New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of the city’s public education system, was once 90% Jewish. By the time I entered Stuyvesant in 2013, it was 70% Asian. In the black-and-white photos that adorned the walls, rows of Steins and Cohens looked upon the newest crop of children from working-class immigrant families. Asians are ascendant in many once heavily Jewish domains: specialized high schools; elite colleges; medical schools. Like the American Jewish community, debates now rage within Asian American communities over whether we are “real minorities” or white-adjacent, and we even write Tablet articles about being the victims of violent hate crimes.
American Jews and Asian Americans share something else in common: Both have been sold out by activist organizations that are more interested in catering to the sensibilities of the wealthy elite that dominate the Democratic Party than in advocating for ordinary working-class constituents. Leading Jewish and Asian American organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) have demonstrated their real priorities in how they have responded to two of the biggest issues in their respective communities: a wave of violent hate crimes and discriminatory education policies.
“In New York, street harassment, minor assaults, and even full-on beatings of visible Jews are almost a banality now, too frequent over too long of a period to be considered an active crisis, even in the communities most affected,” wrote Armin Rosen in the summer of 2022. Virtually the same thing could have been said about Asians. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there emerged one grainy video after another of Asians on the streets of American cities being beaten, occasionally to death. The victims were typically senior citizens or women, and they usually lived in coastal metropolises with high Asian populations. One attack involved an elderly Asian woman being called an anti-Asian slur before being punched in the head 125 times.
As The Scroll pointed out last year, “the rise in hate crimes [in New York] targeting highly visible and vulnerable groups like religious Jews and Asians tracks to the increase in the overall level of violent crime and disorder in the city.” Many working-class members of minority groups have reacted by advocating for stricter criminal justice policies given crime disproportionately affects them. But the groups that claim to speak for these vulnerable working-class Jews and Asian Americans, such as the ADL and AAJC, don’t advocate for these policies because they’re afraid to risk alienating the donor class and progressive base of the Democratic Party—groups that have consistently called for “restorative justice” policies and to defund the police. The ADL and AAJC has chorused those calls, virtue-signaling instead of fighting for the interests of the communities they claim they represent.
Take, for instance, the main targets of the ADL’s activist campaigns. Despite the ADL’s own statistics showing that in 2019 more than 55% of the attacks on Jews in New York City were carried out by individuals affiliated with “black supremacist” ideologies like the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites, the ADL, echoing New York City’s former mayor, Bill de Blasio, has focused on white supremacy—an important issue, but not the one most plaguing New York City or San Francisco’s Asian American or Jewish communities. When de Blasio wanted to signal that he was “doing something” about the explosion of violence against Jews, he appointed an ADL veteran, Deborah Lauter, to head a new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes focused on finding a “holistic approach” to the problem.
Of course, Lauter’s office did nothing to stop the violence because New York’s court system appears unwilling to pursue hate crime convictions, which would signal the city’s seriousness about combating the issue. In one instance—the killing of a 62-year-old Asian woman who died from injuries sustained when she was beaten outside of her Queens home—the murder was not prosecuted as a hate crime “even though it seemed to have no other motive besides hatred of Asians,” as Armin Rosen put it. As the Crown Heights Jewish activist Devorah Halberstam explained to Rosen, the lack of hate crimes prosecutions is a systemic issue. “It’s not against the Jewish community. It’s not against the Asian community … It’s the broader picture.” On the issue of the city systematically ignoring hate crimes, the ADL and AAJC have been silent.
With hate crimes increasing and hate crime charges nowhere in sight, what were these organizations busy advocating for? In the midst of this sustained wave of violence, Jewish and Asian advocacy groups were more preoccupied with chanting fashionable social justice slogans than with actually trying to prevent and punish hate crimes. In 2020, for instance, the AAJC tweeted “today we observe the National Day of Mourning in solidarity with all who have lost loved ones due to police violence or white supremacy.” This is not a good way of supporting those Asian American communities relying on police protection for their safety and sense of security. Also in 2020, the New York-based Asian American Federation (AAF) backed the creation of a special Asian Hate Crimes task force in the city. The group’s executive director, Jo-Ann Yoo, said the move was necessary “to help raise safety awareness in the pan-Asian community.” In a city that refuses to prosecute hate crimes, raising awareness is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.
If you were one of the people being beaten in the streets or walking them in fear, however, you would have wanted—indeed needed—more from these organizations. This gets at the fundamental problem: The people who run the advocacy NGOs do not view themselves as potential victims of such attacks. Orthodox Jews in New York City, whose attire makes them highly visible, are the prime targets of antisemitic violence. Most have little social capital outside of their neighborhoods, which are often side-by-side with other immigrant enclaves. Secular, progressive Jews who make careers in “social justice advocacy” tend to see the Orthodox community as a relic.
A similar dynamic applies to the relationship between the working-class Asian American immigrants who are the victims of hate crimes and their professional class spokespersons. Recent immigrants from Asian countries often lack English fluency and hold no social or cultural capital. Many struggle with America’s labyrinthine immigration system and are prime candidates for group-based lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, the NGOs that represent Asian Americans are staffed by the kinds of highly educated members of the managerial class who choose to go into the nonprofit sector. The more powerful these organizations become, the more they draw from a national network of affluent individuals and families that have the social and economic capital to let their children study arts and humanities at America’s top colleges.
The same thing is happening in America’s fights over access to education. High Asian enrollment at New York City’s specialized high schools like Stuyvesant has become a problem for the city’s progressive politicians. In 2020, the chancellor of the Department of Education under Mayor de Blasio, Richard Carranza, commented that “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” suggesting that Asians, like the pushy Jews of previous generations, had somehow gotten their spots unfairly. Never mind the open tests they took to get in, that a full three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that Asians are, on average, the poorest racial group in New York City.
