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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.