The Loneliest Americans
Jay Caspian Kang
Crown, $27 (cloth)
One of the most revealing features of the reckoning prompted by the recent horrific attacks on Asians in the United States is the diversity of responses offered by Asian Americans themselves. Undermining the racialized presumption that “Asian Americans” form a homogeneous group, these conflicting views reveal the sociopolitical stratification of some 22 million people all too typically portrayed as a politically disengaged monolith. On one side are those who regard anti-Asian violence as idiosyncratic compared to systemic anti-Black oppression and worry about reinforcing the carceral state. Others feel gaslighted, contending that anti-Asian violence and discrimination have not received the public attention they deserve. Why, they ask, are these concerns dismissed, even by other Asian Americans?
These kinds of divisions are at the heart of Jay Caspian Kang’s timely book, The Loneliest Americans, which sifts through the fine structure of Asian American life and finds a marked heterogeneity inflected by class, family history, and ethnic background. A writer for the New York Times and New York Times Magazine, former editor at the New Yorker, and Columbia MFA alum, Kang is the child of upwardly mobile Korean immigrants. His candid, largely autobiographical book takes us through an eclectic set of anecdotes, from test prep and admissions consulting businesses run by Korean immigrants in Flushing, Queens (an example of “tacky, unfair immigrant striving that would ultimately become synonymous with supposed wealth and privilege, even when many of their students lived well below the poverty line”) to his coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2016 as a correspondent for Vice News Tonight (where he reflected on his positionality as a journalist and a “professional” Asian American, concluding that while he is a fellow “person of color,” he had no more right to speak about Black Lives Matter than a white liberal) and his aspiration to move to Hawaii (“land of ethnically ambiguous, vaguely Asian people”) in the early days of the 2020 lockdown, when New York first saw a rise in attacks on Asians.
A sense of alienation pervades all the episodes Kang recounts. Where do Americans of Asian ancestry fit in a society profoundly structured by a Black-white racial dichotomy? What forms of community are available to those who no longer have meaningful connections to their homeland? What is at stake in the complex negotiation of solidarity with other marginalized people and “people of color”? As Kang remarks cathartically on his podcast Time to Say Goodbye, “It’s weird being in America when you’re a fucking ch*nk!”
Permeating the book is the influence of Kang’s college mentor, Noel Ignatiev, a Marxist historian best known for How the Irish Became White (1995)—one of the most influential studies of the social construction of whiteness. In similar fashion, Kang reflects, albeit less systematically, on the social construction of “Asian American” identity, exposing a high degree of class stratification. In broad strokes, Kang separates Asian Americans into two groups according to whether they arrived in the United States before or after the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which eliminated a national quota system and opened up immigration from Asia. “Professional” Asian Americans like himself, Kang says, tend to be the descendants of skilled immigrants who arrived after 1965; often holding prestigious college degrees and working white-collar jobs, they were more or less destined to assimilate into the multicultural elite of mainstream white liberalism. (Kang himself, he admits, is married to a half-Jewish, half-WASP woman from New England and sends his daughter to a multiracial ballet school.) Then there are the working-class and more radical Asian Americans, whom Kang says largely arrived before Hart-Celler. (He largely ignores the fact that not all pre-1965 immigrants, or their children for that matter, were working-class.) Living on the peripheries of American society, more likely to be undocumented and darker-skinned, working-class Asian Americans’ assimilation has always been unlikely.
As his title suggests, Kang thinks both groups are condemned to “loneliness” and unease. For the professionals, assimilation into elite liberal spaces approximates the trajectory of Jewish American assimilation: they are structurally white by socioeconomic measures, but precarious nonetheless—always in danger of falling out of favor with the white elite. Assimilation may deliver material benefits, that is, but it does not fundamentally alter the American racial hierarchy, let alone lead to racial justice. (Just consider how Asian American success in academia—perhaps the most popular if inexact evidence of assimilation—is used to portray Asians as lackluster in personality. Even so-called “model minority” status entails its own special form of marginalization.) For these Americans, Kang writes, existential loneliness “comes from attempts to assimilate, whether by melting into the white middle class or by creating an elaborate, yet ultimately derivative, racial ‘identity.’” In a memorable passage, Kang describes his envy, even contempt, of wealthy international students from China, many of whom do not stay in the United States and thus seem to him exempt from this special kind of despair:
They could succeed in America without the neuroses of not quite fitting into the country’s racial calculus. . . . they were structurally white, sure, but they did not care about being accepted as such. Our middle-class strivings . . . must have been so pathetic to them! All this work, and for what?
