After arriving in New Jersey from India in 2006, Anjana Bhattacharya, my aunt, has often juggled multiple part-time jobs, usually working 80-85 hours a week at places like Dunkin’ Donuts or at a local liquor store.
“I knew I had to,” she said, “You have to pay the bills.”
According to the Center for American Progress, the wealth gap among Asians in the U.S. is the highest among all racial groups. This means that a segment of Asians living and working in the U.S. is struggling to make ends meet.
“A lot of folks are barely scraping by, and one misstep can really plunge them” — Jagga Singh.
“A lot of folks are barely scraping by, and one misstep can really plunge them,” said Jagga Singh, who grew up working-class and is currently an organizer in Queens on issues surrounding affordable housing in the borough.
However, as activists and academics on the Left strive to forge movements confronting the existing economic and political order, there is still a lack of understanding of where Asians in the U.S. fit in the struggle for economic justice. This piece seeks to access the relationship of class among Asian Americans as well as provide some critical lessons on building a radical Asian American politics that speaks to the issues of growing class inequity and injustice.
Asian America & Class Inequity
In 2016, the Center for American Progress published a report stating that the wealth gap among Asians in the U.S. was the highest compared to all other racial groups. Christian Weller, one of the report’s co-authors and professor at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, explained, “The primary lesson I would say is that the bottom, the lower end of Asian Americans tends to be in a more precarious situation than whites, have a lot less wealth, less income, higher poverty rates, and no health insurance.”
While some Asians earn more than some whites, there is a growing segment of Asians within the U.S. who are economically marginalized.
“To some degree, wealth inequality within the Asian American community reflects factors that are common to all groups,” Weller said, “A lot of people are stuck in low wage jobs where they don’t have much bargaining power. People can’t really save a lot of money now or they’re struggling on day-to-day basis so they won’t go to college or send their kids to college. And access to health insurance can pose enormous costs to people because if something goes wrong, you can lose thousands of dollars.”
“A lot of people are stuck in low wage jobs where they don’t have much bargaining power.” — Christian Weller
Based in New York City, where “more than one-quarter of Asian-Americans live in poverty”, organizations like Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) Organizing Asian Communities seek to empower working-class Asian residents around critical resources like affordable housing.
“We organize individual buildings and coalitions of buildings around systemic issues, lack of heat or hot water, harassment from the landlord, unsafe construction, systemic evictions,” Melanie Wang, a lead organizer explained.
New York City has become an incredibly difficult place for working-class residents to live and work. Neighborhoods have been molded and shaped for the interests of the extremely wealthy while the costs of living for ordinary people skyrocket.
“But, particularly, on the housing front and gentrification front, it’s clear that the experience of the working-class Asian community is tied to the gentrification impacting working-class communities, more broadly speaking,” Wang explained.
Like most Americans, many Asians in the U.S. are one paycheck away or one healthcare crisis away from financial ruin. Aside from how this limits the choices one has in what kind of housing they can pursue or how many jobs they need, this level of economic vulnerability permeates into all aspects of a person’s life, including reproductive care.
“Reproductive justice can’t happen if people aren’t able to afford what they actually want to do with their bodies.” — Jishava Patel
The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) is a national organization advocating for reproductive healthcare justice. Jishava Patel is a NAPAWF organizer in Philadelphia and explained that a major obstacle for many Asian and Pacific Islander women in accessing their basic reproductive rights has been their economic situation.
“Reproductive justice can’t happen if people aren’t able to afford what they actually want to do with their bodies. It’s not just about having those rights on paper, it’s about being able to affordably access those rights,” Patel explained.
Building A New (Asian) America
Jagga Singh is aware of the countless hours his parents have put in, whether assembling medical supplies at a factory or renting a taxi, in order to earn enough money to pay for basic necessities living in New Jersey.
“They’re literally stripping themselves to the bone to have the sense of security and safety that others have,” he said.
Erica Lee is a political organizer for National Nurses United. Her parents have also worked on assembly lines after immigrating to Illinois from South Korea.
“I think we can’t be afraid of talking about these issues.” — Erica Lee
“I think we can’t be afraid of talking about these issues,” she said, “We can’t be afraid of saying my parents are making ten dollars an hour at this manufacturing plant or at this fast food restaurant and we’re struggling.”
Since the economic and political bind that many Asians find themselves in won’t change overnight, there are three important lessons to hold onto as we seek to create a more just political and economic system.
The first lesson is that there is no singular Asian American experience. Asians are a diverse community which includes countless people unable to attain economic and educational mobility. Southeast Asians suffer poverty rates much higher than the national average. Groups like Bangladeshi-Americans also suffer high-poverty rates while enduring Islamophobia and police surveillance.
“There is no singular Asian American experience.”
The second lesson is that Asians across the U.S. can be mobilized around issues pertaining to economic inequity.
“A lot of the folks we work with are doing very working-class jobs,” said Singh, who is a lead organizer for Chhaya CDC, which seeks to empower working-class South Asians in Queens. “They’re renting cabs to be a taxi driver,” he explained, “There are women who become home health aides, folks who are working construction jobs, or in restaurants as servers and waiters, or working in Dunkin’ as cashiers. Very service oriented, very low pay jobs.”
Prior to joining National Nurses United, Erica Lee served on the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and led efforts in reaching out to Asian Americans. She was “blown away” by the high level of enthusiasm for Sanders among Asian Americans, especially the youth.
Similarly, CAAAV taps into the existing frustration that many Asians in New York City have toward the economic and political system.
“Asians across the U.S. can be mobilized around issues pertaining to economic inequity.”
“We hold monthly meetings, facilitate sharing, have time and space to have folks talk about their experiences who have gone through similar issues, how different people have used different strategies to confront bad actors on their housing experiences,” Wang explained, “They come out of those meetings feeling more ready to act, more ready to stand up for their family and their apartment and feeling a lot less isolated in terms of their experiences around housing and issues.”
The final lesson is the importance of centering the experiences and interests of economically marginalized Asians in our formulation of Asian American political mobilization. Currently, much of the focus on what are considered important Asian American political issues still revolves around Asians who are economically privileged.
“I truly believe the only way to fight all forms of anti-Asian racism is to have working class Asians to speak about their experiences of racism, their experiences of labor exploitation and their experiences of poverty,” Samantha Ng, who grew up in and still resides in New York City’s Manhattan, explained to me, “I’m not expecting capitalism to end in a day. If Asian Americans want an end to anti-Asian racism, they absolutely need to take a step back and allow for poor and working-class Asians to take center stage in terms of theirvoices and stories.”
“Allow for poor and working-class Asians to take center stage in terms of their voices and stories.” — Samantha Ng
By centering the experiences of working-class Asians, it becomes obvious to support programs like affirmative action, which has helped Asians from marginalized backgrounds gain access into institutions of higher learning. Basing our politics on the needs and experiences of economically marginalized Asians Americans also makes it apparent that all Asians must support more diverse and stronger labor unions, immigration reform which includes abolishing ICE, and programs that sustain affordable housing, better-paying jobs, and a healthcare system that provides comprehensive coverage to everyone.
Anjana Bhattacharya, who kneaded dough into roti and made mango lashees during the interview, agreed that a new way forward was necessary.
“Things need to change, betaa,” she told me, as she flattened the dough on the kitchen counter. “Things need to change,” she repeated, “Things need to change.”
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This article builds off an article initially published by the writer at New Politics in November 2018.
Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student and instructor in political science who focuses on race, class and social justice. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, AsAm News, Jaggery, and The New Engagement.