Will Weissert and Padmananda Rama
WASHINGTON — Speaking on the floor of the Georgia state Senate last week, Michelle Au implored her colleagues to "stand up" to the hatred aimed at Asian Americans that's increased during the pandemic. A day later, a gunman shook the Atlanta area by killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
For Au, who joined the state Senate in January as its first Asian American woman, the attack was a heartbreaking validation of her fears. It's also spurring her and other Asian Americans to push for greater political influence in Washington and other power centers.
"People in our communities are hungry for representation that looks like them," Au said in an interview. "I don't think people can see problems if they haven't 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 Hawaii's 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 Pacific Islanders.
President Joe Biden and his aides have been repeatedly pressed to include Asian Americans in his Cabinet. On Tuesday, two Democratic senators, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, threatened to oppose any upcoming nominees who don't enhance the administration's diversity.
"I've been talking to them for months and they're still not aggressive," Duckworth said. "I'll be a no on everyone until they figure this out."
Biden did pick Katherine Tai, who is Taiwanese American, as his top trade envoy. She was confirmed last week, becoming the only Asian American to hold a Cabinet-level post in the new administration. Vivek Murthy, the son of Indian parents, Biden's nominee for surgeon general, a sub-Cabinet position, was confirmed Tuesday.
Many Asian Americans say feelings of being marginalized politically will take years to fully overcome. Last week, an emotional congressional hearing cast a national spotlight on combating racism among the community — but major legislation addressing it isn't likely forthcoming.
"I think symbolism and representation matters, but only up to a point," said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. "What's 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 group's 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 country.
In New York City, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is gaining attention — and campaign cash — in a bid for mayor. And in California, home to the nation's largest Asian American community, elected officials are urging Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint an attorney general of Asian descent as a successor to Xavier Becerra, who was picked as Biden's 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 as of last month. And nearly 3 in 10 Asian Americans said they'd 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 Maryland's 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 — but more often, they increase political activity.
Wong pointed to California's 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 November's election, 70 percent of Asian American voters supported Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the electorate. Asian Americans now represent the nation's fastest-growing ethnic minority, accounting for nearly 5 percent of eligible voters in last year's election, according to the Pew Research Center.
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 percent of eligible voters who actually voted in 2014 to 40 percent 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.
"There's not the same incentive for parties to mobilize them, and it's 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 — mistakenly, I think — assume that Asian Americans are somehow less interested in U.S. civic life."
That's 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 Rep. Grace Meng of New York, 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, it's been such a challenge to say to our older generation Asian immigrants — Asian Americans who might even have been here for three decades — 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, we've 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 they've 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 — and that the outpouring of public support following the shootings could make such efforts easier.
"Asian Americans didn't necessarily grow up with that vocabulary of advocacy and how to fight for ourselves," Meng said. That's necessitated having "to learn that from other communities like the Black and Latino communities and walking alongside them, witnessing their struggles."