While a term like “people of color” might ring hollow or even confused, immigrants across generations share — at the very least — the experience of building a life in a foreign country. They must, in other words, disaggregate and then reorganize into an even broader movement that could build on existing, like-minded grass-roots organizations, such as those that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign in Nevada or immigrant labor organizations throughout New York and California, and develop a spirit of solidarity that puts less weight on questions of belonging and citizenship for these nebulously and conditionally defined groups — and more on the experiences, as working-class immigrants, they share both in America and their homelands.
Too much of the messaging toward these groups is aimed at the upwardly ascendant second- and third-generation immigrants who worry about questions of representation within elite institutions. If Democrats want to combat charges of “socialism,” which are perhaps especially effective on immigrants who fled Communist or socialist countries, they must stop believing that an immigrant shows up in America and immediately begins worrying, say, about how many Asian or Latino actors have been cast in the latest comic book movie.
This, of course, does not mean that the Democratic Party should entirely abandon its anti-racist message. Part of the effort must include a much-needed clarification between the needs of Black Americans and Latino and Asian immigrants; that would end the confusing and harmful conflation between two groups whose interests and actions are often at odds with one another.
Nor should we succumb to the temptation to wipe away all distinctions. Some part of every immigrant will still identify with their home country, through language, food and culture. The path forward is to create coalitions that make sense, not only for the immigrants themselves but also in their relationships with both working-class Black and white Americans.
Such a strategy would require the upwardly mobile second-generation immigrants — the people most likely to be tasked with broadcasting this message out toward the public — to do something that might feel counterintuitive or even contradictory. But we must abandon the broad style of diversity politics that designates us as “people of color.” Those categories might help us navigate the academy and the workplace, but they only resonate with a small, generally wealthy portion of our population.
The late historian Noel Ignatiev argued that racism in America could be solved only when white people committed treason against the white race — when they recognized that the antagonists in their lives weren’t Black people, but rather the wealthy class that used racism to divide workers whose interests should be aligned.
In a similar spirit, those of us who have assimilated into the professional class must commit treason against “people of color” and help build a coalition of working-class immigrants, from Guatemalan workers in fish processing plants and Bangladeshi cabdrivers to Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant workers and Mexican farm workers.
By Jay Caspian Kang
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