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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Movement-Building, Asian Americans, and the Struggle for Racial Justice


This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

The problems that impact Black people are the same structures that also oppress Asian Americans. This whole pact that certain Asian Americans believe will set them free, that this proximity and getting closer to Whiteness and by playing by the rules is not actually going to get them free at all. It’s only going to lift the 1-5% of Asian Americans, and they are going to be complicit in the larger program, which this White supremacist country has always been a part of, which is oppressing people of color.

AAPR: Can we start by talking about how your identity and background have affected your work?

FRANCIS: I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, which is on the West Coast. There’s a concentration of Asian Americans in Seattle, so my entire friend group growing up was Asian and Black. Who I am as a person was very much shaped by this environment. I had a strong mom who is Chinese American and a dad who is Jamaican American and very strong cultures from both sides. My mothers’ parents were also in Seattle, so my Chinese grandparents were very much around. I always knew in terms of my early identity that I was Chinese and I was Jamaican. There’s no way that I’m walking down the street and someone goes, “Oh, look at that Asian girl.”

But growing up in Seattle was interesting at that time, especially if I think about my high school experience there. I had a lot of Asian friends who very much understood issues around race, class, and colorism in their families and in the Asian communities and actively worked to build bridges. There were Chinese and Japanese American students – friends of mine – working to build bridges with Filipinos and Cambodians because there were all of these groups in Seattle at that time.

For me, growing up in Seattle and especially coming of age in my teenage years I was very much used to and was familiar with  – and I don’t know the perfect word here even though I should – cross-Asian organizing. I went to a public inner-city school, every day you were confronted with the severity of poverty and inequality in our society. I say all that because that’s what shaped me. White people weren’t really in my life. Coming out of high school, I didn’t have many close White friends. I had close Asian friends and close Black friends. Obviously, that changed once I went to college.

AAPR: I was going to ask – was there a culture shock moment?

FRANCIS: Yes! Absolutely! When I went to college I was like, “Who are these Asians?” It was also because I grew up in Seattle, in an environment in which there were Filipinos and Cambodians kicking it with Black people all the time. In my community at that time, especially in the Black community, it wasn’t like this big bridge and there’s Asians over there. We did things, we hung out at each other’s houses, so there wasn’t a huge divide. Then, obviously, I went to college and I was like, “Woah.” My roommate my first year was Chinese American from Houston, Texas. I don’t think she was used to Black people.

It’s interesting for me, especially reflecting back upon my high school experience, because I would be in majority-Asian spaces and not even think about it. However, when I went to the Asian student club at Rice University where I did my undergrad, they were surprised to see me. And their concerns weren’t about concerns that I’m used to; instead of thinking about coalition building and solidarity, they were focused on food and having those cultural dinners that student groups hold. My response was like, “Ehhhh.” It just felt that our concerns were misaligned. Especially at Rice University, there were a lot of Chinese ­­– not even a lot of Japanese, but just a lot of Chinese. In terms of Southeast Asians, I was like, “Where’d they all go?” But that response is, again, very West Coast. We have a lot of Filipinos, a lot of Cambodians, a lot of Laotians in terms of different groups. For me, it felt like there was a divide that I didn’t know was actually there. It increased my awareness about the way that I had been raised and increased my awareness of my Blackness in Asian spaces.

Getting back to this question about identity – for me in undergrad, who I am has always played a huge role in terms of what I actually think is important and has shaped me. I gave a lot of background around me in high school and these different groups because a lot of people say that their undergrad years tend to be the most formative in terms of who they are and what they care about and shape their orientation about how they encounter different things for the rest of their lives. But for me in terms of socialization, it was really these early years in high school. So, for me now coming into undergrad and to figure out what I actually want to do for the rest of my life, I decided that I wanted to do economics and political science. That’s because those two majors helped me understand the world around me better.

Political science classes at that time helped me understand the way that political systems operated and the way that the government treats different groups and the way groups see themselves because of policies and laws. I was able to understand the interior of my life, my parents’ journey in terms of them both being immigrants in this country, as well as my experience growing up, and my experience in undergrad as well as understanding that my experience growing up was actually a very unique type of experience. Most mixed kids like me do not have that experience at all. I still have all these Asian friends and Black friends in Seattle.

Then economics helped me understand the way so many people I grew up with lived in poverty and would not get out of poverty and why so many people who I also knew did really, really well. You know, you’re kicking with your friends and then people go their different ways. There is a reason why that happens because of the way in which structures are actually set up.

