The Asian Reporter, V31, #4 (April 5, 2021), pages 9 & 15.
Asian Americans seek greater political power
By Will Weissert and Padmananda Rama
The Associated Press
Michelle Au. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Au)
WASHINGTON ó Speaking on the floor of the Georgia state
senate in mid-March, Michelle Au implored her colleagues to
"stand up" to the hatred aimed at Asian Americans thatís
increased during the pandemic. A day later, a gunman shook the
Atlanta area by killing eight people, including six women of
For Au, who joined the state senate in January as its first
Asian-American woman, the attack was a heartbreaking validation
of her fears. Itís also spurring her and other Asian Americans
to push for greater political influence in Washington and other
"People in our communities are hungry for representation that
looks like them," Au said in an interview. "I donít think people
can see problems if they havenít lived it in the past."
There are at least 160 Asian American and Pacific Islanders
in 33 state legislatures nationwide, according to the Asian
Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. A whopping
51 of those sit in HawaiĎiís legislature. And, out of the 535
members of congress, just 17 are of Asian or Pacific Islander
descent, according to the Congressional Research Service. There
are also three nonvoting delegates who are Asian American and
President Joe Biden and his aides have been repeatedly
pressed to include Asian Americans in his cabinet. Last month,
two Democratic senators, Mazie Hirono of HawaiĎi and Tammy
Duckworth of Illinois, threatened to oppose any upcoming
nominees who donít enhance the administrationís diversity.
"Iíve been talking to them for months and theyíre still not
aggressive," Duckworth said. "Iíll be a no on everyone until
they figure this out."
Later, the two senators set aside their blockade after talks
with the administration. White House press secretary Jen Psaki
later announced the addition of a senior-level Asian American
Pacific Islander liaison "who will ensure the communityís voice
is further represented."
Katherine Tai. (Bill OíLeary/The Washington
Post via AP, Pool)
Biden did pick Katherine Tai, who is Taiwanese American, as
his top trade envoy. She was confirmed in March, becoming the
only Asian American to hold a cabinet-level post in the new
administration. Vivek Murthy, the son of Indian parents and
Bidenís nominee for surgeon general, a sub-cabinet position, was
Vivek Murthy (Caroline Brehman/Pool via AP)
Many Asian Americans say feelings of being marginalized
politically will take years to fully overcome. Also in March, an
emotional congressional hearing cast a national spotlight on
combatting racism among the community ó but major legislation
addressing it isnít likely forthcoming.
"I think symbolism and representation matters, but only up to
a point," said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian
Americans Advancing Justice. "Whatís more important is actually
doing the work."
There are signs of change.
Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India, is the first
Black woman and person of South Asian descent to become vice
president. More than 300 Asian American and Pacific Islanders
ran for office up and down the ballot in 2020, according to the
Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
More appear to be preparing campaigns for the future.
Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, the groupís president and CEO, said
her organization recently held a training for people interested
in joining municipal and state legislative races and had about
30 attendees. She also encourages members of the community to
join local boards and commissions.
"We are subject matter experts in a wide array of industries,
and we should have that be a reflection of our democracy by
having people like us and others be a part of any sort of public
policy conversation," Mielke said.
Asian Americans are eyeing other major offices across the
Andrew Yang. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
In New York City, former Democratic presidential candidate
Andrew Yang is gaining attention ó and campaign cash ó in a bid
for mayor. And in California, home to the nationís largest
Asian-American community, elected officials are urging
Democratic governor Gavin Newsom to appoint an attorney general
of Asian descent as a successor to Xavier Becerra, who was
picked as Bidenís health and human services secretary.
Still, Stop AAPI Hate, an activist group that formed as
shutdowns related to the pandemic were taking hold across the
U.S., had received nearly 4,000 self-reported incidents of bias
or discrimination from all 50 states by the end of February. And
nearly 3 in 10 Asian Americans said theyíd been subjected to
racial slurs or jokes since the coronavirus outbreak began,
according to Pew Research Center data released last summer.
