Eric Tang on the Cold War Origins of Refugee Policy

Mar 23, 2016

What can we learn about structural oppression through the analysis of one person’s story? How can collaboration transform the way we make decisions about our work? How can empowering others to imagine otherwise liberate us all?

In episode 6 of the Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews activist-scholar Eric Tang about why the US state resettled Cambodian refugees in historically Black neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, how urban spaces are shaped by slavery’s aftermath, and why scholars should join the vital movement for welfare rights.

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Guest: Eric Tang

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.

He is the author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in NYC’s Hyperghetto (which Ideas on Fire edited and indexed!), which tells the story of the approximately 10,000 Cambodian refugees were eventually “resettled” in the Bronx over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Chronicling their unfinished odyssey through the eyes of one woman, Ra Prohn, and her family, Unsettled tells the story of an immigrant community’s survival and resistance in historically Black neighborhoods in New York City, those spaces created as “hyperghettos” by US state terrorism directed at African American and Black diasporic communities in the aftermath of slavery. For that project, Eric draws on his previous work as a welfare rights and migrant youth community organizer.

He’s been awarded both journalistic and scholarly prizes for his writing on post-Katrina New Orleans. Eric is currently working on a new book titled East Avenue: African Americans in Austin’s Terrain of Inequality.

Eric Tang wearing a blue shirt. Text reads: It's important for those of us researchers to situate ourselves within the field of power that the research is taking place in.

We chatted about

  • Eric’s new book, Unsettled (02:00)
  • How hyperghettos have been used as strategic sites of warfare for Black Americans and South Asian refugees (05:00)
  • Eric’s choice to structure his book through one woman’s story (09:57)
  • Refugee exceptionalism (15:30)
  • Collaboration (14:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:35)


The myth of peaceful refugee resettlement

We often think of it as a moment where they’re able to experience peace and respite. In fact what happens for many of them is that they begin an entirely new journey, and entirely new struggle, if you will, that is defined by derelict housing, extreme poverty, welfare dependency, and state violence.

Studying the resettlement of Cambodian refugees in American hyperghettos

It’s not historically incidental or sociological temporary, this phenomenon of resettling those who are subjects of US warfare to the hyperghetto.

Eric’s choice to structure his book through one woman’s story

It seemed like a more effective strategy to tell the story through one woman [Ra Prohn] who experienced all of these things over the course of 30 years, because then you get to see these connections more clearly.

How collaboration with Ra Prohn transformed Unsettled

Not only is refugee exceptionalism false, but this notion she is somewhere else other than the war zone and the camp, is also false. And what she wanted to do was bring that to the story. She wanted to bring her story of continuance, of an unbroken refugee sojourn.

Imagining otherwise

This is the moment in which [communities we work with] are articulating their grievances towards this world that they want to see, and we need to pay attention. Sometimes we are not going to have a takeway, a key demand, but it’s this very process of giving people space where they are able to get to this world that they would like to see…the political work.

More from Eric Tang

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:24):

Welcome to episode six of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Eric Tang, who’s an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where his teaching and research focused on race and urban social movements. He’s the author of the wonderful new book, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto, which tells the story of the approximately 10,000 Cambodian refugees who were eventually resettled in the Bronx over the course of the 1980s and 90s in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Chronicling their unfinished odyssey through the eyes of one woman Ra Pronh, as well as her family, Unsettled tells a story of an immigrant community’s survival and resistance in historically black neighborhoods in New York City, those spaces that were created as hyper-ghettos by U.S. state terrorism directed at African-American and black diasporic communities in the aftermath of slavery.

Cathy Hannabach (01:21):

For that project, Eric draws on his previous work as a welfare rights and migrant youth community organizer. He’s been awarded both journalistic and scholarly prizes for his writing on post-Katrina New Orleans and all of his work is a fantastic example of what public interdisciplinary, social justice-oriented work can bring to movements for social change. Today, Eric is going to be talking with us about his new book, activist scholarship, and what it means to imagine otherwise.

Eric Tang (01:51):

Thanks for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (01:52):

I’d like to just jump in. You have this fabulous new book called Unsettled, which was recently published by Temple University Press. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Eric Tang (02:03):

Sure. It is essentially a longitudinal study of what happened to Cambodian refugees who were resettled to some of the hardest hit urban neighborhoods in the U.S. during the 1980s and early 1990s, and it traces the story of one woman and her family, in particular. Her name is Ra Pronh and talks about what happens to them in the Northwest Bronx over the course of really three decades. While we think of resettlement as the end of the line for refugees, we often think of it as a moment in which they’re able to experience something resembling peace and respite. In fact, what happens for many of them is they begin an entirely new journey, an entirely new struggle, if you will, that is defined by derelict housing, extreme poverty, welfare dependency, and state violence. What I wanted to do is demonstrate this other aspect of the refugee sojourn that is often not talked about, that is often left out of the discussion in order to uphold a narrative of rescue and saviorship.