Working-class Asian Americans, Kang acknowledges, have it much worse. They are, in particular, doubly ostracized. To begin with, lacking financial and personal security, they have no basic economic foothold in American society. (It is not a coincidence that the majority of victims of recently publicized anti-Asian hate crimes have been older and low-income.) This socioeconomic alienation is further compounded by the indifference (at best) and condescension (at worst) of Asian American elites, who view them as a reputational risk in the eyes of professional white liberals, both politically and economically.
The implications of this division are serious. As Kang observes, “the millions of Asian working poor have been made entirely invisible, not just by white people but also by their professional brothers and sisters,” many of whose concerns—admission to Harvard, “neuroses about microaggressions,” a “bamboo ceiling” in corporate boardrooms, lack of representation in mainstream media—seem less urgent than matters of affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, and quality health care. Kang thus identifies professional Asian Americans like himself as the main obstacle to a meaningful Asian American political identity. While they are busy fighting over access to elite spaces and climbing the ladder of multicultural meritocracy, Kang writes, “the poorest and most vulnerable get stuck with the bill.”
Kang is right to see this phenomenon at work among economically secure Asian Americans and to lament the obstacle it poses to more transformational political struggle. Respectability politics and class divisions are hardly unique to Asian Americans, of course. As Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has argued in these pages, drawing on sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s study of The Black Bourgeoisie (1955), identity politics is routinely “the victim of elite capture—deployed by political, social, and economic elites in the service of their own interests, rather than in the service of the vulnerable people they often claim to represent.” Likewise, debates about the role of the “professional-managerial class” in left-wing movements are hardly new (though you wouldn’t know it from Kang’s book, which does not reference the term; for orientation he might have consulted Catherine Liu’s recent book Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class). Still, Kang argues that Asian American solidarity poses a distinct challenge: in addition to the class stratification that afflicts all ethnic or racialized categories, Asian American identity is further complicated by the lack of any cohesive precedent for group solidarity, without which political mobilization seems impossible.
It doesn’t help, as many readers will note, that a solution to these divisions cannot simply be imported. Asia has been riven by centuries of warfare and ethnic conflict; current relations among many Asian countries are lukewarm at best, and there is no EU-equivalent multilateral organization to negotiate divisions across most of the continent. These observations suggest that a cohesive Asian identity might well be possible only outside of Asia, but as Kang sees it, Hart-Celler led to divisions—between professional and working-class Asian Americans, as well as between Asian Americans and people of color—that are now impossible to bridge.
Kang’s grim prognosis may ring true for many. From another vantage, however, his pessimism might look like yet another luxury the working class cannot afford. The book often feels deeply confused, torn between rival impulses and lacking the clarity that might have come from a more grounded engagement with scholarship or activism. On the one hand, he chastises his peers: “We, the upwardly mobile Hart-Celler immigrants, still have no idea what side we’re on.” On the other hand, he thinks multiracial working-class solidarity has become more or less impossible and suggests that the only hope for change lies in recruiting ambivalent elites to the cause (his injunction is to “fully align ourselves to the forgotten Asian America”), even though he offers no program for doing so. The conflict may stem from the fact that Kang seems far more inclined to imagine political experiences than to participate in them. In this scheme, the theory and practice of organizing become little more than grist for the punditry mill—challenges professional commentators can safely interpret from the outside without having to endure, much less actively try to solve.
The Loneliest Americans thus exhibits what we might call the elite capture of critiques of elite capture. Rather than reaching out to actually existing organizing efforts today, this ouroboros of intra-elite conflict and sanctimonious one-upmanship eats its own tail. Indeed there is very little history of labor resistance or collective action in this book, refracted as most of the analysis is through the impressionistic narrative mode of the personal essay; the word “unions” appears just twice, despite a passing admiring reference to Ignatiev’s twenty-year career as “a worker and radical organizer in the steel mills and factories around Chicago and Detroit.” (Ignatiev himself thought unions were insufficiently radical and agitated for more revolutionary forms of grassroots resistance.) It seems you can now get a book deal both for advancing elite identity politics and for opposing it, but either way, scolding your fellow professionals and acknowledging your own privilege does not necessarily contribute to the struggles of the poor and vulnerable: to make a difference, these ideas have to be linked to concrete forms of political action. (Ignatiev, for his part, was clear on the imperative of action. “Politics is not arguing with people you disagree with,” Jarrod Shanahan recalls him saying, “but finding people you agree with, getting together, and doing things.”)