Janelle Wong, the director of the University of Marylandís
Asian American Studies Program, has researched how acts of
discrimination can affect political participation. She said such
incidents can sometimes alienate members of the affected
community ó but more often, they increase political activity.
Wong pointed to Californiaís stringent, Republican-backed
anti-immigrant laws of the 1990s that helped mobilize Latinos to
vote Democratic and turned the state fiercely blue within a
generation. Democrats hope a similar shift may have begun more
recently in Arizona.
Wong said the Asian-American population began to boom in the
mid-1990s with the creation of the H1-B visa program, which made
it easier for employers to hire immigrants in specialty
professions. Many of those people have now been in the country
for more than 20 years, and they, or second-generation immigrant
families, are starting to come into their own politically,
registering to vote and casting ballots at higher rates.
In Novemberís election, 70% of Asian-American voters
supported Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey
of the electorate. Asian Americans now represent the nationís
fastest-growing ethnic minority, accounting for nearly 5% of
eligible voters in last yearís election, according to the Pew
U.S. Census data showed that the community had one of the
largest increases in voting rates of any group in the 2018
midterm elections as compared with the 2014 midterms, jumping
from an estimated 27% of eligible voters who actually voted in
2014 to 40% in 2018. But the largest Asian-American communities
are still mostly concentrated in non-swing presidential states,
which means neither political party has focused significant
resources on voter outreach.
"Thereís not the same incentive for parties to mobilize them,
and itís much harder because it takes some resources, it takes
some attention to outreach and language to understand
Asian-American issues as well," Wong said. "Those things all
contribute to lower rates of political participation among Asian
Americans, but people ó mistakenly, I think ó assume that Asian
Americans are somehow less interested in U.S. civic life."
Thatís evolving. Wong points to statehouse races in Virginia
this year, where Asian-American voters in the Washington suburbs
could have decisive influence.
"People are now much more invested, especially since people
in positions of power have been constantly silencing our
community," said Michelle Chan, a Chinese-Malaysian-American
voter in Alexandria, Virginia.
Kohli of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said the community
could also swing house districts in Pennsylvania, North
Carolina, and Texas during the 2022 midterm elections.
Democratic representative Grace Meng of New York, the first
vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus,
said many Asian Americans have reacted to the shootings by
trying to better protect themselves, donating to civic groups,
and even forming brigades to walk with older people in majority
Asian neighborhoods or distributing whistles to try to curb
incidents of racism and violence. But she said greater political
engagement was the next step.
"We are literally taught not to speak up and not to rock the
boat," Meng said. "And so, during this past year especially,
itís been such a challenge to say to our older generation Asian
immigrants ó Asian Americans who might even have been here for
three decades ó that now is the time to be invisible no more,
that they have to speak up."
Nabilah Islam, a Bangladeshi-American Democratic strategist
and organizer in Georgia, ran for congress unsuccessfully last
year. She said she felt compelled to do so because, although she
had lived in her district outside Atlanta her whole life, she
"never saw anyone who looked like me" campaigning.
"What makes a real difference is having activists from within
your own community show up," Islam said. "For so long, weíve had
this top-down strategy where you typically, frankly, have these
white consultants come in and tell you how you should organize
your communities. But theyíve never actually visited these homes
and talked to these families."
The Asian American and Pacific Islander community encompasses
people from an array of different heritages and cultures who
often speak languages other than English. Organizers say they
are working to better unify those distinct heritages while
teaming up with activists from other backgrounds, including
African Americans and Latinos ó and that the outpouring of
public support following the shootings could make such efforts
"Asian Americans didnít necessarily grow up with that
vocabulary of advocacy and how to fight for ourselves," Meng
said. Thatís necessitated having "to learn that from other
communities like the Black and Latino communities and walking
alongside them, witnessing their struggles."
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson and
Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.