Cathy Hannabach (03:26):

That sounds great. I know you talk a lot about what it means for these particular populations to be placed in geographic proximity to each other, right? What it means that Cambodian refugees who are literally flown across the world to the United States for resettlement, as well as resettled in several other countries, but you focus specifically on the U.S. and New York in particular, what it means to put these populations in the same geographical space and the same kind of social and political space as African-American and black diasporic subjects.

Eric Tang (04:01):

That’s right. The site of the study is what sociologist Loïc Wacquant would describe as the hyperghetto. The hyperghetto is different from the traditional ghetto in that after the late 1960s, particularly after the urban unrest of 1967 and 68, you see these segregated black urban communities once known as ghettos, turn from multi-class environments where you had African-American professionals, teachers, physicians all living within the segregated enclave into a site of concentrated urban poverty where the role of these spaces was to confine and punish African-American surplus labor.

Eric Tang (04:46):

In Wacquant’s estimation, the hyperghetto doesn’t really function as a site of working class activity anymore, but sub-proletariat activity and what I argue in this book is that the hyperghetto is not a site of new immigration, new immigration being the immigrants who come to this country after 1965, that most new immigrants were resettling to poor neighborhoods throughout cities, but not to these hyperghettos, which were reserved, if you will, for the African-American sub-proletariat with the exception of one group, and that is Southeast Asian refugees, those from the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, those who were the subjects of U.S. colonial and imperial warfare.

Eric Tang (05:37):

What I argue is that it’s not incidental, it’s not historically incidental or sociologically temporary this phenomena of resettling those who are subjects of U.S. warfare to the hyperghetto. Essentially, what I argue is that the hyperghetto becomes a “appropriate home” for refugees of U.S. warfare because what’s happening in these neighborhoods is a low intensity warfare on the domestic front, that African-Americans are essentially living through the aftermath of the urban unrest of the 1960s, which in many ways is defined by low intensity warfare. What I tried to do is draw the connections between the war abroad, the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the domestic warfare that has taken shape in U.S. cities since the late 1960s.

Cathy Hannabach (06:33):

It seems like a great intervention into well, a whole host of fields, but particularly into area studies or even the way that ethnic studies gets carved up. You have great scholarship being produced about African-American communities in urban spaces, great scholarship produced about U.S. colonialism in Southeast Asia, but rarely do you see those things coming together, right?

Eric Tang (07:00):

Right. It’s remarkable that you don’t see more scholarship that ties together, and not just in a metaphorical sense, the third world within, the U.S. ghetto, and the third world abroad, the actual third world that the U.S. was fighting on two fronts, the international front and the domestic front, that there was a war abroad and a war at home is often invoked, but more metaphorically, right? We think of the ghetto and what’s happening in ghetto communities in the late 1960s as an internal colony, in a metaphorical sense. We think of it as a third world within, in a metaphorical sense.

Eric Tang (07:54):

What I’m trying to argue is that we need to move beyond the metaphor and look at the precise ways in which the practices abroad were being implemented at home. One of the things I talk about in this book is the way in which many of the strategies and tactics to create the hyperghetto, including planned shrinkage and destroying whole neighborhoods in order to eradicate parts of the ghetto were derived from search and destroy tactics and other forms of attrition designed for the wars in Southeast Asia.

Eric Tang (08:39):

Then I asked the next question, which is, is it merely incidental that the subjects of that war in Southeast Asia wind up in these hollowed out, divested from, and under-developed ghettos, these areas that were essentially subject to low intensity warfare that was designed again by using the same tactics, the same strategies meant for those in their homeland, in Vietnam, in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Cathy Hannabach (09:15):

What I really love about this book, and I love many, many things about it, but one in particular is the way that you use one particular story, an individual story of one single woman, Ra, as a kind of prism to open onto these much broader structural and historical processes. Over the course of the book you discuss a huge range of issues that shapes the lives of these Cambodian refugees and that produced these spaces of the hyperghetto in the Bronx but also in other U.S. cities.

