Quan herself is the best evidence of what I want to call, polemically, “the Death of Asian America.” The idea of the “Asian American” was born in the ’60s with Quan and her Third Worldist comrades. If it still had any life in it, it died this fall, along with her political career. To use a clunky sociological term, Quan has become a symbol of Asian America’s broader “embourgeoisiement” over the past forty years.
As encouraging as the past two months have been, the tragedy of Mayor Quan stands as a sobering reminder of what a movement like Occupy risks becoming as time wears on. She is precisely the kind of future the movement resists when it militates against co-optation. In a way, Quan also signals the incoherence of “Asian American” as a radical coalition. No other public figure dramatizes more powerfully just how distant those heady days of action and idealism have become.
As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Quan was intensely involved with the Third World Liberation Front’s (TWLF) radical efforts to create ethnic studies programs, ultimately spearheading the establishment of the Asian American Studies program there. After graduating, she continued her activism in New York’s Chinatown, and, much later, joined Oakland School Board, and City Council, where she fought for a variety of progressive causes. Last summer, when large-scale demonstrations broke out in protest of a lenient verdict handed down to BART police officer Johannes Mehserle — who was on trial for shooting Oscar Grant while the latter was face-down and restrained — it was hardly a surprise when Jean Quan joined in a human chain to protect demonstrators from riot police. She was just dusting off an old skill set.
Chris Fan: Jean Quan and the Death of Asian America