Race is a key concept in the formation of Asian American studies as a political project and an intellectual field. Throughout U.S. history, Asians have been racially cast through the narratives of empire, war, and migration. The racial logic of yellow peril, enemy aliens, model minority, and now the enemy combatant are part of a genealogy that represents Asian Americans as potential threats to the American way of life—a euphemism for modernity, capitalism, and white supremacy (e.g., Okihiro 1994, 118–47). Similarly, race in relationship to representations of gender and sexuality has historically been used to demean Asian Americans, rendering them as inferior. While perpetuating racial inequality, these portrayals often situate norms of gender and sexuality that are potential sites of political critique and social transformation (Eng 2001; Marchetti 1993; Shimizu 2007). Race is a social construction in which biology and culture are often conflated as a rhetorical logic and material practice in a system of domination. Inasmuch as race is used for subjugation, it is also a productive category used by subaltern groups in opposition to racism. Asian American studies was born out of the struggle to critique and oppose racism. As a politics of protest organized around social justice and in solidarity with communities of color, race became a pivotal organizing tool to foster the Asian American movement. Alongside the Black, Brown, and Red power movements, Asian American radicalism grew in the post-1968 era as part of an antiwar, anti-imperialist, and feminist agenda (Maeda 2009; Pulido 2006; J. Wu 2013). While Asian American politics was connected to left critiques of capitalism and war in this formative period, the Asian American movement would not launch onto the national stage until the 1980s as a panethnic alliance in response to the brutal murder of Vincent Chin and subsequent antiracist organizing (Y. Espiritu 1992).
In the barest scholarly definition, race is a social construct. This fails, however, to describe the extent and power of race. Race is inextricably a concept of the modern episteme, intertwined in systems of imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and social structure that emerged out of the European Enlightenment (Goldberg 1993; Mills 1997; Silva 2007; Winant 2001). Tethered to race is the ideology of white supremacy that while appearing to be on the wane has transformed into an increasingly complex system of dispossession and violence. The inequality at the center of racism and white supremacy is based on the enduring power of race as a flexible and shifting category. In this essay I draw on the terms “racial formation,” “racial capitalism,” “racial liberalism,” and “global racial system” to elaborate the dynamic range and durability of race.
As a construct that elaborates a social order, race has varied in meaning and usage over time. As some scholars would have it, racism predated the formal concept of race, which emerged in the contact of Spanish explorers and the New World. For example, in the period of classical antiquity, Greco-Roman prejudice against and social hatred of particular groups is described as “proto-racism” (B. Isaac 2004). Originating roughly in the sixteenth century, the concept of race imbued notions of difference that encompassed ideas of religious superiority and social hierarchy. Subsequently, the idea of race became an explanatory dogma that combined notions of physical difference, culture, and ancestry, leading to the predominance of scientific racism in the nineteenth century. The word “race” draws its lineage from a history mired in campaigns of conquest and war that importantly included practices of religious conversion. The ascension of Christianity through colonization combined with the ideology of white supremacy developed in an epistemological and moral order in which race and religion became precepts of social hierarchy. With the expansion of scientific racism in Europe, race was systematized into taxonomies of inferiority and superiority, argued to be the basis of visible biological difference such as skin color and hair type, and justified by the belief in a divine right ordained to Christian civilization and the notions of moral development embedded in this worldview. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that this usage was debunked as a conventional belief and standard institutional practice of state racism.