While there were local organizations fighting to preserve fair and colorblind access to schools like Stuyvesant, at the national level the major Asian and Jewish advocacy organizations have actively supported policies that are biased against their own constituents. Take the affirmative action case now before the Supreme Court, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Progressive organizations have attempted to frame SFFA as a white-led effort, which erases the Jewish background of the lawyer spearheading the suit, Edward Blum, and the historical legacy of quotas limiting Jewish access to Harvard and other elite institutions.
As Jacob Scheer has written in Tablet, the leading American Jewish organizations once opposed affirmative action, as numerus clausus quotas were once used to keep qualified Jewish applicants out of elite institutions. The “big three” Jewish advocacy organizations (the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee) filed amicus briefs in Regents v. Bakke (1978) taking a firm stand against affirmative action policies. But now the leading Jewish organizations have changed their tune on affirmative action, and the ADL filed an amicus brief supporting Harvard’s admissions policies. Similarly, the AAJC has filed two amicus briefs supporting Harvard’s de facto anti-Asian discrimination.
The truth is that “our” organizations have become empty mouthpieces parroting affluent liberal talking points in the interest of getting more donations and mainstream media coverage. Rather than advocating for policies that working-class immigrant communities actually support, progressive nonprofits use their influence to regulate language.
In one particularly salient example, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest and most powerful Latino-interest NGO in America, adopted the neologism “Latinx” in their official communications. The organization’s 2019 summit in Washington, D.C., was called “State of Latinx America.” The problem, as detailed in Politico, was that while “Latinx” was “favored by activists and a growing crew of Democrats, consultants and media pundits […] just 2 percent of Hispanics use the word—while 40 percent are actually offended by it.” While LULAC eventually decided to drop the term, the fact that the organization had felt compelled to adopt it in the first place despite the complete lack of grassroots support suggests that professional activists set the agenda for these groups, and not their beleaguered constituents. For the activists, however, using terms like Latinx is useful insofar as it confirms their membership in the coastal liberal class.
A similar linguistic power struggle is taking place within Asian American communities—indeed with the term “Asian American” itself. In a 2012 Pew survey of people from the six largest groups that make up the Asian American category, fewer than 15% of respondents said they considered themselves “Asian Americans.” As Wesley Yang pointed out in Tablet: “there is no reason to expect otherwise” seeing as “no one chose it for themselves. Others applied it to them.” The reason for choosing such terms is to generate the appearance of a powerful and coherent political and electoral bloc out of what were (and are) a number of fractious groups pursuing their own interests. In one sense the strategy worked: While there is still no organic “Asian American” identity which binds together people of Chinese and Bangladeshi background, the category has given the class of spokespeople who claim to speak for “Asian Americans” power within the political system.
The term Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) is even more absurd. AAPI originated within the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget, when it formalized the term’s usage in 1977 as a way to decide which ethnic groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border were eligible to apply for special loans. Yet somehow this archaic bureaucratic term escaped the dustbin of history and now sits alongside BIPOC and Latinx as one of the newest progressive shibboleths. Imagine trying to explain to an actual living “AAPI” immigrant why Koreans, Indians, and Samoans are all considered part of the same group, while Kazakhs and Afghans are not?
The answer, obviously, is that it has nothing to do with “communities” and everything to do with politics. Under the leadership of the managerial class, identity-based NGOs have become appendages of the Democratic Party machine. The ADL, Liel Leibovitz wrote last year, has abandoned its founding mission and transformed into a “stealthy progressive, partisan operation” that “actually puts real Jews in danger.”
In one sense it has worked: In recent years the ADL has seen a massive surge in revenue. On the other hand, the ADL is so far off course that it couldn’t even issue a statement last November when hundreds of Black Hebrew Israelites chanted “We are the real Jews!” in a show of solidarity with Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving. Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s director, never condemned the march, but hours after it ended, he was attacking progressive activists’ public enemy of the month, Elon Musk, for not doing enough to safeguard Twitter from “hate, harassment, and misinformation.”
A few weeks later, Greenblatt appeared on the popular radio show the Breakfast Club and made a fool of himself trying to discuss hate crimes without offending anyone. The comments section beneath the video, meanwhile, filled up with people spewing every antisemitic trope in the book.
A similar phenomenon has taken place in the case of the organization Stop AAPI Hate. Like the ADL, Stop AAPI Hate aggregates instances of hate and promotes a sanitized, corporate-donor-friendly style of Asian activism meant to be shared on the Instagram stories of white collar professionals. The group’s website declares that “our approach recognizes that in order to effectively address anti-Asian racism, we must work to end all forms of structural racism leveled at Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.” This is the type of thing one says to win acceptance in a freshman comp lit class or corporate DEI seminar—not to give hope and confidence to working-class Asian Americans.
Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Kulkarni Manju, meanwhile, appeared in a video two months after six working-class Asian immigrant women were murdered in Atlanta spas to argue that Asian Americans were striving for “White-adjacency” and that there was “significant levels of anti-Blackness in our community,” showing how the interests of the Asian activist class and the Asian working class diverge.
This reveals something essential about the true purpose of these organizations. While they appear to lobby the powerful in Washington on behalf of ethnic communities, their true purpose is exactly the opposite: to provide the power elite in Washington with ethnic branded communications platforms that they can use to sway these communities toward supporting parties and policies working against their own interests.
Sheluyang Peng is a writer living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His writing can be found at societystandpoint.substack.com.