10 Times Asian Americans Took On Systemic Racism in 2016

These days, nothing screams December quite like the end of the year listicles — and Asian Americans are getting in on the 2016 wrap-up fun. From Buzzfeed to Vulture, folks are counting down the ways Asian Americans spoke truth to power, from Hollywood and the Oscars to network television and even Netflix.

We get it. Representation matters. But Asian American activism doesn’t begin and end with the fight for mainstream media representation. 2016 may have brought us #StarringConstanceWu and a Master of None Emmy, but it also brought us grassroots fights against deportations, racial profiling, gentrification, and Islamophobia. As we stare down the barrel of the loaded gun that is a Donald Trump administration, it’s worth taking a moment to look back on some (by no means all) of the big moments of community resistance and resilience from 2016. Here’s hoping we can build on this work in 2017.

10. When Activists Put Chinatown Gentrifiers On Blast

From San Francisco to NYC, Chinatowns are under siege. Housing abuses, rent hikes, and illegal evictions are all pushing longtime residents out of their communities to make way for Wall Street and Silicon Valley professionals looking for the next “up and coming” neighborhood.

But activists are taking creative means to take a stand against gentrification. In July, flyers were plastered across San Francisco’s Chinatown calling out landlords for using AirBnB to host illegal (and highly profitable) short-term rentals. In New York, the newly-formed Chinatown Arts Brigade in staged outdoor projections in September calling attention to the crisis of displacement — while leading community conversations to push gallery owners to question their complicity in displacement. Meanwhile, groups like CAAAV worked to win a rent freeze for 1 million rent-regulated tenants in New York City, a much-needed win in the long fight for affordable housing for New York’s low-income communities of color.

9. When Japanese Americans Said “NOPE” To a Muslim Registry

As Donald Trump’s talk of a “Muslim registry” went from an abhorrent pipe dream to a potentially pending policy, Japanese Americans have been among the loudest critics of this mass infringement of Muslim American civil liberties. Citing their own experiences with mass incarceration during World War II, Japanese American public figures like George Takei have called out the heinous proposals for a Muslim registry. In Chicago, Muslim and Japanese American groups came together in a show of solidarity on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing to speak out against Trump’s calls to register or even incarcerate Muslim Americans.

In a political climate in which Trump surrogates have claimed Japanese American internment as a legal precedent for Trump’s proposals, and the L.A. Times sees fit to publish letters to the editor defending the virtues of internment, Japanese-Muslim solidarity is an example of the power we can channel when diverse Asian American groups come together to condemn xenophobic policies in every form.

Children in the Manzanar internment camp in California.
Sufyan Sohel of the Council on American Islamic Relations and World War II detainee Chiyoko Omachi speak out against Islamophobic policies on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing.

8. When Thousands of Okinawans and Filipinos Told the U.S. Military to GTFOH

From the occupation of Hawaii to the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” for too long Asia and the Pacific have been a stomping grounds for U.S. militarism. This year saw massive protests abroad, from Okinawa to the Philippines, calling out the expansion of U.S. military bases that appropriate land, drive sexual violence, and undermine national sovereignty. Just as the Vietnam War politicized early leaders of the Asian American Movement in the 1960s, today’s fight against U.S. militarism abroad continues to inform Asian American and Pacific Islander activists, with organizations like API People’s Solidarity drawing connections between U.S. imperialism abroad and the militarization of police forces stateside.

Tens of thousands gather to protest U.S. military bases in Okinawa in June 2016. The posters read: “Our anger has exceeded its limit”.

7. When Queer Asian Americans Shut It Down To Protest Racial Profiling

Invasive TSA searches; police harassment of gender-nonconforming people of color; stop and frisk practices that criminalize Black and brown youth…Profiling on the basis of race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation is as pervasive as ever. To speak out against the ways law enforcement justifies targeting queer people of color using the language of “security,” National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and its member organizations hosted a week of #RedefineSecurity actions in May. As NQAPIA organizer Sasha W. said in a statement: “Our communities will redefine security for themselves, without law enforcement agencies that routinely profile and harass South Asians and Muslims as terrorists, Southeast Asians as gang members, and LGBTQ API people as targets for harassment…As LGBTQ APIs, we are in solidarity with all Black and brown people who experience profiling from police, from ICE, and from all state agencies.”

