This essay is a commission published partnership with the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives for “COVID19 & Its Afterlives”. Learn more about the series here.

On July 24, 2021, we celebrated Robert Takashi Yanagida’s life on Zoom. To his childhood friends, he was Bobby, a Bronx Science High School graduate and member of the Japanese American congregation of the Buddhist Church. In the archives from the 1970s and 1980s, he was Takashi, a formidable labor organizer and political thinker in New York. I knew him as Rob, a teacher, respondent, narrator, comrade, and friend.

Visual artist Tomie Arai introduced me to Rob in 2014, when he was recovering from his first encounter with cancer. He wanted to document his stories. I was an aspiring labor historian of Asian America, and Rob was among the first historical actors I spoke to about the period I studied.

When we first corresponded, I was writing a seminar paper about the famed but understudied 1974 labor disputes at Confucius Plaza, which had been a five-acre construction site, just south of the Manhattan Bridge. The developers had not hired Asian/American construction workers, failing to address rampant racial discrimination in the trades and job shortages in Manhattan’s Chinatown intensified during the fiscal crisis. The building trades unions were notoriously racist, gatekeeping new apprenticeship positions in an era when most city construction projects hired union laborers. Bearing new affirmative action policies in mind, Rob told me that he had done a simple calculation to identify the labor violations at Confucius Plaza.

Minju: How did you find out about the labor violations at Confucius Plaza

Rob: I assumed there were.

Given the new affirmative action regulations of the time, he continued,

I was in the US Civil Rights Commission, so I had these libraries of all of the investigations they had to do. They spent lots of money investigating the construction industry. There were almost no statistics on Asian Americans. So I just made up something. That population of Chinese and Asian Americans in New York City is 3%. Total construction industry is x. There should be several thousand more Chinese citywide. And then, at Confucius Plaza, there should be nine Chinese [workers]. We went on the site. I have some images from that. The person in charge of hiring for the whole site said, “No,…” – you know – whatever, “don’t have any Chinese.” So that just sealed what we had been witnessing for two years that they’d be way under [the expected numbers], but the point was to use the leverage of being in the community that you can actually do something stronger than boycott. You can actually stop construction, if you had enough people willing to be arrested, and feeling like they can keep this up a little while, and get the press, and maybe get enough community support that starts changing things without electoral politics…just radical ways of making change. [1]

Takashi had been a critical participant, strategist, and organizer in this labor struggle, as well as a founding member of Asian Americans for Equal Employment.

Photo of Takashi Yanagida, May 1974, Daily Worker and Daily World Negatives Collection, PHOTOS.223.001, Box 20A, Shoot 740087, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Photo courtesy of People’s World.

In late 1973 and 1974, Asian American activists – alongside Chinatown-based laborers, Puerto Rican and Black immigrant construction workers, high school and college-aged students, and community members – sought to dismantle the building trades unions’ extremely exclusive and white masculine membership and therefore, break through into the work force. They demanded that the city enforce equal employment regulations, and for the developers, to comply. Highlighting the historical contributions of Asian laborers, in May 1974, Asian/Americans – alongside allies from across New York City – protested, carrying pickets that read, “Built the Railroad; Build Confucius Plaza.”

Photo from rally, 16 May 1974, Daily Worker and Daily World Negatives Collection, PHOTOS.223.001, Box 20A, Shoot 740097, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Photo courtesy of People’s World.

Call to Action, May 1974, Tomie Arai and Legan Wong Papers, MSS439, Box 36, Folder 2, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

They leafletted, rallied, marched, and occupied the construction site. By the end of the summer, the activists, developers, and city agencies struck a deal for the immediate hire of twelve Asian/American trainees and placements throughout the city’s construction sites, becoming the first in which a government compliance agency agreed to establish target goals specifically for Asian/Americans. [2]

Photo from demonstration at Confucius Plaza, 31 May 1974, Daily Worker and Daily World Negatives Collection, PHOTOS.223.001, Box 20A, Shoot 740114, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Photo courtesy of People’s World.