In parsing this history in the United States, the influential concept of racial formation has provided an intellectual framework for a theory of race and racism that critiques a range of social relations, structures, and institutions. Michael Omi and Howard Winant define “racial formation as the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (1994, 55). Racial formation theorizes racism and antiracist social movements of opposition as an active social process. As a modern construct, race became a proxy for kinship systems that divide groups of people according to descent and geographic origin. Using the idioms of blood, skin color, and phenotypic difference, scientific racism was used to enforce social boundaries and regulations including legal statutes and spatial segregation. The system of race and racialization was embedded in social structures and hierarchies that depended on notions of culture and biology to fix cultural essences as naturalized traits. As a regulatory system, race defined acceptable social practices such as sexual couplings, marriageability, and the inheritance of property. In regard to sexual contact, fears of miscegenation resulted in rules for the maintenance of racial purity and categories of mixed race. The classification of mixed race emerged as both defiled and redemptive, creating passing zones in which racial privilege was accorded through the structures of white supremacy (Williams-León and Nakashima 2001a). To pass as white, or as honorary white in the case of the myth of the model minority, is also one of the complications of racial hierarchies and collusion with privileges that are obtained through, for example, economic status and class mobility. Thus, racial performance is an important aspect of interpreting structures organized in relationship to whiteness, including social economies based in notions of beauty, desire, and sexual preference.
In the context of racism and the struggle against it, the story of race in the United States has been historically dominated by slavery and the ideology of white supremacy (Roediger 1991; Roediger 2008). Indeed, race is often coded as black in the American vernacular, complicating the analysis of race as it affects a broad range of communities of color and antiracist struggle. Antiracist analysis is further confounded by a masculinist narrative of recovery and a dependence on patriarchal narratives of redemption. Feminist-of-color and queer-of-color critiques have articulated important alternative strategies and tactics of antiracist organizing by emphasizing the moral structures of race (R. Ferguson 2012b). Indeed, the genocide of indigenous peoples of the Americas was made possible by an imperial morality that justified the conquest of lands through the practices of settler colonialism and the erasure of Native histories. In this system, race figured as a way to define property in the case of whiteness, and as a system of labor exploitation that defined U.S. modernity and capitalism (Harris 1995; Gilroy 1993). The American model of modernity developed according to a racial capitalism that distributed resources along lines of race, class, and gender that continued in political systems of authority and legitimated state practices of racism. This system enabled a ranking order at a global level, consented to by domestic systems of everyday racism, to provide a platform for U.S. imperial expansion through war, militarism, and violence. Because the abolitionist movement to end slavery emerged as part of the struggle of antiracism and emancipation that opposed the dictates of white supremacy, abolition continues as a model of antiracist struggle in the contemporary moment, particularly as it relates to the prison-industrial complex and the preponderance of black suffering (Michelle Alexander 2010; Gilmore 2007; D. Rodríguez 2006).
Race is thus an epistemological category of white supremacy that maintains structures of violence and dispossession, while its permanence is contested through the struggle to change and destroy such systems through antiracism and liberation struggles. According to the foundational analysis of Cedric Robinson (1983), racial capitalism imposed a simultaneous racism and antiracism that converged in a system of dominance, accumulation, and violence by mobilizing race in relationship to other forms of difference such as sexuality, gender, class, religion, and disability, among others (R. Ferguson 2012a; Melamed 2011; Reddy 2011). Racial capitalism, built upon hierarchy and social structures of dispossession, is quintessentially a system of accumulation that proffers an ethic of individual mobility while drawing on geographies of racial difference. Such divisions, fostered through the foundations of capitalism and ideas of social and material property, are the terrain from which gendered forms of racism and immigration led women-of-color feminist critiques to resist and transform exclusionary laws, labor discrimination, and sexism (L. Lowe 1996; Hong 2006). Despite the gains of civil rights and liberation movements, racism remains prevalent by virtue of the deeply embedded notion of race within U.S. social structures. With the advent of multiculturalism, “race” has been supplanted by supposedly neutral terms such as “minority,” “ethnicity,” and “culture.” Yet the idea of race persists in the practices, logics, and rationales of racism and white supremacy. The continuation of the ideas of race into the present at times results in a paradoxical colorblind racism, or racism without racists, in which the ideology of culture and race are interchangeable (Bonilla-Silva 2010).
