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Opinion | What the Asian-American Coalition Can Teach the Democrats

An example of this ideological moderation is the presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Though his proposal of a universal basic income was relatively progressive, he was hardly a political radical. And though he did not aggressively promote himself as an Asian-American candidate, he did not back away from that identity either (though he did make several awkward or tone-deaf jokes about it).

Asian-Americans have built this political coalition not in spite of identities, but because of identities. Their success is a rebuke to those who denigrate “identity politics” and call for emphasizing class over race or identity. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s insight is evergreen: “Race is the modality in which class is lived.” The creation of race and the exploitation of racial difference has always been a part of capitalism. This is why any call for privileging class over race is fundamentally mistaken at best and dishonest at worst.

There are, of course, ineffective and even malicious examples of identity politics. President Trump’s mobilization of his base, for example, involved deliberately foregrounding white identity politics, which has always been the latent identity politics of the United States, but has rarely been called such. Mr. Trump simply made the country’s whiteness explicit rather than implicit. But the problem is not necessarily with identity politics per se. The problem lies in Mr. Trump’s conjoining of white identity politics with economic policies that favor the wealthy and a political strategy that includes demonizing other races.

The Asian-American coalition, by contrast, is demanding policies that in some way address those who are struggling and in need, and who are often people of color. According to Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a principal investigator of the National Asian American Survey, “Asian-Americans converge in several notable ways, including experiences with discrimination, voting behavior and attitudes on policies ranging from environmental protection to gun control to higher taxation and social service provision.”

The question for the Asian-American coalition, as for the Democratic Party as a whole, is what constitutes economic justice: the Clinton-Obama neoliberalism of favoring Wall Street and trade deals, with insufficient attention paid to the middle and working classes? Or a more robust form of economic redistribution that would tax the wealthy at a higher rate, eliminate or greatly reduce student and medical debt, expand health insurance and child care, bolster public schools and enhance access to higher education?

As today’s Asian-American coalition sees it, no policy can be carried out effectively without paying attention to identities and differences. The majority of Asian-Americans, for example, support affirmative action, recognizing that it is needed to reduce inequities not only for African-Americans and Latinos but also for Pacific Islanders and poorer Asian-Americans.

This stance on affirmative action acknowledges the need for a multiethnic Asian-American coalition and for a multiracial American coalition. Group interest and self-interest sometimes align and sometimes don’t, but solidarity entails that a coalition’s members sometimes seek justice for themselves, and sometimes for others.

A crucial lesson of the Asian-American coalition is that although celebrating diversity can sometimes draw attention away from issues of economic inequality, that does not mean that a focus on diversity, difference or identity ignores economic inequality. On the contrary, economic inequality in this country has always been built on racial differences. Only the affirmation of racial differences, harnessed with a robust approach to economic justice, can help alleviate the many economic problems this country faces.

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