic groups came together for the first time in organized opposition against white supremacy and American imperialism.
First popularized by the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) at UC Berkeley in 1968, the term “Asian American” captured a sense of belonging for Asians that for the first time did not involve “outwhiting the whites.” This new identifier also constituted a rejection of the “model minority” label, adopted by mainstream white publications only a few years prior, which highlighted Asian “assimilation” in order to delegitimize Black civil disobedience and self-determination. The newly identified “Asian Americans” were not interested in assimilating into white society, and refused to be pitted against Black communities. In a 1969 newsletter, the AAPA declared:
We Asian Americans realize that America was
always and still is a White Racist Society…
We Asian Americans refuse to cooperate with the
White Racism in this society…
We Asian Americans support all oppressed peoples…
In its original context, “Asian American” therefore connoted a sense of empathy and kinship with other people of color. This was borne out, for example, by the five-month-long Third World Liberation Front strike at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1969, the longest campus strike in US history, during which an alliance of Asian, Black, Latino, and Native American students successfully fought for the creation of SFSU’s iconic College of Ethnic Studies—the first and only school of its kind in the country today.
While “Asian American” in its original sense was expansive, opening up relations between previously disconnected individuals and groups, the model minority narrative that persists today divides and isolates. Like segregation, it imposes on those who live within its bounds an anemic sense of the world, a stunted capacity for empathy, and a tendency towards amnesia.
This is the same amnesia exemplified by Trump’s Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who, during his first official address in March, referred to slaves as “immigrants” who came to America because it was “the land of dreams and opportunity.” At the heart of this astonishing forgetfulness is the deluded insistence that one’s fate is dictated solely by personal choice and individual “gift.” This insistence runs throughout Carson’s autobiography Gifted Hands, which traces an oddly apolitical and ahistorical narrative, made up of anecdotal lessons, personal triumphs, and divine miracles.
In a May interview, Carson reiterated his belief that the systemic has no bearing on the individual: “I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you could give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”
This line of reasoning is hauntingly familiar to Asian Americans, with its depoliticizing language of individual ability and failure to acknowledge systemic inequality. It is the same kind of thinking Chinese American “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua espouses in her last book, The Triple Package (2014). Chua attributes the success of certain ethnic groups in America to cultural and psychological traits such as “superiority complex” and “impulse control,” without taking into account larger political and historical forces.
In the end, “gifted hands” and “model minority” are different versions of the same lie: ours is a country of pure meritocracy; those who succeed deserve their success; those who fail deserve their failure. It is a seductive delusion, one that allows minorities who have “made it” to rest easy in the belief that we are exceptional, rather than reflect on the transformative struggles that made our “exceptionalism” possible; it is a delusion that invites us to bypass the thorny issue of race, and exist as free-floating, disembodied pairs of “gifted hands.” But with each individual escape into the seemingly post-racial realm of the “gifted,” racism as a systemic problem does not disappear.
Toward the end of our interview in the CAAAV office, Husain observed how much his city has changed over the years: “as someone who’s lived here in multiple stages of my life—I’ve moved out and come back—New York has changed a lot. It’s less diverse now than when I was growing up. Definitely a lot of lower income, black and brown people, including Asians from Chinatown, are moving.”
I asked how he imagines the city will look in ten years. “Unless we have a significant victory on this anti-gentrification thing, the city’s going to look white,” Husain said simply. “It’s going to look extremely white. And the ideal situation for them is that high-income people—mostly white, some minority—will live in prestigious neighborhoods, keeping a reserve labor of immigrants in the inner boroughs—Jamaica Queens, parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and they will work for the rich people and that’s how the city will be.”
I wondered about that demographic of high-income minorities, dispersed among a sea of white, who would get to inhabit the coveted heart of the city. The ones who grow up dreaming they are exceptions among exceptions. It seems now a paltry, lonely dream, a dream of escaping one kind of poverty only to enter another. A dream of comfortable material existence that nevertheless means discomfort in one’s own skin. A dream of performing the daily contortions of a yellow, black, or brown body in spaces shaped by white standards of truth and beauty.
In her final work, The Next American Revolution, Grace Lee Boggs reflects in a passage on Marx’s materialism: “real poverty is not just the lack of food, shelter, and clothing. Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers to relate to other human beings.”
This work towards expansive and transformative human relations cannot be done with a singular pair of gifted hands, but rather a multitude of hands, outstretched across the chasm of individual dreams.