Empire never went away in U.S. history, but it has been making a comeback in recent years. Likening the United States of the twenty-first century to the British empire of the nineteenth century, right-wing scholars and pundits have enthusiastically extolled empire to justify and glorify colonial misdeeds of the past and the present. “In deploying American power, decisionmakers should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble,” Max Boot declared in 2002 with no sense of irony. “America should not be afraid to fight ‘the savage wars of peace’ if necessary to enlarge the ‘empire of liberty,’” he concluded. “It has done it before” (352). Indeed, it has. Along with Niall Ferguson and others, Boot’s unabashed embrace of the word empire is refreshing—they saw no need for disavowal or subterfuge—but equating empire with “democracy, capitalism, and freedom” served only to underscore their longing for a bygone era, when white men like Rudyard Kipling and William McKinley could speak openly of empire’s burdens and benefits (Boot 2002, 349; N. Ferguson 2003).
Empire likewise never went away in Asian American studies, but it deserves a greater comeback. I, of course, am not suggesting that we follow Boot’s prescriptions. We, however, should embrace and grapple with the term empire, for it strikes at the heart of our field’s founding mission. Asian American studies, as an intellectual and political project, emerged out of the struggles of student and community activists of the late 1960s. At least in most articulations, it was a radical project, committed to democratizing higher education, to producing new forms of knowledge, and to critiquing the U.S. empire, particularly its war in Southeast Asia. That critique of empire has often faded to the background over the past four decades, as the political urgency to struggle as and with Third World peoples competed with the seductive appeal to reclaim and proclaim our “American” roots. As a result, the field’s practitioners have clarified and obscured empire’s meanings and relevance to Asian American studies, in ways that disabled a vigorous rejection of “American power” that Boot and his ilk celebrate and promote.
The problem lies in part in the liberal genesis of scholarly work on Asian Americans, many decades before the 1960s. Following the tradition of Protestant missionaries who had defended the Chinese against the exclusion movement in the nineteenth century, Mary Roberts Coolidge, Robert Ezra Park, and other social scientists strove to demonstrate the inevitability and universality of immigration and assimilation. Although Park, for his part, at times acknowledged European expansion and conquest as the root causes of modern-day race relations, he simultaneously attributed the movements of goods and peoples to “a general tendency to redress the economic balance and to restore the equilibrium between population and food supply, labor and capital, in a world economy” (1950, 143). For Park and his students, Asian migrations and anti-Asian racism along the Pacific Coast of the United States in the 1910s and 1920s—the “Oriental Problem”—were not exceptional but emblematic of a universal race relations cycle of contact, competition, accommodation, and assimilation. If not a self-conscious apologist of empire, Park and his Chicago School nonetheless shifted attention away from the global forces wreaking havoc on different peoples of the world.
To many of Park’s contemporaries on the left, there was no more pressing matter in the world than empire to frame a different understanding of migrations and social relations. In his influential treatise Imperialism, written in 1916 and originally published in 1917, V. I. Lenin theorized that imperialism was “the monopoly stage of capitalism,” a stage marked by the global concentration and domination of “finance capital” and “the territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers” (1939, 88–89). Purposely limiting his definition of imperialism to the economic realm, Lenin sought to identify a critical shift in capitalist development in the late nineteenth century, in which colonialism emerged as a central feature. “To the numerous ‘old’ motives of colonial policy,” he argued, “finance capital has added the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for ‘spheres of influence,’ . . . in fine, for economic territory in general” (1939, 124). Although Lenin did not address race or the United States at length, he notably observed “another special feature of imperialism” of particular significance to Asian American studies: “the decline in emigration from imperialist countries, and the increase in immigration into these countries from the backward countries where lower wages are paid” (1939, 106).
In terms of writings on Asian Americans, though, the Chicago School’s fixation on “immigration,” “assimilation,” and “race prejudice” held sway through the 1960s (and beyond), generating waves of studies on generational and cultural conflicts and interpersonal relations (H. Yu 2001). Aiming to reconstitute the field fundamentally, an interdisciplinary corps of Marxists and self-trained Asian Americanists boldly charted a new direction for the field in the 1980s. Lucie Cheng, Edna Bonacich, and a cadre of UCLA graduate students drew on and applied a growing body of scholarship on world-systems and dependency—pioneered by Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Walter Rodney, and others in the 1970s—that had elaborated on Lenin’s insights on imperialism. The motive forces behind Asian migrations to the United States, they argued, emanated not from discrete “push” and “pull” factors but from uneven world capitalist development. A system of migrant labor extended across the Pacific, Labor Immigration under Capitalism suggested, facilitated essentially by European and American imperialism in Asia and capital’s demand for cheap labor in the U.S. West and Hawai‘i (Bonacich and Cheng 1984). Driven by the politics of the Asian American movement, Cheng, Bonacich, et al. placed empire very much at the center of Asian American studies.
