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Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto


Eric Tang is an Assistant Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department and faculty member in the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. A former community organizer, Tang has published numerous essays on race and urban social movements, including award-winning writing on post-Katrina New Orleans. Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto is his first book. Learn more about Unsettled at its website.

What drew you to your topic?

This book grew directly out of my activist commitments. I spent my twenties as a community organizer, working in the Southeast Asian refugee neighborhoods of the Bronx. As an academic I felt compelled to write about those experiences, to tell the story of Cambodian refugees of the Bronx; they’ve been resettled to these neighborhoods for nearly thirty years—decades marked by derelict housing, unrelenting poverty, and an abusive welfare state. These violences suggest that their refugee sojourn remains unclosed in the U.S. context. A full-length study of this community had yet to be published, one that documents their ongoing sense of fugitivity in the “hyperghetto.”

Coined by sociologist Loïc Wacquant, “hyperghettos” are contemporary urban neighborhoods that function as sites of punishment and confinement for the poorest, most underemployed (and often unemployable) residents, particularly African Americans. Traditional ghettos were racially segregated yet nevertheless undergirded by ethnic capital—these were neighborhoods where poor, working-class, and middle-class Blacks created complex and layered social and economic relations in response to their racial oppression. Hyperghettos, by contrast, tend to be homogenously poorer and void of capital investments (ethnic or otherwise). Informal economies, most notably the drug trade, form the economic rule—not the exception—of hyperghettos.

However, beyond telling an untold story about refugee life in urban America, I also wanted to make a theoretical intervention on the limits of justice, on the discourse of “rights.” As a community organizer I was invested in seeing that refugees demand their statutory rights—in the realms of housing, the welfare state, the sweatshop economy. In demanding and securing these rights for refugees I believed that I was making their lives better. But at the same time I knew that I was participating in a fiction: the illusory notion that U.S. liberalism was allowing refugees to claim “inalienable” rights denied to them in their homelands—that resettlement granted them opportunities for justice, redress. In reality, however, these refugees continued to be subjected to arbitrary power in the form of unscrupulous landlords, exploitative employers, and callous welfare caseworkers; these agents handled refugees with impunity, often rendering the notion of rights irrelevant. All told, I was committed to a rights discourse, even as I was highly critical of it, recognizing its clear limitations; I wrote this book, in part, to explore this profound contradiction.

The Cambodian refugees with whom I worked were, from their own vantage point, also critical of organizing strategies that amounted to winning a set of discrete demands packaged as their right to translators at health center, better treatment at welfare offices, and improved housing conditions. The refugees certainly took advantage of these things if they became available, but they were under no illusion they had “won” something, that they had somehow reclaimed their inherent rights to them. More than anyone, these stateless subjects understood the nature of arbitrary power—the way in which demanding rights from such power could potentially reinforce their subjection. For instance, they were skeptical of demanding certain rights—such as translators at welfare offices, safe working conditions at workfare sites—from a welfare state that could so arbitrarily cut their welfare benefits and compel them to labor without wages to begin with. It was false to think that one could truly “negotiate” with such power; entering false negotiations seemed only to embolden such power. As an organizer I sensed the refugees’ ambivalence towards politics of this sort—the refugees’ feeling that though they had escaped the warzone, resettlement in the U.S. did not necessarily grant them the peace and repose, much less the inalienable rights, proscribed by liberalism. I term this ambivalence—this sense that their fugitive past was unbroken from the present—“refugee temporality.”

Unsettled Final CoverCan you further describe refugees’ relationship to the hyperghetto?

Hyperghettos began to take shape in the late 1960s (1968 to be exact), following the long, hot summers of 1967 and 1968 when numerous Black-led urban insurrections shook the nation. In response to the wave of unrest, the federal government, in collusion with the private sector, dispersed Black residents of the erstwhile ghetto and engaged in planned shrinkage tactics, leaving behind a concentration of the poorest, most vulnerable residents. We might say that the Black insurrections and the backlash against them were forms of veritable, low-intensity warfare: a “war at home” that exceeded mere metaphor. A decade later, the refugees from the war abroad begin to resettle en mass in hyperghettos. One of the goals of my book is to make sense of this connection.