And then I went to graduate school at Princeton University. In terms of my Ph.D., I was really interested in the criminal punishment system, hyper-incarceration, and my experience in the American South definitely led me face to face – more than Seattle ever did­ – with stark inequality, White supremacy, and racism and especially what African Americans experience in this country and the role of the carceral state in that. And I’ve always been driven by a quest to understand inequality and at the very basic level how it impacts good people and why people can’t get out of it.  Through that experience, I’ve lived in Princeton, I’ve lived in Philly, I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York. I think for me growing up in this post-undergraduate six years of graduate school getting my M.A. and Ph.D., I can’t even think outside of identity because to me, it’s everything. It informs the most important things to me.

Focusing on the carceral state is what I decided to do. My dissertation focused on the NAACP’s campaign against racial violence and a quest on how Black people get free and how we can mobilize in communities and what lessons we can take away from early mobilization in terms of contemporary efforts today.

At the same time, in terms of how does my Asian American identity impact who I am and my work today? That identity from an early age in terms of high school has never left, and my research is still very much on Black people today, on the ways in which American political and legal institutions oppress communities of color and especially Black people. But it is also a question about how people can mobilize and not just on how Black people can mobilize. It’s a question of how can Asian Americans also mobilize, because the problems that impact Black people do not just impact Black people. The problems that impact Black people are the same structures that also oppress Asian Americans. This whole pact that certain Asian Americans believe will set them free, that this proximity and getting closer to Whiteness and by playing by the rules is not actually going to get them free at all. It’s only going to lift the 1-5% of Asian Americans, and they are going to be complicit in the larger program, which this White supremacist country has always been a part of, which is oppressing people of color. I think, because I’m a political scientist and I focus on race and politics, you always wonder what Black and Brown coalition-building looks like, but because of my identity and because it’s always been real to me, because I’ve seen it’s possible, I’m always thinking about what Black and Asian coalition-building actually looks like.

Also, I think one of the other things in this post-September 11 era that has fascinated me and horrified me is the way in which laws have constricted and have focused, especially on Arab and Muslim communities; in the ways that immigration policies don’t just affect urban Muslims or don’t just affect the southern border but very much also affect Asian American populations as well in terms of relatives that come here, in terms of our work visas, in terms of our star student visas as well. Part of my whole interest is how we continue to smash the door in on White supremacy. And that’s going to take more than Black people mobilizing. So for me, one of the things that’s been really exciting for me, and another shout out to the West Coast, but I’ve seen really great Asian American mobilizers and organizations on the West coast that are trying to actively do that work.

When I talk to some of my Asian American friends who care a lot about these issues, I think they feel a little bit intimidated to come into these spaces and be wrong. I think that is a very real fear. And in terms of all the craziness from the Trump administration, so many Asian Americans that I know are horrified about what’s going to happen, but also feeling a little bit frozen about what to do. Many believed their golden ticket was proximity to Whiteness, being quiet, and playing by the (rigged) rules. Now, do they need to be louder and think more strategically about coalition-building with Black and Brown folks? And I think that is scary for some because that’s not the logic that they have operated their entire lives on. And so there’s this new question about what to actually do. And I’m like, “get in there!” because what we know about the system is it will continue to oppress groups of color. Even if you’re not right now the target of its entrapment, racism is dynamic, and it will absolutely come for you.

AAPR: I appreciate so much of what you said. I’ve been noticing a lot of Asian Americans, realizing that they’ve been choosing White supremacy by not choosing to be with people of color, who are facing this issue of also not knowing how to do this though. They don’t know where they fit in because they have benefited from these policies, and there’s also almost this imposter syndrome of “Who am I to walk into these spaces?” because there’s also so much history of animosity between groups. It’s not just that there is a lot of racism amongst Asian Americans against Brown and Black people, but it’s also the opposite way. So I think that’s an interesting area that our generation is starting to grapple with.

FRANCIS: I think Black and Brown people have skepticism of Asian Americans in these spaces. Let’s say that I didn’t know you, Emily, and I didn’t know your politics, but you were like, “Hey, I’m really interested in these issues.” You may walk into the [Black Student Union] or the Equity Coalition, etc., and people might look at you skeptically because it has not been the experience in a lot of Black circles of Asian Americans giving a damn. It’s been Asian Americans profiting from their closeness and their proximity to Whiteness. So in terms of how to be in these spaces and how to make space as well means to do all the homework and to be okay with feeling uncomfortable. And I think that’s hard – to listen much more and to do the work. Asian Americans know how to work, but I think this is just unfamiliar work. But it’s about knowing that it can be done. I’ve legit seen it my entire life, so of course it can be done.

