A Rising Tide Lifts All Boat People: 'Welfare Dependency' Politics and the Racialization of Hmong Refugees in the United States

Authors: Stevie Larson*, Spelman College
Topics: Migration, Political Geography, Asia
Keywords: refugees, Hmong, Southeast Asia, welfare, race, anti-Blackness
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon B2, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the 1960s and 1970s, the dramatic rise of public assistance enrollment and payments in the United States – catalyzed in part by the militant organizing of Black mothers – created a welfare crisis that state and capital actors were keen to repress. In subsequent decades, devolution and disinvestment from public welfare programs were justified by a revanchist discourse that attacked Black women as ‘welfare dependent’, a threat to society’s meritocratic work ethic through supposedly flagrant abuses of public assistance funds. Although the scholarship on this anti-Black politics continues to expand and resonate, it has largely overshadowed a key contributing factor: the mass migration of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. This paper traces the localized effect of this migration in the experiences of Hmong refugees who were resettled in Minnesota, a state long vaunted for its robust and progressive welfare policies. Using government and welfare agency archives as well as journalistic reports of the 1970s-1990s, I argue that welfare revanchism in a neoliberalized Minnesota was significantly catalyzed by the backlash against a Hmong-led struggle for welfare ‘dependency’ – a struggle that resembled its Black welfare rights antecedent, yet diverged from it strategically. The subsequent conglomeration of anti-Black politics with ‘foreign bodies’ assumed as threats to (and leeches off) the state helped set the conditions for the contemporary racialization of refugees as the new villains in the ongoing welfare wars.

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