Indeed, few if any of these hyperghetto neighborhoods became resettlement sites for post-1965 “new immigrants,” save for the wave of Southeast Asian refugees that arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. I argue that the arrival of these refugees to hyperghettos was neither historically incidental nor sociologically temporary. There’s a reason why the subjects of U.S. colonial wars abroad are resettled to sites of state-mediated warfare at home. The role of the state is key to this explanation: unlike other migrant flows that are dictated by market forces and circuits of global capital, refugee migration and resettlement is driven almost entirely by state institutions. The state decides who qualifies as a refugee, whether or not they will be granted asylum and entry into the U.S., and where in the U.S. they will ultimately be resettled. In many ways the resettlement program is an extension of the war program, and it is no coincidence that the state resettles refugees to sites where it is managing its domestic war: hyperghetto neighborhoods.

You argue that the “hyperghetto reveals the contours of an unfinished colonialism” and suggest that for the refugee, “refuge” may “never be found.” Is there a way in which refusing to see closure allows us to imagine different futures?

The presence of the refugee in the hyperghetto—the Third World migrant who struggles with unrelenting poverty and state violence in urban America—represents the convergence of two unfinished genealogies of U.S.  warfare: its colonial/imperial war abroad in Southeast Asia and the unending warfare at home against the Black urban poor. The harsh realities of Cambodian refugee life in the hyperghetto serve as a rebuttal to dominant ideologies that portray resettlement as a resolution to both wars. That is, on the one hand, it challenges those who see refugee resettlement to the United States as compensatory, as redress—a way of making up for U.S. violences abroad. On the other hand, it exposes how the impoverishment and extreme social marginalization of those who live in the hyperghetto are the results of ongoing state policies and practices carried out against these residents.

What advice would you give to graduate students looking to do engaged scholarship, and to bring their activist struggles and ethics into their academic work?

Engaged scholarship—or “activist” scholarship as some have termed it—should not be thought of as political advocacy, nor should it be limited to chronicling/celebrating activism.  Rather, it’s about engaging in a process whereby the knowledge of the researcher and the knowledge of those being directly affected by injustice shape each other in a shared political project. In this sense, activist scholarship requires an uncomfortable engagement with differences—specifically, the power differentials between the researcher and those he or she studies. Engaging these differences and disagreements—with no guarantee of resolution or an inevitable “unity of thought”—is knowledge production. Throughout Unsettled, I occasionally document moments of dissonance between me and the book’s protagonist, Ra Pronh, in order accurately represent her understanding of how power operates, as well as to capture her ambivalence towards terms such as “freedom,” “rights” and “resettlement.” For instance, I recall the time in our interview when she was explaining to me how she eventually made it across the border and into the Thai refugee camp. She, along with a group of other villagers, had been held captive by the Khmer Rouge cadre in the forests of western Cambodia for nearly a year before she was finally able to cross into Thailand. And yet she points to no clear, defining moment of liberation—Ra was never released by her captors nor did she try to escape them. Rather, the Khmer Rouge soldiers grew weak with starvation and illness, and slowly their control over her group loosened to the point where they could no longer hold the group together. But even after this point, Ra told me that she and her fellow villagers stayed together with the literally dying Khmer Rouge cadre out of necessity, if not gunpoint—staying together was a matter of mutual survival in the forests.

I had difficulty comprehending this story. I wanted to know why Ra didn’t break free from the Khmer Rouge when it was clear that they were no longer capable of keeping her prisoner. “Why didn’t you run?” I asked. She responded with her own question: “Where in the world did you expect me to go?” “Somebody is always in charge,” she said.