It is for this reason that The Loneliest Americans fails on its own terms. Despite offering a compelling portrait of some antinomies of contemporary Asian American identity and a sharp critique of the way elites co-opt identity politics to advance their own interests, Kang ultimately speaks for working-class movements rather than with them, and this distance leads him not only to understate the heterogeneity of post-Hart-Celler Asian Americans but to overlook both the prospects and the urgency of building meaningful political power.
The divisions reflected over recent Asian American violence are mirrored in what Kang sees as a rudderless Asian American politics today, vacillating between two extremes. One is a self-defensive and jaded Asian American nationalism, which believes that Asian Americans “face oppression like all other minority groups” and “have no real allies” and which therefore “valorizes hard work, equal opportunity, and law and order” in a bid to secure some semblance of cultural and socioeconomic capital, especially against the backdrop of publicized, graphic violence inflicted upon Asians during the pandemic. The second extreme, championed by many second-generation Hart-Celler immigrants, recoils from this “right-wing” tilt, as Kang puts it; instead it tends to performatively “mimic the language of Black liberation as a way to ascend into a liberal, multicultural elite that asks them to renounce any struggles they have endured.” Neither narrative offers a blueprint for multiracial organizing; the former sets Asian Americans apart, and the latter suggests they do not really know oppression—each claim wrong in its own way.
Kang raises uncomfortable questions about these two poles. Should elites engage with those who at times hold the “wrong” politics—and if so, how? If even other Asian Americans have no sympathy for their working-class counterparts, who will? More revealingly, though, the book fails to ask at what point it no longer makes sense for working-class Asian Americans to align with professionals instead of with the rest of the working class. On this point, it is instructive to revisit the history of Asian immigration to the United States and the socioeconomic demographics of post-Hart-Celler Asian Americans, which Kang too breezily caricatures. Though his argument is meant as a corrective to flattened, monolithic accounts, his bipartite division itself simplifies the diversity of Asian American experience and reinforces the false presumption that post-1965 Asian immigrants have no appetite or empirical basis for the articulation of a meaningful political consciousness.
The term “Asian American” was first coined in the heat of political agitation in the late 1960s, not to circumscribe a racial group but rather to advance an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist political stance. According to the original ethos of the Third World Liberation Fronts formed at San Francisco State University in 1968 and then a year later at the University of California, Berkeley, “oppressed nationalities,” which included African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos/Chicanas, and Native Americans, had no choice but to ally with each other in order to demand critical education that reflected the histories of people of color. As its name suggests, the movement was also linked to support for anti-imperialist self-determination in Africa, Asia, and Latin America under the paradigm of a third world identity. Since then, however, the term “Asian American” has come to assume a primarily demographic dimension—a shift cemented by the 1990 decision to conglomerate different Asian ethnicities and nationalities under the single umbrella term “Asian or Pacific Islander” on the U.S. Census.
Kang is right that this catch-all demographic designation obscures the immense diversity of this group across both ethnic background and class status, but the story is not so rigidly bifurcated around 1965 as he makes it seem. To be sure, Hart-Celler and the Cold War space race did prompt the United States to accept skilled immigrants from such countries as India, the Philippines, and South Korea—a trend carefully documented in Shelley Sang-Hee Lee’s A New History of Asian America (2013), another valuable reference Kang might have consulted. But alongside an influx of well-educated East Asian, Indian, and Filipino families after 1965, there also arrived war refugees from Laos and Vietnam. A similar wave of Cambodian migration followed slightly later in the wake of genocide: because the Khmer Rouge targeted the intelligentsia and the middle class, most refugees were poor and lacked formal education. For all these reasons, as historian Erika Lee makes clear in The Making of Asian America (2015), even post-1965 immigrants from Asia occupy a vast range of educational and class status. (Kang cites Lee but erases her nuance.) While engineers and medical professionals from China, India, the Philippines, and Taiwan have accounted for a third of these professions in the United States since the 1980s, undocumented Asian immigrants constitute an estimated 10 to 11 percent of the overall undocumented population between 2000 and 2010.
Likewise, groups with higher proportions of skilled immigrants—Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Taiwanese Americans—have higher socioeconomic status, on average, than groups that have higher proportions of refugees. Asian Americans are now the most economically divided racial group in the United States. As of 2019, some 17 percent of Hmong Americans live in poverty, compared to 13 percent percent of all Americans and 10 percent percent of Asian Americans at large. Burmese Americans, for their part—many of whom arrived in the United States seeking asylum from military rule—have a poverty rate of 25 percent. By contrast, only 6 percent of Indian Americans live in poverty, and the median annual household income of Chinese Americans is about $82,000, compared to the national average of $69,000.
