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A Victory for the Asian-American Community

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Last week, after passage of Obama's stimulus bill, the Asian-American community found a specific reason to celebrate. After decades of activism, congress included a provision in the stimulus package that finally agreed to give Filipino World War II veterans, who fought on behalf of the United States, the full recognition and benefits received by other WWII veterans 60 years ago.

Despite the military service of over 400,000 Filipino soldiers in the Philippines against Japanese occupation and the promise given by the U.S. government for recognition and benefits, Filipino WWII Veterans received nothing. Instead, congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946, which denied them health care benefits because of their racial identity. Last week they found justice.

For decades, the Filipino veterans issue has served as a springboard for many Asian American youth into social justice causes. During college in Los Angeles, the veterans issue allowed me to connect with my Filipino community. In fact, the first major political action I coordinated involved a march for equity for the veterans on Veterans Day.

But now that the veterans have been recognized and compensated for their services, what is going to be the catalyst for producing young Asian American activists?

Sadly, my trip last summer as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention provided me with little hope for finding an answer to this question. There, I attended the Asian caucus meeting where I listened to a panel of Asian American men talk about the importance of "getting involved" with no real specific issues.

At one point, we heard from one of the Asian American contestants on the reality show "Survivor." And then it hit me. What seemed to unite us in Denver was the need for "representation." While this need for visibility is important (as of now I am one of a handful of Asian bloggers on this post), it seemed like the concern was primarily cosmetic, as if having an Asian face at the table of power (or a reality game show) meant empowerment.

This idea was reinforced a few weeks earlier when the organization "80-20 Initiative" held a convention to endorse Obama. 80-20 is who CNN turns to for the "Asian American perspective" and claims to be the largest Asian American political action committee. In fact, during the Democratic primary, the group boasted that their endorsement of Hillary Clinton turned California in her favor. They state that their mission is to form a powerful political force that would help the Asian American community achieve "equal opportunity."

Yet after they endorsed Obama for president, the group put out a press release stating that should John McCain choose Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana as his vice presidential candidate, they would view it as "very helpful to winning equal opportunity for Asian-Americans." Had that occurred, the press release continued, they may have to hold another convention to reconsider their endorsement.

Aside from the fact that Mr. Jindal will not even embrace his Asian first name, Piyush, he has demonstrated himself to be an enemy of working people and a friend of large corporate interests. He even refuses to accept stimulus money that is badly needed to help rebuild his state still devastated by Katrina. Would 80-20 endorse him for president in 2012 because his candidacy would mean breaking the Asian "glass ceiling"?

The reality is that out of all the minority groups in the United States, Asian Americans have the widest gap between the rich and the poor. As a result, when politicians cater to the Asian American community, they tend to approach the businessmen with money. Consequently the voices of the Asian working class -- hotel janitors, nurses, garment workers -- get left out.This discussion of class and Asian labor issues is what was largely missing from the Asian caucus in Denver and from organizations like 80-20.

As a community, we need to go beyond the desire to be cosmetically displayed like rugs on the windows of prominent corporate offices and the shelves of political cabinets. We need to focus our efforts on the issues that will affect the less privileged in our community -- immigration reform, health care access, and most importantly, workplace democracy.

The Filipino veterans have received their due, but Asian workers have not. It is up Asian activists to continue to educate and politicize the youth. This begins with a discussion about class and labor, not cosmetics and tokenism.