State systems of classification have often placed Asian Americans and other people of color in an ambiguous status. The categorization of citizens as “free white people” in the Naturalization Act of 1790 set the course for centuries of legislative struggle for civil rights. At the heart of the state sanction of racism was the use of census categories to deem certain groups eligible for full rights of citizenship while others were barred. Throughout the nineteenth century Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese and South Asians, were excluded from citizenship through classifications that deemed them nonwhite. Racial capitalism as a concept articulated through practices of war and migration helps to explain the racialization of Asians in the United States. Based in the popular racism of the second half of the nineteenth century, the specter of a yellow peril exemplified in the legal control of Chinese migrants was the result of labor unrest that was sanctioned by state racism and immigration policy. The U.S. government established a range of legal regulations and policies derived from conjectures about nationality, gender, and race that circulated in popular culture—first in the Page Act of 1875, which specifically banned Chinese women from immigration ostensibly to control prostitution, and more broadly in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that targeted laborers. By 1898, the legacy of a frontier mentality and manifest destiny that led to the military conquest of Native Americans and their genocidal extermination expanded across the Pacific as the U.S. consolidated its imperial legacy in gaining control over Hawai‘i, Samoa, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as Cuba and Puerto Rico. The placement of Japanese and Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, justified by the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, drew upon a racialization process in which the demands of war and militarism demonized already racialized domestic populations as enemies of the state.
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that prohibitions on immigration and naturalization were finally overturned through the 1952 McCarren-Walter Act. To the present day, the taxonomic rationales of the census continue to place Asian Americans in a bipolar race continuum of either black or white. South Asian Americans were once nonwhite, then white, and now through legislative battles are classified as Asian American, whereas Arab Americans are classified as white. Contemporary Asian Americans represent a wide range of class and income categories, placing some in wealthy and prosperous middle-class groups, while others such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese face high rates of poverty and limited access to resources (Lui et al. 2006). With these latter groups, poverty and marginalization is the product of how Asian Americans are racialized as model minorities that are high achieving while histories of war and displacement as refugees created systematic forms of disenfranchisement.
After World War II, the policy of containment known as the Truman Doctrine that solidified the Cold War with the Soviet Union came at a moment of shifting domestic race relations and the rise of racial liberalism. As Truman began a process of limited endorsement of a civil rights agenda to placate African Americans, the dictates of Cold War ideology defined a large part of the world as potential enemies, including domestic populations. Asian Americans, predominantly Japanese Americans who had just been subjected to a state policy of internment, were deemed foreign and outside of U.S. nationalism, and pitted against other communities of color. Following the Truman presidency, the use of covert actions to implement U.S. imperial goals without direct military involvement expanded under the Eisenhower administration. In 1953, a U.S.-backed coup in Iran reversed a national project to control oil reserves, and the strategy rapidly spread to other parts of the world, notably Asia and Latin America (Abrahamian 2013). As this program of covert international intervention expanded in the following years, the civil rights struggle reached fruition in a shift of race relations. Patterns of immigration also began to change dramatically through state selection after 1965, creating new Asian immigrant populations throughout the United States. Such demographic changes were the devices of a racial liberalism that offered limited civil rights to some racialized groups while antagonizing others, and, notably, at the cusp of new waves of immigration that fundamentally changed the social and economic makeup of the country. By the late 1960s, Asian Americans were mythologized as a model minority by the media, scholars, and a state apparatus that used the language of social mobility and work ethic as a racial wedge while ignoring the histories of racial oppression and differential patterns of migration created by U.S. policies and statutes. Racial liberalism emerged as a direct response to the black freedom movement that refuted white supremacy as a normative and public practice expressed in Jim Crow segregation (Singh 2004; Singh 2012). Alternatively, black radicalism linked to the internationalism of decolonizing social movements called for the end of global white supremacy beyond the United States (R. Bush 2009; Daulatzai 2012). Radical ideologies of liberation were subsumed within multiracial and panethnic solidarity movements which resolved to forge an alternative system to that of racial capitalism and global white supremacy (Y. Espiritu 1992; Pulido 2006; J. Wu 2013).