Around the same time, Ronald Takaki offered a sweeping history of the development of the United States into an independent republic and an industrial and imperial power over the course of the nineteenth century. Racial imaginings of American Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, and Asians, he argued, lay at the heart of republicanism, corporate capitalism, and imperial wars. White conceptions of self-control and self-regulation through metaphorical “iron cages,” Takaki argued, rested on the political exclusion, economic superexploitation, and military conquest of nonwhites. As a result, he concluded, American workers “were denied the class consciousness, the feeling of community, and the power of collective action they needed in order to respond effectively to . . . the hegemony of a powerful capitalist bureaucracy” (1979, vii). Takaki not only drew historically obvious (but previously unseen) connections—between the enslavement of African Americans, the dispossession of American Indian and Mexican lands, America’s ambitions in China and the Philippines, and Chinese migrations to the United States—but also highlighted how “white men in positions of influence and power,” those previously cast as “pro-Asian” by Coolidge and others, shaped and profited from white supremacy and imperial expansion (1979, x).
If these studies challenged Asian Americanists to think beyond liberal narratives of the nation—indeed to explore how conceptions of the United States and “Americans” were rooted in race and empire—the field concomitantly has elided empire in U.S. history. When Takaki, for example, turned to Asian American history in the 1980s, first in Pau Hana (1983) and then in Strangers from a Different Shore (1989), the immigrant saga took center stage. Highlighting individual stories, he presented Asian Americans as quintessential Americans—immigrants “overblown with hope” but struggling to overcome racial oppression and generational and cultural divides to join a wider community of national belonging. Perhaps overwhelmed by his own hope for historical salvation, Takaki concluded: “The history of America is essentially the story of immigrants, and many of them, coming from a ‘different shore’ than their European brethren, had sailed east to this new world. . . . Their dreams and hopes unfurled here before the wind, all of them—from the first Chinese miners sailing through the Golden Gate to the last Vietnamese boat people flying into Los Angeles International Airport—have been making history in America” (1989,491). Takaki was by no means alone.
To propose that the United States has been, at root, a “nation of immigrants,” upon which Asian Americans could stake their equal claim, if not in the past then through interpretations of the past, feeds into a teleology that posits nation against empire. Like the original thirteen colonies, modern nations seemingly liberate themselves from tyrannical empires, across time and space. Although terms like Thomas Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” and U.S. declarations and policies since, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Bush Doctrine, muddied such dichotomous formulations, the idea of individuals joining the nation—gaining the rights of immigration and naturalization, for instance—implies, in the least, their liberation from exclusion and oppression. And perhaps no word captures the essence of exclusion, of injustices of the past, more than empire (alongside slavery). In such usage, empire evokes its predominant meaning of “imperial rule or dignity,” as in its lead definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Supreme and extensive political dominion; esp. that exercised by an ‘emperor’ . . . or by a sovereign state over its dependencies.” The projection of Asian Americans as liberal citizen-subjects in the making appears to contradict that historical and cultural image of empire.
But there is another way to approach empire and Asian American studies, rooted in the OED’s secondary definition, which harkens back to its original usage in the English language more than seven centuries ago, “that which is subject to imperial rule.” Based on that notion, we would focus not on trying to identify the specific qualities or discrete boundaries of distinct empires—an exercise which, in past and current political debates, has usually led to a most misleading question, “Is the United States an empire?”—but on studying the historical and cultural processes through which different peoples, including Asian Americans, have become subjects of imperial rule. It is a process that Arundhati Roy has explained eloquently over the past decade. Dismissing the notion that she speaks as an “Indian citizen,” she has insisted that she is “a subject of the American empire” (2004, 42). And empire, for Roy, has meant “this obscene accumulation of power, this greatly increased distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to suffer them” (2003, 2). The contradiction is not between empire and nation; it is between empire and democracy.
It is that contradiction that Asian American studies is especially poised to expose and explain, but the field must embrace empire as an analytic and overcome nationalist impulses to reproduce a typical “American” story. Studies on World War II, for instance, generally have fixated on proving Japanese American “loyalty” to the United States, an understandable response to wartime vilification and incarceration. Takashi Fujitani has recently traced the deeper logic behind that framing by exploring empire across the Pacific. The total war regimes of Japan and the United States, he argues, marked a pivotal shift from “vulgar racism” to “polite racism.” Even as both states continued to practice widespread violence on racial grounds, according to Fujitani, they both commonly also began disavowing racism, a shift that hinged on the production of liberal, national subjects. Japanese and U.S. states, in turn, projected onto Koreans and Japanese Americans the right to choose to serve the benevolent, inclusive nation (Japan and the United States), a putative choice that marked some as “loyal” citizens enlisted as soldiers, workers, and “comfort women” to advance empire and others as “disloyal” subjects targeted for renewed acts of state violence. Both “loyal” and “disloyal” subjects fell under the power of imperial rule (Fujitani 2011).
Asian Americans, however, have cultivated other ways of seeing and being that revealed the limitations and contradictions of nation and empire. When confronted with “loyalty” questionnaires in America’s concentration camps, Fujitani notes, Japanese Americans raised a lot of their own questions. “If you were evacuated from your home and brought out to a concentration camp like this,” an internee asked, “would you still feel loyal to U.S. . . . ?” “What have we got to fight for—especially now that we are in a camp like this?” asked another (2011, 167, 168). Perhaps not self-consciously, these responses nonetheless pointed to acts of resisting empire, its logic of discipline and punish. And as much as Asian Americanists should strive to uncover the intricate and violent processes of imperial rule, we must also shed light on its ruptures and limits. Racialized subjects of the U.S. empire, including Asian Americans, have always fought back. “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire,” Roy advises for our current moment, “but to lay siege to it. . . . To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness: and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe” (2003, 3). That should define the mission of Asian American studies.