Cathy Hannabach (09:53):

For example, you use Ra’s story to explain or to critique the large scale due political practices, including as you mentioned U.S. imperialism in South Asia, obviously, U.S. immigration and refugee policy, the afterlife of slavery and the way that that shaped cities in the United States, U.S. state terrorism against black communities, and again, how that shaped the hyperghetto spaces that you’re talking about, the prison industrial complex, attacks on the welfare system, patriarchal domestic violence and how that plays out in particular urban spaces and kind of global neo-liberalism. Again, just to name a few processes. Why that choice or that kind of structure of using one particular individual story to open out onto these broader structures? What did that kind of storytelling process allow you to do?

Eric Tang (10:54):

Yes, that was a choice that was made rather late in the writing process. I had interviews and notes on a range of subjects, if you will, who I became familiar with in my years working as a community organizer in the Bronx. Originally, I was going to include more characters and subjects to tell the broader story of what happened with Cambodian refugees across each of these hyperghetto spaces, the welfare state, the home-based garment working economy, the housing movement, the prison industrial complex, but it seemed like a more effective strategy to tell the story through one woman who experienced all of these things over the course of 30 years, because then you get to see these connections more clearly.

Eric Tang (12:03):

As I wrote, I began to see how much more effective it was to show this changing scene that she’s moving from the war zone to the camp to burnt out housing to the welfare state. In each of these instances, there are familiar patterns and they’re familiar forms of power that she’s interacting with and she understands then that there isn’t a break between the past and the present, but the present and resettlement in the United States does not represent this profound change, this transfiguration, but rather a continuation. I really wanted to get at that continuation. I found the best way to do it was to tell it through this one person’s story.

Eric Tang (13:04):

Whereas if I introduced other characters to fill out the chapter on the welfare state and yet another character to fill out the chapter on patriarchal violence that the reader would not really see the thread. The reader would have a hard time understanding this continuation that I’m talking about and I named that continuance refugee temporality, this knowledge that the refugee has that upon crossing into a new country of asylum, she isn’t yet free. There’s a deep ambivalence that she continues to feel about this question of freedom and there’s a deferral on the question of justice and how do you get at that? Well, you get at that by telling it through one person’s story over the course of three decades. I found that to be the most effective way to do it.

Cathy Hannabach (13:56):

You have a lot of instances in the book where you call attention to that process of working with Ra, right? You had these kind of scenes that you describe your interactions. You kind of give us a behind the scenes look of what it means to speak with Ra over multiple years, even over multiple interviews in multiple spaces in multiple housing arrangements that she has. You trace those various transformations that she has and you kind of highlight the process of doing research, right? This is very much a book that is about in a kind of meta sense about the process of doing engaged community-based research, which is something that certainly sets it apart from a lot of scholarship, but also that I think does a great job of illustrating precisely those processes.

Cathy Hannabach (14:51):

Can you tell us a little bit more about how you worked with Ra rather than just kind of in a more perhaps stereotypical way, just kind of recording her words and then going away, finding the soundbite to illustrate your point, but you really did kind of have a collaboration where you had very much a back and forth. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Eric Tang (15:14):

Yeah, it was a challenging and very fulfilling process working with her on this book because I came to it with the desire to talk about another term, which was refugee exceptionalism. This is what I brought to the project, this notion that the refugee is deemed an exceptional figure in the hyperghetto, a figure who is set apart from the African-American and to some extent Latino urban poor, seen as someone who’s in the hyperghetto, but really not of it. They’re only here temporarily. Their poverty is distinct from the racialized and gendered poverty of African-Americans and Latinos, which is characterized as undeserving and pathological, whereas the refugee is someone who we just saved, someone who is destined for something beyond the hyperghetto.

Eric Tang (16:14):

This was the political idea that I brought to the book project, showing how beyond even model minorityism or model minority talk, the refugee is held apart and rendered exceptional, and the goal being to justify the continued punishment and confinement of blacks in the hyperghetto.

Eric Tang (16:40):

But as I talked to Ra and gathered her experiences, she brought this other element to it, which is refugee temporality. This notion that within the hyperghetto space not only is refugee exceptionalism false, not only is it a bankrupt ideology, but this notion that she’s actually somewhere else other than the war zone and the camp is also false. What she wanted to do was bring that to the project. She wanted to tell her story, the story of continuance of an unbroken refugee soldier.

Eric Tang (17:19):

What began was a collaboration to bring my idea and goal and her desire to tell her story of a continuance together. Ra is a very interesting character as you’ll find out quickly as you read the book. She doesn’t defer. She doesn’t defer to my ideas and she didn’t defer to my interpretation of things. She pushed back quite a bit. I remember instances where I would just ask her, well look, you were traveling with like literally dying Khmer Rouge that couldn’t really hold you at gunpoint anymore. Why didn’t you run from them when you had the chance when you were close to the Thai border? And she would ask me, where the hell did you want me to go at that point? What options did you think I had? Why is your desire for my escape so essential?