Generational, political, and economic differences also exist within each ethnic group. Chinese Americans who arrived in the United States as laborers for the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s encountered vastly different circumstances from those who settled as PhD students in American college towns in the 1980s. The first wave of Vietnamese refugees was driven predominantly by urban elites who opposed their country’s political regime, but they were followed by Vietnamese, Hmong, and Laotian migrants with more modest means fleeing violence and economic collapse; some had lived in Thai camps for years before relocating to the United States. Without much knowledge of English or American recognition of educational pedigrees from Southeast Asia, most of these refugees, including some of the former urban elites, experienced downward social mobility.
These facts undermine the overly tidy picture presented in The Loneliest Americans that Kang uses to argue that the possibility of Asian American solidarity—either as its own distinctive group or with Black, indigenous, and other people of color—ended in the late 1960s. The Third World Liberation Front coalition was only possible, he claims, because Asian Americans active in the movement had experienced direct or generational trauma from Japanese Internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which only ended in 1943. Experiences of systemic ethnic and racial targeting not only offered some common ground among pre-Hart-Celler Asian Americans but also resonated with African American, Chicano, and Native American experiences of state-sponsored oppression. By contrast, Kang argues that the post-1965 Asian Americans have not experienced the same forms of marginalization, rendering multiracial solidarity significantly more challenging. “Our great-grandparents weren’t herded up in Los Angeles, our parents did not stand with the Panthers and the Third World Liberation Front,” he writes.
But the model of the Third World Liberation Front might not be as antiquated as Kang believes. For one thing, there are, in fact, millions of poor Asian Americans in the United States, who face structural marginalization just like the rest of the working class, especially working-class people of color. (Acknowledging this fact requires rejecting the claim that all Asians in the United States uniformly benefit from white supremacy.) Moreover, how similar do shared experiences have to be in order for political solidarity to take hold? Can organizing afford to wait for the “right” moment and conditions, or must it forge coalitions on the basis of present needs and circumstances, in spite of varying histories of oppression? Is solidarity only possible among those whose ancestors experienced precisely the same degree of state violence? The Third World Liberation Front, for its part, was founded on the premise not that an exact equation holds between the historical oppression of various groups but rather that the predicaments faced by people of color in the United States are, in their various ways, inextricably intertwined with the oppression of the third world at the hands of Western powers—and that working together would provide greater power and leverage in the pursuit of their goals.
The reality is that empire, capitalist modernization, and decolonization have historically shaped and will continue to shape the formation of the working class of color, including working-class Asian Americans, in the United States. In The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015)—another reference not mentioned in Kang’s book—pioneering race, ethnicity, and migration scholar Lisa Lowe explores the relationships between European liberalism, U.S. settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and the importing of Chinese and South Asian indentured labor, concluding that “racial classifications and colonial divisions of humanity emerged in the colonial acquisition of territory, and the management of labor, reproduction, and social space.” Liberty and liberalism for Europeans meant the subjugation of non-Europeans in different forms (and to different extents).
This perspective helps illuminate how the history of U.S. imperialism and intervention in Asia is closely intertwined with the history of Asian immigration to the United States. (Kang’s own family history in the United States, he acknowledges, dates to the Korean War, when postwar economic devastation in South Korea drove his parents to immigrate.) The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, exacerbated by austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, led to a spike in undocumented immigration of South Koreans to the United States. The Vietnam War left Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam among the poorest nations in the world in the 1980s. As historian Alfred W. McCoy has argued, the Philippines, once a formal American colony, served as the American testing site of the intrusive security strategies of race-based surveillance and policing that were subsequently imported back home. In short, U.S. entanglements in the Asian periphery have deeply shaped the structure of class and racial politics in the United States.
Against this backdrop, the anti-imperialist and internationalist dimensions of Asian American identity—as refugees, migrants, and transnational citizens produced by empire—offer a framework for multiracial, working-class coalition building and compel us to examine race as a transnationally and economically rooted construct. After all, racism is not simply an individual psychological disposition or a matter of interpersonal slights: it inheres most consequentially in the social and economic structures that oppress some while privileging others.