A #RedefineSecurity action shuts down a Washington D.C. intersection to call attention to racial profiling.

6. When Student Activists Made Asian American Studies Programs A Thing

If you’ve ever been asked what the difference is between Asian American Studies and “Oriental Studies,” don’t worry: you’re not alone. The fact is, too many people — university faculty and administrators especially — don’t know the first thing about Ethnic Studies or Asian American Studies. So it’s fallen on students to hold their institutions accountable for erasing Asian American perspectives from their curriculum.

A student hunger strike in 1995 led to the creation of an Asian American Studies minor at Northwestern in 1999. In 2016, the school finally chose to offer an AAS major .

From the creation of an AAS minor at William & Mary, to the establishment of an AAS major at Northwestern after two decades of student organizing, 2016 was a big year in the #Fight4AAS. But at Hunter College and so many other schools, the fight to have our histories and perspectives taught continues.

[Read more: I took a deep dive into the perspectives of Asian American student activists in a piece published back in February]

Hunter CRAASH is fighting for Asian American Studies with basebuilding AND memes.

5. When Reproductive Justice Activists Came Together To #FreePurvi

In March, Donald Trump told MSNBC if Roe v. Wade were overturned, there would have to be “some form of punishment” for people who receive abortions. Many were rightfully horrified by the comments — but others with roots in the reproductive justice movement knew that, as in the case of Purvi Patel, punitive measures for those seeking abortions were already underway.

Patel had been charged and convicted of feticide and child neglect after suffering what she described as a miscarriage and the loss of her 25-week-old-fetus. Patel’s guilty verdict and 20 year jail sentence showed the dangerous efficacy of Indiana’s recently adopted feticide laws that criminalize unlawful abortions. But after a long legal battle and fierce organizing from advocates like the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), an Indiana Appeals Court overturned her conviction, freeing Patel, who had been held in jail since 2015.

NAPAWF Executive Director Miriam Yeung described how the multiracial coalition of reproductive justice activists came together to #FreePurvi because “each of us can see ourselves in her story.”

But the fight is far from over, as Yeung explained: “Purvi Patel should never have been jailed in the first place. We will not rest until we are assured that all women have the basic freedom and dignity to access the reproductive health care they need and deserve.”

National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum members and other #FreePurvi supporters protest outside the Indiana Court of Appeals in May.

4. When Former Detainees Called Out the Hypocrisy of Obama’s Deportation Record

In April, as the presidential campaign heated up and Donald Trump’s bombastic Islamophobia continued to put targeted communities on edge, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and former ICE detainees came together to challenge the Obama administration’s policy of deporting Bangladeshi refugees seeking asylum from hostile political conditions back home.

Building from the energy of 2015’s hunger strike, in which detainees at El Paso Detention Center protested human rights violations, DRUM held a symbolic funeral in Jackson Heights, Queens in April. The action was meant to “mourn all the migrants deported to death,” including 85 migrants deported that same month back to Bangladesh, where they expected to face violence and persecution for their involvement with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a group that has faced government disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.

The action marked a key moment in grassroots efforts to bring public attention to the reality of President Obama’s immigration policies that have led him to be known by critics as the “deporter-in-chief.” As DRUM’s campaign put it: “Trump rhetoric + Obama policies = Deported 2 Death.”

DRUM’s #Deported2Death action in Queens this April.

3. When Asian Americans Kept Showing Up For Black Lives

2016 saw the continuation of the crisis of police violence against Black communities — from the police killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, and too many others, to the acquittals of many officers with blood on their hands. But 2016 also brought us the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform, a visionary document bringing together the nation’s most powerful Black activists and organizations to lay out a radical and intersectional vision of Black liberation.

