The Chinese Progressive Association is a small grass-roots non-profit that has been organizing residents in Boston’s Chinatown since 1977. I encountered them by chance, during a public protest in response to the national foreclosure crisis, while visiting Chinatown. As an Asian American Studies student I was instantly curious about CPA. For months I had read about the history of the Asian American Movement, and coalitions that organized around a shared critique of race rather than a shared ethnicity, and here was an organization that put those politics into practice. The protest made me wonder if this kind of multi-racial organizing could be the new trajectory of the Asian American Movement.
That was the spring of 2013. Since then I’ve gotten to know CPA better, both through an internship over the summer and volunteer work sporadically throughout the year. And what I’ve grown to understand is that although the organization is rooted in a structural analysis of the link between race and class, their work is still primarily about empowering working-class Chinese Americans in Boston.
What this paper seeks to explain, and what I—a white middle-class college student—have tried to understand, is why ethnicity is still so significant to an organization committed to universal social justice. I argue that the way race has been constructed in Boston both makes the intersections between oppressions visible and reproduces “racial hierarchies.” And I contend that this environment requires what American Studies scholar George Lipsitz calls “inter-ethnic anti-racist” coalitions, and organizations that prioritize the needs of ethnic groups.
“Space is where all the different layers of what racism means become visible. Where employment, discrimination, disenfranchisement, lack of education, violence, poverty, and misrepresentation intersect. And we see that these factors work on everyone, not just one race or one ethnicity. Again and again we see that is about profit: a few people making money at the expense of other people’s labor and other people’s homes. And that race is just a subterfuge to justify exploitation. Critical Race scholars argue that race was constructed largely to define who was white, and therefor eligible for all the privileges associated with that status (citizenship, the franchise, the right to own property, etc). However the constructedness of race does not deny that it has real material affects. George Lipsitz writes, ‘Social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual spaces.’ And as such the complexity of race, as well as the interconnectedness of oppressions, also becomes visible in space.”
“I have struggled to write about racism with conviction because it is a force that does not operate on me. As my research has evolved my goal has been less to represent the undocumented stories of others, but to truly understand racism for myself. I have to squint so hard to see that the world around me is not natural but constructed, and not neutral but charged. This is of course because I am white and have the privilege not to have experienced oppression that makes it impossible to forget.”