No matter how you spin it, Democrats suffered a crushing loss in the race to replace the US Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy and undoubtedly it will be seen as a referendum on Obama. However, I find the multiple fingers pointing in every direction to be as equally depressing—just more dizzyingly so.
Obama was too left. Obama was not progressive enough. Obama did too much. Obama didn’t do enough. Obama came too late to Massachusetts. Obama should not have come. (Substitute “Democratic Party,” “Martha Coaxley,” or any other player in Massachusetts politics for “Obama” and all critiques have been covered. More nuanced analysis will subtlety blame all parties equally and cynics will damn everyone and government).
So what happened in Massachusetts? I have no idea but I do know one thing that has occurred. Obama has become the new “model minority” for largely white Massachusetts — “he is proof that the system works but we don’t want him anymore.”
As an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), I intimately know what it means to be a “model minority.” I know what it means to be held to high expectations, especially when one student confessed to me that he worried about the curve when he saw a lot of AAPIs in his math class. I know what it means to be lectured at for not being aggressive enough while at the same time being accused of being too “racial” when I talk about my experiences with racism. I know what it means to have others define you and your actions, regardless of what you say, and to be used to justify an existing system and at the same time to be accused of trying to take over the system (Really, “UCLA stands for University of Caucasians Living in Asia” jokes do get grating). The concept of the “model minority” has long been used as a political tool to divide and pose as an alternative to the Civil Rights and “Black Power” movement approach.
As a student and teacher in Asian American studies and an AAPI leader in the labor movement or labor leader in the AAPI communities, I also know that the history of AAPIs in the US tells me that the GOP victory in Massachusetts is a result of a right-wing populism which has succeeded in shaping the debate (Is it me or do the Right have a more intuitive sense of Gramsci and “hegemony” than the Left?) Historically, both right-wing and progressive populism have emerged from the grassroots and both articulated struggles against Big Business and Big Banks. However, right-wing populist movements have always targeted the bottom, immigrants and people of color, as well.
For AAPIs, there has never been a truly progressive populism in this country. Progressives praise US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his social and labor reforms but he is the same person who sent Japanese Americans into internment camps. The Labor Movement of the first half of the 1900s helped create the first middle class in this country but they cut their teeth pushing for the first national immigration laws excluding a group based on race, which happen to be AAPIs (e.g. 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act or the 1924 “Asiatic Barred Zone”). The Civil Rights Movement opened many doors but today a number of African American and Latino/a leaders leave AAPIs out when they talk about racial justice (The model minority myth strikes again! The “model minority” myth blinded many people to the fact that AAPIs have the largest economic divide out of all racial groups and that AAPIs have historically been used to fight progressive reforms).
With a rise in right-wing populism, I am worried. Our history tells us that immigration will become the key hot button issue these next coming elections and, in the past, hate crimes against AAPIs and Latina/os have consistently risen with increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, especially during low economic periods. Our history tells us that institutionalized racism evolves. Today, it can come in many subtle forms and doesn’t require individual prejudice. For example, a number of anti-Obama “tea baggers” rage over particular members of the Obama administration who have “ties” with communist groups or are possibly “communists” but they will praise Ronald Reagan to high heaven and conveniently ignore the people in the Reagan administration who had “ties” with white supremacist groups. Ronald Reagan publicly opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and promised out loud to remove the Fair Housing Act, when he ran for governor of California, and declared that people have the right to discriminate based on race when renting or selling their house.
In the absence of a visible progressive pole, the drumming of the “right-wing wackos” and “Astroturf” beat may inadvertently be agitating them to the ballot box, rather than marginalizing their message in the political discourse. I worry that the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration will move to the right as a part of strategy. In some cases, it may work to save some 2010 electoral seats in the short-term. However, as a former organizer, I found that defensive strategies only prolong the inevitable—backsliding in progress already made with us holding the bag.
If Obama remains the “model minority,” any progress made over the decades will recede and all races will be thrown into the column of the model minority with AAPIs and more voices will go unheard. When whites become the numerical minority in the US, we may instead see a multiracial right-wing populism.