Sunday, March 14, 2021

#StayAtHome: J. Sakai's "Learning from an Unimportant Minority"

 J. Sakai is a Japanese American radical who is best known for his book Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern. This book, Learning from an Unimportant Minority: Race Politics Beyond the Black/White Paradigm (2015) is the transcript of a talk he gave as part of the Festival of Anarchy in Montreal in 2014. It's a small book, and short at 118 pages; I read it in a few hours last night.

The title is sarcastic. Sakai doesn't really think either Asians or Japanese Americans are an "unimportant minority", but that is how they are often treated within a paradigm that looks at race as primarily Black/White. He's interested in this problem not as an academic exercise in critiquing binaries or dualism, but based on his life experience. But the talk opens with the case of a white man in Chicago who attacked several Asian men while they were fishing by Lake Michigan. The white guy got a reduced sentence because his companions included a white woman and a black male, and because he belonged to an anti-racist skinhead group. That's the context for Sakai's immediate concern with Asians as an "unimportant minority."

In the talk he relates his family's experience after leaving a WW II concentration camp for Japanese Americans. They moved to Chicago, and he learned how to interact with white people ("the rules") around age 9 from African American kids of similar age. He observes the ways in which Japanese Americans in Chicago "bargained" with a white power structure, as well as about his own (and other Asian Americans') activism in solidarity with African Americans and American Indians.

One of the most exciting stories he tells is about an American Indian armed occupation of vacant housing in Chicago,

Sakai doesn't think that race antagonisms will go away when capitalism is put down. He points to conflicts between the Japanese American community and other racial groups, and to class differences within the Japanese American community, and suggests that "contradictions among the people" will persist for some time after a revolution.  

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