Over the years, I learned that Takashi was also an important figure in New York’s Asian American movement, more broadly. He described that his early college years had been a transformative time in this political journey. He joined fellow college students to preserve open admissions and free tuition at CUNY, and he participated in the Third World takeover of City College. He briefly served as the Executive Director of the Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts collective and hallmark of New York’s Asian American movement, until members voted him out amidst controversy about Basement’s funding. He was also a member of the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. In 1977, they would submit their findings to “The Forgotten Minority: Asian Americans in New York City,” a report that outlined sociological evidence for hardship in Asian communities in New York, an antecedent to the kind of detailed reports by the Asian American Federation, an organization that is incredibly important in our knowing about the experiences of Asian communities in New York City today.

While the Tamiment Library or the Municipal Archives does not have a file with his namesake, it seemed as though Rob was everywhere in my archival research. He organized with Asian Study Group, which would become Workers’ Viewpoint, a vanguardist organization that published daily and then weekly media. In these publications Rob’s psyche and political education are ever-present, outlining and applying the theoretical ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

Cover page of supplement by Workers Viewpoint, Dec 1974, David Sullivan US Maoism Collection, TAM527, Box 17, Folder 55, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Takashi moved and organized in Communist circles, thinking deeply about race, class, and the Cold War. Haunted by the darkness of Imperial Japan in Asia, he was also keenly aware of his Japanese-ness. In this period of deep political reflection, he questioned the power dynamics of his position in Chinatown. Rob would later describe to me how the sectarianism of the Asian American movement had become destructive. Hints and rumors of this period in the 1980s faintly appear in the archives. After the Confucius Plaza struggle, Takashi left Lower Manhattan to organize uptown on job sites in East Harlem. Profoundly moved by the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, Rob had shared, “Their examples in life are part of what propels me to grapple with new social realities in my life. I take to heart Grace’s suggestion that we “do some more thinking.”” [3] He spent his life thinking hard about Asian American-ness in the broader pursuit of deep transformation, toward a world where we could be well and free from the violence of US empire and racial capitalism. His writings and thinking were inspiring. Aligned with the political agenda of many Asian American activists of the 1970s, my mind filled with ideas about organizing, and I questioned where my research ambitions fit in the broader mission to build more intentional, principled, and kinder futures.

Since 2014, we had kept in touch. Through archival research, I learned that twenty-year-old Takashi was a bold and principled organizer. To me, in person and by email, Rob was also shy, measured, and self-deprecating. Traditionally, the relationship between the researcher and subject is often fraught with uneven power dynamics. Prescribed research methods felt like cold, colonial, and lifeless processes. But Rob taught me how to be a different kind of scholar and learner. He modeled how to approach life with deep inquiry, hope, and kindness. He had an immeasurable impact on my growth as a scholar, activist, thinker, and person.

• • •

Life in the pandemic has been deeply revealing. At the celebration in July, Rob’s friends and family remembered and honored him. As we talked story, I learned that – like so many of us navigating the challenges of being alive in an unwell world – Rob lived with depression. He had reflected to his partner that medication did not seem to lighten his despair. Intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, my own depression polluted my mind. In an overwhelming context of global mourning and pain, my body filled with loneliness, rage, and grief. I found myself asking: What does it mean to live amidst so much dying and loss? My fury grew more unwieldy as I internalized the uneven experiences of this pandemic’s multitudes, undercut by race, class, gender, and ability. I heard of working people becoming essential, as they stayed gaslit, un(der)paid, trapped, and humiliated. As governments enacted deadly (in)decisions, “anti-Asian hate” became vernacular parlance, while obscuring systemic violence – the ones that denied that Black Lives Matter, the escalation of US militarization in the Pacific, the continued dispossession of Indigenous lands, etc. It was and is overwhelming. Hearing that Rob also struggled with his mental health, I found solace, reminded that I am not alone.

Our depressions might tell us more about the world than ourselves. I recognize the contradiction of hopeful visions and unending despair. But Rob taught me, it is through political education, reflexive meditation and historicization, and vision-making that we might emerge from systemic unwellness – the tentacles of US imperialism and racial capitalism – to co-create meaningful peace.

The future of labor is in this recognition. In the newest edition of Conversations in Maine, Rob wrote, “We seek visionary organizing.” He continued, “not just protest organizing.” Protests are not enough for fundamental transformation. In the wake of the so-called racial reckoning of 2020, we can know this distinction clearly. To free ourselves from the political violence of US imperial dominance, we need political education and a collective vision. As Rob wrote, “Ideas change reality, and reality changes ideas.” [4] The friction between this duality is freedom. As we have witnessed and experienced mounting global crises – built on white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist, and imperial violence – for workers of the world to unite, we need a vision. Rob knew this so well.