Eric Tang (18:13):

These are the things that I found to be the most enriching and profound moments in the book writing process when she pushed back and questioned my assumptions and wanted to know why my sense of her pending liberation was so important and it was in those moments I really understood what refugee temporality was about. This notion that once you cross the border and once you enter into the hands of a new regime, you’re not necessarily free. Someone’s always in charge, as Ra said. We had these moments consistently where she would really teach me a lot about what it meant to feel this deep ambivalence around the notions of freedom, notions of being rescued, and notions of salvation.

Eric Tang (19:00):

I tried my best to write those scenes into the book so that readers get a sense of what our relationship was like. That’s the kind of activist scholarship that I think is most important, the type that doesn’t necessarily just chronicle one’s activism and one’s relationship with those who are struggling with these issues, but demonstrates how each of them bring a specific project or specific set of goals to the project, and from there challenge each other and hopefully develop something entirely unique out of that process.

Cathy Hannabach (19:34):

I’m so glad you brought up activist scholarship because that’s something that I wanted to make sure we got to talk about. You speak specifically about it in the book but I know it’s also something that shapes all of your scholarly and activist, and cultural production projects. What do you understand activist scholarship to be and how do you understand the way that you do it? Why is it important?

Eric Tang (20:01):

Again, I think the most important trait of activist scholarship is building a collaboration between the scholar-activist and those that he or she studies, and analyzes and interprets. By collaboration, I mean allowing the so-called subject to also shape the narrative, the argument and to correct the original assumptions of the activist-scholar.

Eric Tang (20:46):

In that sense, it’s an activist scholarship that isn’t about, again, simply chronicling activism or celebrating uncritically the work of activists or those in struggle, but really demonstrates how there is profound difference between the activist-scholar and those he or she studies and documenting that difference, and documenting what sociologist John Brown Childs describes as not just what is possible, but what is not possible.

Eric Tang (21:28):

There are moments of dissonance between me and Ra and I document that because those are moments in which we’re struggling over power and the difference in power between us becomes apparent. For me, activist scholarship needs to open up to that, needs to demonstrate that so that we understand what it takes to engage communities and what it takes to be an advocate and to be an organizer. It’s not always about, again, conversion or seeing eye-to-eye on all matters but again, finding what’s not possible and working together despite those impossibilities. That to me is an important aspect of activist scholarship, and I try my best to demonstrate it in the book.

Cathy Hannabach (22:17):

You do a wonderful job of it. It seems like, obviously this book is a great example of activist scholarship and the ways that you kind of bring activism together with scholarly research, with a kind of political and ethical commitment to broader social justice concerns. How do you see those kinds of connections show up in your other work? How do you combine activism, academia, and art or kind of cultural production in the service of social justice across all of your projects?

Eric Tang (22:54):

I think it’s important for those of us who are engaged in any form of research to situate ourselves within the field of power that the research is taking place in. Let me be less abstract. If I’m studying, as I am now, the gentrification of historic black communities here in Austin, Texas, it’s important for me to understand and identify where I sit within that discussion within the broader field of power as an academic, as a resident of Austin, and from there explain what my stake in the conversation is.

Eric Tang (23:52):

I do that not as a mea culpa or as to make qualifications about the data, but rather as a form of quality control when it comes to one’s research that in so doing I can say, look, this is where I sit, here are my investments and here’s precisely why I’m asking these questions. I think that allows for more rigorous research, more trustworthy data because people understand clearly your approach, what your political investments are, and then they can take that data with that knowledge.

Eric Tang (24:42):

Whereas I think a lot of times the public is skeptical of research because they don’t know where it comes from, especially research that doesn’t conform to their own beliefs. I think activist scholarship, which says here I’m politically invested in this and for these reasons is more rigorous and more trustworthy because it exposes the researcher and the researcher’s position within a power-laden field. Again, I think that’s a form of quality control when it comes to data, to research. In the end, I think it makes for a more enriching public sphere conversation, as well.

Cathy Hannabach (25:29):

Absolutely. This podcast is called Imagine Otherwise and one of the things that I really love talking with guests about is their particular version of a better world, that kind of world that they’re working towards when they create their amazing art, when they teach their classes, when they write their books, when they engage in activist scholarship, whatever it is that they produce. I’m just going to ask you, what’s the world you’re working towards? What’s the world you want?