AAPR: I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition-building and rediscovering our history and realizing that we have more in common than we think we do. I think especially for new immigrants. So I’m 1.5/2-ish generations. And so when they came, it was like, “we’re just surviving” and it did feel zero sum because that’s the culture and structure they walked into. My parents grew up in East San Jose, and there was a lot of diversity but also a clear division between the different races. And so they just grew up accepting that it’s a division and it’s us against them. They never really had a point where they decided for themselves. So, how do you go backwards and say, “no, wait, we have so much in common between these groups,” We’re not divided and shouldn’t be pitted against each other”?

FRANCIS: No, I think that’s good. Now that you reminded me of the Japanese organization that does phenomenal work in this area: Densho. And it’s a celebration of and also a revisiting of the history of Japanese Americans in this country. It’s all about talking about the history of Japanese Americans and reminding Japanese Americans about their history and never forgetting it. Because we know this history and we know how the United States operated and we know the way in which it targeted us, that we should always be aware of the way this government targets specific groups and cages specific groups, which is what allowed them to support activism around Muslim and Arab communities. And also now to support activism around mostly Latinx and mostly Mexican American communities at the border. If we had just asked how might we reach Japanese Americans: “Why should I be concerned about post-September 11 surveillance policies around Muslims?” You might get concerned about them once you understand the longer history.

I think the same thing can be said in terms of, like, Chinese Americans, whether those are in terms of workers who worked on the railroads, the ways in which their wages were taken, the ways that they were forced to carry permit cards with them, and how they were always questioned about their loyalty and citizenship. These things never just sit in the past. But I think oftentimes, and this is one of the things of course growing up in a Chinese American home is that all the bad things – let’s not talk about them. Let’s not talk about all the bad things. Let’s just focus on working really hard and on this figment of the American dream and studying really hard and getting good grades and doing really well and then owning a home. But really bad things happened. In my home, a lot of struggle was involved in order to get Mom and her parents to come to the United States. She was not born here, and so to get her to come here took an incredible amount of sacrifice, but that was all, like, let’s just not talk about that past and let’s not talk about the ways were treated once we got here. It’s just that you overcome it.

AAPR: I think that’s part of it. We don’t like talking about our pain or our shame and so there’s no space for us to share similarities with other groups if we ourselves are not even willing to acknowledge our own pain.

FRANCIS: I feel that, in a lot of Chinese American homes, if you don’t speak about the way in which the government acted towards your community, it didn’t happen. But if you do talk about it, it makes it so real. We live in the mythology of the so-called American Dream, in the lies and the stories that we tell each other, tell ourselves. So many times, what immigrant families do in order to survive in this country is that they have to lie to themselves about how the American political system works, because if we think about it for too long, it’s terrible. It is debilitating in many ways. And so, I think that there is a bit of mythmaking that has been going on about the way that White supremacy works, the oppressiveness of these institutions. And unfortunately, that mythmaking has allowed us to operate in this space that is fantasy. Some Asian Americans are an exception to the rule, right? When Trump or political elites who are racist talk about “those people” – like those people who talk about immigrants – like we aren’t part of that group. Like we’re the good immigrants. Again, this secret pact that we often times unknowingly make.

AAPR: If we talk about it, it can be taken away so just don’t take it away.

FRANCIS: Right, just don’t talk about it. If you talk about it, then you won’t be able to do what we think you can do. You won’t go to Harvard. You won’t become the CEO of this organization. No, to me you can go to Harvard and you can be the CEO, but it can also expand your understanding of your responsibilities to your family, to your community, to your fellow citizens. I think that’s worthy.

Megan Ming Francis is a Visiting Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. Francis specializes in the study of American politics, with broad interests in criminal punishment, black political activism, philanthropy, and the post-civil war South.

She is the author of the award-winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (2014). This book tells the story of how the early campaign against state sanctioned racial violence of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shaped the modern civil rights movement. Francis marshals an extensive archival analysis to show that the battle against lynching and mob violence in the first quarter of the 20th century was pivotal to the development of civil rights and the growth of federal court power. Francis is currently at work on a second book project that examines the role of convict leasing in the rebuilding of southern political power and modern capitalism after the Civil War.

Francis is a proud alumnus of Seattle Public Schools, Rice University in Houston, and Princeton University where she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics.