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Making Room for Asian Americans at the Table

Asian Americans are the fastest growing group in the country but are still largely shut out when it comes to political power.

May 18, 2022

May has been observed in the United States as Asian Amer­ican Pacific Islander Herit­age Month since 1990. It’s supposed to be a joyful time — a chance to celeb­rate the many AAPI contri­bu­tions to Amer­ican life stretch­ing back to the Gold Rush and the build­ing of the Transcon­tin­ental Rail­road and continu­ing into the present day. But in the last few years, it’s also been a time for somber reflec­tion.

Last year saw a 339 percent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Even as I write this, police in Dallas are look­ing for a gunman who fired shots at three Asian-owned busi­nesses over the span of a month with no obvi­ous motive other than anti-Asian anim­os­ity. And a recent poll shows that a third of all Amer­ic­ans now believe that Asian Amer­ic­ans are more loyal to the coun­tries of their ances­tral origin than to the United States (up sharply from an already alarm­ing 20 percent in earlier polls). 

Of course, this is noth­ing new. As long as there have been Asians in Amer­ica, there has been peri­odic push­back to our pres­ence. Indeed, this year marks the anniversary of two espe­cially shame­ful acts in U.S. history: The 140th anniversary of the Chinese Exclu­sion Act and the 80th anniversary of the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­ic­ans during World War II. The constant lesson of Amer­ican history is that at times of crisis and pres­sure, it is all too easy for Asian Amer­ic­ans to be consigned to the role of the “perpetual foreigner,” the threat­en­ing outsider who is never fully Amer­ican.

But if this is a fraught moment, it also is an oppor­tun­ity to make sure that Asian Amer­ic­ans and Pacific Islanders are prop­erly repres­en­ted in the halls of power where decisions affect­ing the AAPI community are made. This is an area where both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans fall short.

In some cases, this fail­ure is delib­er­ate. In Texas, for example, Repub­lic­ans used last year’s redis­trict­ing process to brazenly dismantle a diverse, multiracial congres­sional district in Fort Bend County outside of Hous­ton, where a large and grow­ing block of Asian Amer­ican voters had come close to winning polit­ical power in recent years in coali­tion with other non-white voters. The radic­ally redrawn district surgic­ally divides suburban Asian Amer­ican communit­ies among multiple districts, with some Asian Amer­ican voters stay­ing in the district and others moved to new districts. Rural white voters were then added to replace removed Asian Amer­ican voters. Similar maneuvers occurred in other states. Unfor­tu­nately, the Supreme Court’s green­light­ing of partisan gerry­man­der­ing and a weak­en­ing of voting rights laws leave Asian Amer­ican voters with fewer tools to fight back against such tactics.

Repub­lic­ans could have chosen an altern­at­ive path. Faced with a grow­ing and increas­ingly polit­ic­ally active Asian Amer­ican community, they could have chosen to compete with Demo­crats for Asian Amer­ican votes. After all, Asian Amer­ican polit­ical lean­ings are by no means locked in stone. Asian Amer­ic­ans only became a Demo­cratic-lean­ing group after 2000, and there are recent signs that Asian Amer­ican voters, with proper outreach and engage­ment, might be open to Repub­lican messaging. In a swing seat like the old Fort Bend district, Repub­lic­ans would­n’t have to win the votes of all Asian Amer­ican voters to hold onto the seat, just a reas­on­able share. Instead, by choos­ing to dismantle the district, Repub­lic­ans essen­tial­ized Asian Amer­ican voters as an unreach­able “other.” That may have provided a short-term polit­ical bump for the party, but it is bad for the coun­try and ulti­mately will be bad for the Repub­lican Party in a nation where Asian Amer­ic­ans are now the fast­est grow­ing ethnic group. 

Things aren’t neces­sar­ily better in blue states where Asian Amer­ic­ans may not be as actively targeted but aren’t quite fully included either. Blue state politi­cians will routinely put out state­ments for Lunar New Year and attend annual Pakistan Day parades, but when it comes to creat­ing a seat at the table for Asians, Demo­crats are also often miss­ing in action. Take New York, for example. Asian Amer­ic­ans in the state now make up nearly 10 percent of the popu­la­tion, second only to Cali­for­nia. (Or to put it another way, New York State is almost as Asian Amer­ican as the United States is Black). Yet New York’s Court of Appeals, its highest court, has never had an Asian Amer­ican member, and there seems to be little urgency to change that. When a vacancy occurred on the court recently, not one Asian Amer­ican candid­ate made the short list. Progress­ive organ­iz­a­tions called for greater profes­sional diversity but didn’t high­light the lack of Asian Amer­ican repres­ent­a­tion on the court.  

When Lyndon John­son signed the Voting Rights Act almost 57 years ago, the United States was a very differ­ent coun­try. Because of discrim­in­at­ory laws like the Chinese Exclu­sion Act, Asian Amer­ic­ans were barely 1 percent of the coun­try’s popu­la­tion. The Immig­ra­tion Nation­al­ity Act of 1965, signed only a couple of months after, reopened the nation’s doors to signi­fic­ant immig­ra­tion and set the stage for the emer­gence of the much more diverse, multiracial nation of today. Nearly six decades later, AAPI Herit­age Month is a welcome oppor­tun­ity for Asian Amer­ic­ans and Pacific Islanders to feel seen and recog­nized as part of the Amer­ican story. But a seat at the table would be better.