• • •

When I re-listened to the oral history that I recorded with Rob in 2018, I was struck by his answer to my questions about the model minority narrative as it related to Asian American working people. He spoke about Man Bun Lee, the President of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

Rob: In that article for Bridge Magazine I wrote in 1974, I included Man Bun Lee testifying at the US Civil Rights Commission hearing that same year. I mentioned this before, but I was actually part of the investigative panel. There were vice-mayors, other officials, all sorts of people testifying. So Mr. Lee, having his talk centered around the myth of the model minority [pause] So here’s this leader of the CCBA’s Six Companies. He broke the stereotype. I knew it before, because of how he was clearly an ally, from the tactical confrontational things that, after the confrontation, after the mess in the streets with cops, fifty-some-odd people arrested, he was still showing support. He wasn’t disengaging.

Then, Rob pontificated about the persistence of the model minority narrative. He continued,

I’m expecting for more markers of newer language. I’m trying to figure out the hierarchies, or the intersectionality, I’m trying to figure out what terms can we use to depict Asian Americans and they’ll pick as a better term…to show we’re working out these privileges. I want to remember Asians as settler colonists, rather than as deprived immigrants, victimized immigrants, to raise up Indigenous people. I went to Japan last year for the first time in thirty some-odd years, met dozens of relatives when I didn’t know I had any relatives in Japan. I spent a good amount of my time in the North with the Ainu and learning about Indigenous people… Settler colonialism has resonance to how I want to better understand myself as an ethnic person in the United States. So, privilege, settler colonialism…I wish there were new terms to capture that so we could move beyond the model minority.

Identifying that liberal politicians were challenging the model minority narrative back in the 1970s, Rob challenged me to think beyond these tired tropes. Instead, he pressed the importance of empire. Rob wondered where and how settler colonialism relates to Asian/Americans, where Japanese imperialism fits in the Asian American movement, the role of Maoist thought and China in the Asian American movement, and how we are to understand Asian/America. Rob continues to teach me, and as I keep reading his work, I am inspired to understand and write about how empire has shaped Asian American labor organizing practices and ideologies. And anti-Asian violence on a global scale, with the military agenda to pivot to Asia, has only clarified my pursuits to think deeply about how the US wields its power.

I wish I could have spent more time with Rob to discuss the Asian American movement, Marxist-Leninism, study groups, cooperatives, labor organizing, and of course, mental health. But I am grateful to have known him. On June 4, Rob joined the ancestors. His teachings have been critical to my continued healing, and I miss him dearly.

And as he often signed off: “In struggle and love.”

In memoriam: Robert Takashi Yanagida, 1948 – 2021


[1] Rob Yanagida, Oral history with author, March 27, 2018. Transcription excerpts have been gently edited for clarity. [RETURN TO READING]

[2] New York State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, “The Forgotten Minority: Asian Americans in New York City,” November 1977, George Yuzawa Papers, TAM442, Box 5, Folder 75, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. [RETURN TO READING]

[3] Rob Yanagida, “An Asian American Icon?,” in Boggs, Grace Lee, Jimmy Boggs, Freddy Paine, Lyman Paine, Shea Howell, and Stephen Ward, Conversations in Maine: A New Edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 318. [RETURN TO READING]

[4] Yanagida, “An Asian American Icon?,” 316. [RETURN TO READING]

Minju Bae (she/they) is a historian whose current research investigates how Asian/Americans navigated the politics of work, racial difference, and the radical restructuring of the urban-based global economy in the late twentieth century. Minju is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University and a member of the Ending the Korean War Collective and Asian/Pacific/American Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project.


This series of events and essays considers the possibilities of the post-pandemic future. Bringing together writers, artists, curators, archivists, academics, and organizers, “COVID19 and its Afterlives,” examines how the structural dynamics that predated COVID19–precarity, vulnerability, inequality–have been exacerbated by this past catastrophic year. In inventorying our pre-pandemic social and political failures, from health care to housing to labor, policing to politics to prisons, this series hopes to help us learn the pandemic’s lessons, and works to illuminate the promises of the future.