This year, Asian Americans have continued to navigate their positioning in the context of antiblackness and Black resistance. It hasn’t always been pretty: in April, after former NYPD officer Peter Liang was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley tens of thousands of Chinese Americans protested, claiming that Liang was made a “scapegoat” of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The pro-Liang protests helped spur creative interventions under the banner of #Asians4BlackLives that urged Asian American communities to recognize the need to say unequivocally: Black Lives Matter. Bay Area group Asians4BlackLives kicked off 2016 with a community intervention in front of San Francisco mayor Ed Lee’s house to denounce his role “acting as a general” in the war on Black lives through his inaction on issues of gentrification and police violence. In May, New York City protesters called out Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily for spreading misinformation and fomenting antiblack sentiments through its coverage of the Peter Liang trial. And in July, following the shooting of Philando Castile, Letters For Black Lives put out an open letter — translated into over 30 languages — addressing antiblackness to urge their parents and community members to rethink their stance on the crisis of antiblack police violence.

An altar for victims of San Francisco police built by Asians4BlackLives.
Artist Kayan Cheung’s “Two Mothers” confronts the “one tragedy, two victims” narrative in the killing of Akai Gurley.

2. When California Asked What We Really Mean By “AAPI”

2016 saw a long, bitter fight over California legislation that would break down data on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities by ethnicity. AB 1726, or the data disaggregation bill, was championed by groups like the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) whose constituents’ unique needs are often erased under the umbrella term “AAPI.”

But the bill, which originally applied to educational and health data, was met with vocal backlash from Chinese American groups that saw disaggregation as unfairly targeting Asian Americans and as a potential backdoor towards affirmative action policies. Some groups went so far as to compare AB 1726 to past discriminatory policies like Chinese Exclusion and Japanese American internment. Political pressure from groups like the Silicon Valley Chinese Association led to the removal of the bill’s education provision. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed the amended bill into law, requiring the Department of Public Health to break down AAPI demographic data. It’s a small step in the right direction for better meeting the needs of underserved AAPI demographics. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in making sure umbrella terms like “Asian American” and “AAPI” center, rather than erase, the most marginalized members of our diverse communities.

A chart demonstrates the wide variance in California poverty rates between different AAPI ethnic groups.
SEARAC rallies in support of AB 1726 in Sacramento.

1. When Muslim American Activists Took Down NSEERS

Amidst all Trump’s talk of a “Muslim registry,” many feared that his administration wouldn’t be starting from scratch come January 20th. That’s because a registry program for men from Muslim-majority countries — the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System — had been in place since 2002. NSEERS was widely criticized as a civil liberties violation and for being an ineffective counterterrorism tool: despite registering over 80,000 people (mostly Muslim and Arab men) and placing 14,000 into deportation proceedings, the program didn’t yield a single terrorism conviction. And while the registry has not been in use since 2011, many worried the existing infrastructure would enable Trump’s team to quickly implement new policies targeting Muslims.

Enter: Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), MPower Change, and MoveOn.org, who organized a march on the White House earlier this month calling on Obama to dismantle the program before he leaves office. Armed with a petition with 340,000 signatures and some 150 protestors, the groups marched to the White House as activists recounted stories of the impacts of NSEERS, which DRUM organizer Roksana Mun described as turning South Asian immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn into “ghost towns.”

DRUM, MPower Change, and MoveOn.org lead a D.C. march December 12 calling on Obama to dismantle NSEERS.

Less than two weeks after the march, the Obama administration announced it would heed calls to formally dismantle the “obsolete” program. It’s a symbolic and material blow to the incoming administration: proving once again that our communities won’t put up with racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic state violence without a fight.


It’s hard to look towards 2017 with anything but fear and dread of the violence to come under a Trump administration. But as much as 2016 has been a year for loud and proud white supremacy, so too has it been a year of inspiring resistance and resilience. From Standing Rock to Charlotte, we’ve witnessed the power of visionary movements against antiblackness and settler colonialism. And Asian Americans have been far from silent — and not just when it comes to Hollywood representation. This year Asian American activists have taken brave and creative stands against police brutality, Islamophobia, mass deportations, and all forms of white supremacy. So if there’s anything to be hopeful about in the new year, it’s the knowledge that we can carry the things that fueled 2016’s big movement moments — our legacies of resilience, our love of community, and our visions for alternative futures — with us into 2017. Indeed, all of our futures depend on it.