The elite focus of Kang’s argument leads him both to neglect this global perspective and to overlook current multiracial, working-class organizing efforts clearly borrowing from the mold of the Third World Liberation Front. The final pages of the book slip into speaking only to fellow upwardly mobile professionals. “There is almost no actual solidarity between Asian Americans and any other group,” he flatfootedly insists, making two errors at once. First, solidarity is not a static fait accompli to be taken as a given prior to political action but a dynamic relation made and remade in concrete struggles, the product of deliberate efforts at organizing and political education in our communities. (Of course, this is not to say that building solidarity is always easy or comfortable.) Second, Kang simply erases the living legacy of those engaged in this work. “As much as we want to point to Richard Aoki or pioneering leftist anti-racists like Grace Lee Boggs,” he writes, “they are not only the extreme outliers but also from another Asian America, one that feels fully foreign to all of us who came over after Hart-Celler.” This will come as news to the many leaders and organizations working in this tradition.
Indeed, contemporary organizing efforts in the Asian American community revolve around interconnected struggles—labor rights, immigration reforms, and transformations of the criminal legal system—that hold relevance for other working-class communities of color. Recent grassroots advocacy to stop the planned construction of a mega-jail in New York City’s Chinatown is one example. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio approved a borough-based jail program that entailed the construction of a new forty-story jail in an area of Chinatown currently filled with senior housing, green space, and small businesses. As Victoria Lee, co-founder of the non-profit Welcome to Chinatown, asserts, the $8.3 billion dollar funding for this mass incarceration program could instead have been used for community resources such as education and health care, which had been obliterated for Chinatown residents and the working class in general.
Popular accounts often portray strong divisions between Asian Americans and other communities of color when it comes to views of the criminal justice system, but the logic of state-sponsored punishment is harmful for Asian Americans as well, especially when it manifests in immigration enforcement. (Asian Americans are the fastest-growing undocumented racial group in the United States, as of 2019.) This perspective informs the work of organizations such as the HANA Center, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, all of which challenge the U.S. immigration system. Their advocacy for legislation such as the New Way Forward Act, which calls for the end of mandatory immigration detention and the revocation of laws that facilitate automatic pipelines to deportation through the criminal legal system, establishes the foundation for a united cause among all low-income and undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, the influence of pre-Hart Celler leftist antiracists such as Hawaiian labor reformer Ah Quon McElrath is apparent in unions and labor-focused organizations today. UNITE HERE, a transnational union whose membership consists predominantly of immigrant workers in the hospitality industry, employed tactics similar to McElrath’s during mass layoffs prompted by the COVID-19 lockdown, providing cash transfers, health care coverage, and unemployment insurance application help to its members. Activism by the Red Canary Song, a transnational grassroots collective that focuses on the rights and safety of migrant, labor, and massage parlor workers across the Asian diaspora in the United States, Paris, and Toronto, further highlights the connections between Western colonialism, labor exploitation, and the marginalization of Asian women. The 2021 Atlanta spa shootings were only the latest manifestation of the historically and economically rooted phenomenon of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and women of color, especially those with low income and uncertain immigration status who have been placed in the most socially and physically vulnerable lines of work. As the collective aptly stated in the wake of the shootings:
It is far easier to blame the violence of racism on individual actors in place of challenging the broader culture and structures of society that produce such individuals. While Asian people face racialized labor exploitation, rampant workplace abuse, criminalization within the workplace, targeted sexual violence, routine refusal of language access, immigration detention and deportation, and xenophobic media attacks domestically, the United States wages military occupation, military sexual violence in host nations, environmental destruction, and extractive and coercive trade/economic policies abroad in countries across Asia. It is from this context that every form of violence against Asian people in the United States springs.
Grassroots efforts to protect Asians in the United States from violence have also been cross-racial. In response to the surge in anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, Latino activist Jacob Azevedo founded Compassion in Oakland, an organization with over 400 volunteers who chaperone senior residents in Oakland’s Chinatown to ensure their safety. Black activist groups have donated to health services for those who experience anti-Asian racism and are working with Asian-led organizations to better serve the needs of various inner city communities through mutual aid.
It is telling that these and other efforts don’t make it into Kang’s book. The Loneliest Americans shrewdly describes a central fault line of contemporary Asian American politics, but it fails both in its analysis of the problem and in its prescription of solutions. Readers less inclined to wait for professionals like Kang to pick a “side”—and who can’t afford not to risk discomfort in the messy but necessary work of making common cause—will have to look elsewhere for actionable models. The many daring struggles he overlooks are the best place to start.