Why couldn’t Richard Aoki have been an informant?
On August 20, a story written by journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleging that Richard Aoki, the deceased Asian American activist and veteran of the 1960 and 1970s leftists movements, had been an FBI informant. Needless to say, Rosenfeld’s claim caused quite a stir that was visible on social media. In response, several people, including some of Aoki’s friends and comrades and scholars of Asian American politics (including one who authored the recently published biography of Aoki) weighed in. Despite their differences of opinion on some matters, one of the notable shared critiques among some of Aoki’s defenders was directed at the suggestion that the FBI found Aoki’s Japanese ethnicity valuable for blending in politically among other racial groups. Specifically they took issue with the allegation that Aoki’s racial outsider status would be useful for infiltrating the Black Panther Party, the group who he is most famous for working with among today’s younger generations of multiracial progressive leftists.
I was asked by an editor of The New Inquiry to write something related to the allegation against Aoki. Having read, watched, and listened to most of the public debate and commentaries about the issue that were circulated in print, podcast, and video, I wanted to address the way interracial solidarity and Aoki’s willingness to work across race was being invoked by Aoki’s defenders. I also wanted to consider how the state might exploit the desire for third world unity to attack radical movements and radical Black organizations. To me, the perverse championing of Aoki as proof of a hidden past of Black-Asian solidarity and third world unity may have prevented us from seeing what was hidden in plain sight.
My article “Why couldn’t Richard Aoki have been an informant?” was published on August 30. On September 7, a follow-up article by Rosenfeld was published responding to the rightful demand for more evidence of Aoki being an informant. The 200 pages of recently released FBI documents state that Aoki was an informant between 1961-1977 and remained one as he taught as a lecturer and a full-time professor, and served as head of an academic program. Rosenfeld also addresses the claim that Aoki was too obvious a choice, as a Japanese American, to inform on organizations focused on other racial groups. For example, Rosenfeld’s latest article reports:
“Coverage furnished by this informant is unique and not available from any other source,” it says. “Many activist individuals seek informant’s advice and counseling since informant is considered as a militant who has succeeded within the establishment without surrending (sic) to it.”
A Sept. 30, 1970, memo noted, “The informant has the ability to relate to all races and crosses the barriers between the ethnic movements with ease.”
Again, why couldn’t Richard Aoki have been an informant?