Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Lilian Y. Yamasaki

Class And Ethnicity: A Response

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. V, Nos. 7-8, October-December 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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I am writing this in response to a recent article entitled Class and Ethnicity by Robert Stauffer. Although I found the article of interest, I also found it presented a perspective with some serious implications.

Stauffer’s presentation pits ethnicity against class. He finds that class analysis and ethnic studies are mutually exclusive because of the inherent conflicts between the two. To prove his point he makes reference to exploitation based upon ethnic differences in Hawaiian history. He further elaborates his thesis by proceeding from definitions laid out by Immanuel Wallerstein and distorts the analysis that Hawaii is a colony of American imperialism. Stauffer’s appraisal is that to confront imperialist domination we should be class-conscious as opposed to ethnic-conscious.

The problem with this sort of presentation is that it fails to give due recognition to ethnic consciousness as a genuine response to imperialist domination. It merely sees the cooptable nature of ethnic struggles and ethnic consciousness. Thus, he gives a mere pittance of recognition to armed native revolts and brushes them aside as unworthy because they were not led in what he calls class terms. What this comes down to is a disregard for the existence of the Hawaiian nation and its struggle for sovereignty. Such a dismissal of the subjective factor, a people’s struggle for self-determination, is blatantly chauvinistic.

His presentation also fails to take into account the historical development of ethnic unity in labor. It was precisely because plantation workers began to see the ethnic divisiveness perpetrated by the owners as a means of preventing collective action that Hawaii’s working class began to unify its ranks and target the Big Five imperialists. He conveniently explains away such historic moments by claiming that further class organization was inhibited by shifts in Hawaii’s economic development, resulting in new forms of divide and rule tactics. Although divisions did and continue to exist, his search for the perfect class struggle blinds him to the essential unity that exists among Hawaii’s peoples and the tactics available to make it realizable.

Thus, in downgrading the subjective factor by merely looking at its cooptable aspects, Stauffer suffers on the question of ethnic studies. Although he is speaking of ethnic studies in a general sense, perhaps an examination of its particular practice would help our discussion.

The development of Ethnic Studies was in response to the failure of the educational system to meet the needs of Hawaii’s people. “Our history, our way” was the slogan used in 1972 to save the program from destruction by the very sort of ethnic opportunists Stauffer refers to. At other times, the administration has attempted to discredit and destroy the Program because it posed a threat in seeking to build unity through ethnic consciousness. Despite having its survival threatened, the program has persistently sought not to create ethnic divisions or to pit ethnicity against class but to reconcile these through proper class analysis. Its internal struggles over these questions attest to it. Further, its support and participation in the community have served to unmask apparent conflicts in Hawaii. Ethnic Studies is not without its problems, but it does not appear that its becoming a tool to foster divisions is a major one. If Stauffer has a gripe about a particular practice perhaps he could enlighten us so that his concerns do not appear as couched apprehensions. Otherwise, his premise that ethnicity and class are irreconcilable is repudiated by the practice of Ethnic Studies.

I realize that Stauffer was well-intentioned in his presentation and in the main, he is correct about the limitations of the subjective factor. However, he fails to put it into proper perspective in the context of the overall struggle. He raises a general problem facing the movement but does not speak to it concretely, and his reductionist approach does little to provide a positive program. He does not address hot the subjective ethnic or nationalist responses of the masses can become class conscious. He does not see the difference between narrow nationalism targeted against other people and nationalism targeted against imperialism. Ultimately, his pitting of ethnicity against class contradicts the necessary alignments in the anti-imperialist struggle and defeats the building of a multi-class front.