Drawing on the patterns and legacies of war, migration, and the formation of diaspora communities, Asian Americans have been collapsed into the U.S. racial formation through a mixture of racial policy and foreign policy. Racializing Asian Americans followed a pattern of connecting frames of war to domestic enemies beginning in World War II with the Japanese, and later in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Southeast Asians were cast through representations of war and colonialism that circulated through the racialization of refugee and mixed-race populations in the United States (Chong 2012). Similarly, a history of crisis developed around U.S. involvement in the Arab and Muslim world, with diplomatic and military entanglements in, for example, Iran, Egypt and the Suez Canal, Lebanon, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The contemporary global War on Terror, defined by the twenty-first-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, extends this history, which links foreign policy to domestic immigrant communities. After 9/11, South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims were targeted for surveillance, detention, and deportation (Cainkar 2009; Maira 2009). An array of Asian Americans were affected by those policies, particularly Cambodian Americans, who faced deportations based on selective enforcement (Hing 2006). The construction of enemy terrorists configured Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims alongside other Asian Americans and communities of color as racialized figures through the broad mandates of the Patriot Act and the U.S. War on Terror campaign.
Although the history of race in the United States is largely dependent on skin color and phenotypic difference, the twenty-first century has brought forth the often hidden relationship of religion to racism, particularly in terms of the figure of the Muslim in the U.S. racial formation and the role of the War on Terror in this racialization. The threat of terrorism and the racialized Muslim are the latest entrants in a long genealogy of how race and religion have been imagined in Asian American populations. For example, the mid-nineteenth-century idea of the heathen Chinese migrant, which mobilized the racialization of a yellow peril in opposition to an American nationalism described as white and Christian, in the latter half of the twentieth century translated into godless-communist threats from across Asia. Other stereotypes of race and racialization based on presumptions about religion and geographic origin include the so-called Hindoo, encompassing Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and the misnomer of Mohammedan, applied to people from South Asia to West Asia and North Africa. United States foreign policy and military involvement across the globe, particularly in Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, has historically been framed through notions of the Orient and what Edward Said refers to as Orientalism as a way of knowing and dominating parts of the world to further a U.S. imperial agenda (Said 1978; Said 1994). The deployment of race in relationship to the spread of globalization is part of a centuries-old global racial system (Winant 2001; Winant 2002; Clarke and Thomas 2006; Mullings 2005; Mullings 2008). When racial capitalism is imagined beyond the confines of the U.S. nation-state, race must also be understood as circulating at global levels alongside racism and white supremacy. The global racial system frames histories of domination and exploitation such that slavery, genocide, war, and labor migration can be analyzed through the rhetoric and mobilization of racial discourse at the regional, hemispheric, and even planetary level. In other words, if war is the means of achieving imperial interests, race is the historical category from which to justify and achieve colonial conquest.
The figure of the racialized Muslim is at the forefront of some important interventions of critical and intersectional analysis. From gender and sexuality critiques (Naber 2012; Razack 2007; Reddy 2011; Puar 2007) to labor and political formations (Daulatzai 2012; Rana 2011), the figure of the Muslim represents important challenges in terms of the flexibility of the race concept, and in how race is collapsed into the categories of religion, gender and sexuality, violence, imperialism, and white supremacy. Islam and the figure of the Muslim have emerged as the new global racial system of the twenty-first century. And yet this system is not new in the theory of racism, in which egalitarian principles of democracy are wedded to imperial morals of apartheid based in an older system of racism (Winant 2002, 18).
Empire and white supremacy are at the heart of U.S. histories of race. With the expansion of technologies of war and militarism, race is a concept in which state violence and conquest are justified. Perhaps the greatest challenge of race is imagining the struggle against white supremacy. As race continues to confound, and racism proliferates, opposing global apartheid and the consequences of the global color line depend not only on a black and white opposition, but a vast array of communities of color to take part in the world struggle for an alternative that goes beyond racism, war, capitalism, and white supremacy.