Recently, one of the oldest Asian American student organizations in the country, the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU), experienced a controversy that not only generated a furor among many people but also implicitly revealed something important about the broader direction of Asian American politics.
The controversy involved the fact that this year’s ECAASU conference at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst received funding from US military organizations like the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency and Transportation Safety Administration.
For some Asian American activists, the very involvement of US military and spy organizations in the conference was outrageous in that it contradicted the activist tradition that ECAASU was founded upon — a tradition that includes antiwar organizing inspired by the Vietnam War era.
Keynote speakers Prof. Vijay Prashad of Trinity College and Lai Wa Wu, an organizer for the Student Immigrant Movement, thus questioned why ECAASU agreed to accept funds from these institutions given its political history and addressed the role of the US military in expanding American imperialism throughout the world.
For the ECAASU leadership and others, however, US military and CIA sponsorship of the conference was not a contradiction of ECAASU’s organizational values and in fact represented the ‘inclusive” nature of the conference that organizers wished to promote.
The ECAASU board even issued a public letter distancing itself from Prashad’s and Wu’s critical comments and offered an apology to military members and their sympathizers at the conference for any offense that the speakers may have caused.
In this letter, Nancy Liang of the ECAASU board offered a tacit rationale for the conference’s acceptance of funds from the US military and CIA, explaining that “ECAASU is an inclusive — not exclusive — organization. We believe in partnering with those who endeavor in introducing more diversity into their organizations, and our sponsors have clearly established their aim towards that end.”
A further point made by the ECAASU leadership in another statement argued that “the best way to change these organizations is to help them achieve more diversity and understanding of our issues—not to ostracize them. By inviting them to participate in ECAASU, we also give them an opportunity to learn about our issues and think about our issues.”
While these explanations may be well spoken, they involve basic misconceptions about the essential nature of the American military as well as the politics of diversity in general.
US government agencies sponsor student conferences like ECAASU not out of any selfless altruism but as a strategy to recruit prospective candidates among college youth.
So if social justice issues are important to ECAASU’s mission, why is it allowing the US military and spy agencies to recruit Asian American students?
American military-intelligence organizations are not driven by concern for social justice, equality, or the civil rights of Asian Americans. They are instruments used by the American Empire to wage war around the world, often against people in Asia.
Indeed, the USA is currently waging serial wars throughout Southwest Asia in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as in Africa like Libya and Yemen.
Contrary to the propaganda peddled by the US free press, these conflicts are America-led wars of aggression responsible for the death or maiming of millions of people and the destruction of entire societies.
American atrocities include Abu Ghraib torture, the Guantanamo Bay gulag, secret CIA “black” site prisons, and US military “kill team” death squads in Afghanistan.
But most Americans simply don’t have the honesty or courage to admit that their Land of the Free is guilty on multiple counts of what the Nuremberg Tribunal called the “supreme international crime”: waging wars against peace.
Given all this, it’s ludicrous that people believe that Asian American empowerment means having more Asian Americans participate in CIA waterboarding sessions, TSA strip searches, or yet another American military assault on some Third World nation.
But apparently, that’s what diversity represents in “post-racial” America.
In general, promoting diversity has become a key concern for Asian Americans and other minority communities, but not many people question its political agenda.
Some advocacy groups believe that more representation of minorities in business, government, media, and even the US military and CIA is an inherently laudable goal.
But a more diverse workforce doesn’t necessarily change the fundamental mission of an institution. Diversity only changes the background of the people who serve this institution.
Putting an African American man in the White House doesn’t challenge White power or racial dominance in the USA.
In fact, it’s designed to have the opposite effect: to perpetuate the existing American system but with a more multicultural veneer.
In 21st century America, White institutional power will increasingly come disguised behind political masks like diversity, post-racialism, or colorblindness.
But at its base, diversity is just (racial) window dressing.
It’s White supremacy behind a rainbow mask.