Eric Tang (26:00):

One of the things I learned from being a community organizer and then moving away from community organizing and into scholarship and reflecting back on my years as an organizer is that our goals and strategies and tactics are clear demands. They only get us so far, right? To be the smartest strategist and tactician will maybe yield some quick and effective winnable demands, as I talk about in the book, like translators at welfare centers or you get a landlord to finally correct housing violations and those things are important and those things are good, but they aren’t necessarily lasting.

Eric Tang (26:50):

One of the things that I try to understand in going back and reflecting on my community organizing years is what really builds people’s longterm investments in this work. I interview this amazing young organizer, Chaya, who talks about how yeah, the meetings around strategies and tactics and demands were important, but what was more important was when these folks came to the meeting and they just went at it and talked about everything and anything that was bothering them. They talked not just about the housing violations they were experiencing, but their cuts to welfare and their struggle to buy groceries or buy winter jackets.

Eric Tang (27:39):

You were in these meetings and you were like, where is this really going? Are we not going to get to the key demands and the campaign issues anytime soon? But what Chaya saw was, well, this is the political work. This is the moment in which they are articulating their grievances towards envisioning this world that they want to see. We need to hang out and we need to pay attention, and sometimes we’re going to not have a takeaway like a key demand, but it’s the very process of giving people the space, this dialogic space where they are able to kind of get to this world that they would like to see. That to her was the political work.

Eric Tang (28:22):

Over the course of many years, she’s designed organizing projects that are arts-based, that are oral history-based, not again, at the expense of doing community organizing, but understanding that it’s through people’s ability to imagine the future they want, what Robin Kelly calls their freedom dreams, that you will get at the most effective organizing for the long haul.

Eric Tang (28:47):

These days, I think of the arts, I think of oral history projects, I think of using performance as an integral part of organizing, that sometimes you just do that to get people’s ideas out. You do that to get their sense of injustice out and ultimately, you do that to get their freedom dreams out.

Eric Tang (29:11):

I used to not always believe that as a community organizer, but looking back on my years, I think that those things are essential.

Cathy Hannabach (29:19):

That’s fantastic. You mentioned very briefly a new project that you’re working on about Austin. What’s that project about?

Eric Tang (29:30):

Looking at some of the census data from 2000 and 2010 I along with a team of graduate students here at the University of Texas came to the conclusion that Austin is the only major growing city in the United States, that is a city with over 500,000 people that saw more than 10% growth in its general population, to see a simultaneous decline in its African-American population. Essentially, no city that grows as fast as Austin should see any decline in any of its major racial groups, and no other city did see a decline in African-Americans except for Austin.

Eric Tang (30:08):

This confirmed what many local African-Americans here in Austin know, which is that the black population is endangered and it’s endangered primarily because of gentrification displacements. We had an area here in Austin known as the so-called Negro district, which was carved out in 1928. Effectively 80% of the black population was pushed into it within several years. By the mid 1930s, 80% of the black population was in this one area or zone.

Eric Tang (30:38):

Well, you fast forward a couple of decades to the 1990s and this area became a prime site of gentrification. What you have is the unique convergence of segregation and gentrification, which led to the rapid displacement of black folks from the city. What we’re doing now is we’re trying to interview as many of the folks who left the city for surrounding suburban communities over the past 15 years to ask them exactly why they left, what were the forces behind their displacement. We’re doing that by going to church every Sunday because many of them return to church on Sundays, even though they live in outlying suburban cities. They drive in 15, 20 minutes.

Eric Tang (31:26):

The data we’re collecting is absolutely amazing. Everyone is essentially saying, yes, it was displacement-driven. It was because of affordability. It was because of gentrification. We’re finally collecting the data, what some might say was just the common sense, like everyone knew this, but no one had yet proved it. We’re collecting that now through interviews, surveys, and some oral histories.

Eric Tang (31:50):

The project is known as East Avenue, which was the street that was the dividing line between black and white Austin throughout most of the 20th century.

Cathy Hannabach (32:01):

That sounds wonderful. Well, where can people get your brand new book, Unsettled?

Eric Tang (32:08):

Well, you can find it on most online sites, but I would encourage folks to go to the Temple University website and purchase it there. For those who are looking to adopt it for a course, there’s information about how you can get a review copy, as well as discounted copies. All that is available at the Temple University Press website. You could also get some of that information on the book’s website, which is

Eric Tang (32:45):

Check it out. Definitely go visit Temple University Press’s website, check out all the wonderful books that they have to offer, but there you will also find discounted options, as well for Unsettled.

Cathy Hannabach (32:55):

That sounds fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing.

Eric Tang (33:00):

Thank you. It was a lot of fun.

Cathy Hannabach (33:04):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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