The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Asian American groups rally for racial and social equality

The rally comes days after the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, whose death spurred a movement for civil rights among Asian Americans

KHA, a Vietnamese American singer and songwriter, performs at the Unity March rally on the National Mall on June 25. (Valerie Plesch for The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Shobha Srinivasan. The story has been updated with the correct spelling.

Paul Igasaki, his wife, Louann Igasaki, and their friends, Shobha Srinivasan and Deeana Jang, have for decades demonstrated for a host of issues affecting Asian Americans. What’s different about today’s landscape, they agreed, is that there’s a lot more diversity — both in the Asian American communities that have banded together and in the issues for which they advocate.

The group of friends — D.C.-area residents all in their mid-60s — gathered Saturday at the National Mall along with hundreds of others for a Unity March rally organized to bring attention to a slate of issues affecting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the increased number of hate crimes, reproductive rights for underprivileged women, and the lack of Asian American representation in both media and government. The rally, held a day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, also focused on unifying the Asian American community and other underrepresented communities, with speakers noting how the court’s decision would disproportionately affect people of color.

The crowd was diverse in both race and age — attendees ranged from toddlers to grandparents. Many waved handmade signs with messages such as “Not your model minority,” “Stop AAPI hate” and “Protect Asian women.” While the event was planned to culminate in a march, organizers ended with a short rally instead due to event delays and hot weather.

Dozens of speakers and performers took to the stage to dispel the “model minority” myth that all Asian Americans are successful, which has pitted them against other racial groups. They also shared family history and urged attendees to vote. One performer, known as KHA, performed her song “No More,” which describes moments in Asian American history. The hook, “No more, we’re not going to let you hold us down,” reflects the day’s larger call for communities of color to stand up for each other and unite.

“As a community, we have stayed silent for so long,” she said. “To be able to shout together to the world why we’re here, why we belong here — I think that message really resonates with me.”

A group of South Asian college-age women interning in D.C. for the summer gathered on the grass. For Ria Agarwal, 19, the event was a way to bring attention to the fact that hate crimes against Asian Americans are not just random acts of violence but patterns that need to be broken.

They also expressed gratitude for events like the Unity March to bring together Asian Americans from across communities.

“We were all sort of operating in silos before,” said Agarwal. “I think that this kind of protest has really led us to realize that we’re all connected.”

Louann Igasaki underscored the importance of education in redefining Asian American history. Unless we discuss the country’s history with civil rights injustices, we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes in history, she said. “We need to learn from past mistakes. If we’re going to have unity in the future, we better start learning.”

The Unity March was founded by several national organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and Indian American Impact.

“We felt that it was time for us to do something big and visible in our community” said Tiffany Chang, director of community engagement at AAAJ. “Because whenever we’ve let other folks tell our stories, it’s been one of either erasure or invisibility, or pernicious stereotypes.”

In light of the Roe v. Wade decision, the protest’s organizers reinforced their intentions to continue fighting for women’s rights and greater access to reproductive services.

“This is just one example of how historically marginalized communities like Asian Americans are having our rights diminished before our eyes,” Chang said.

Most Asian Americans support greater access to reproductive health care, she said.

“While our community is not a monolith, there is broad consensus across our very, very diverse community that reproductive health care is a fundamental right,” Chang said.

The march’s platform also included advocacy for full citizenship for undocumented individuals, guaranteed access to vote and multicultural studies in K-12 education.

“Unity is not the erasure of our differences. It’s a choice to show up,” she said. “Solidarity is survival.”

The idea for the march was prompted by shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left six Asian women dead in March 2021, said Chang. In 2020, hate crimes targeting Asian Americans jumped from 158 to 274, an increase of almost 74 percent, according to FBI data — numbers that might be underreported, some advocates say. The number of hate crimes rose to its highest level in over a decade the same year, amid increased violence toward Asians during the pandemic.

The march also comes days after the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man who was beaten by two White men outside a bar near Detroit — at a time when Asian Americans were blamed for layoffs at car factories because of Japanese imports. His death spurred a movement for civil rights among Asian Americans.

“While anti-Asian hate and violence is not new, we are in a different place than we were 40 years ago with the murder of Vincent Chin, when the Asian American movement and community as we know it came to be,” said Chang. “We are now the fastest growing racial group in the country. We are the margin of victory in political elections.”

If there’s any advice Paul Igasaki would give to the next generation of young Asian Americans, it would be this: Learn how to get practical about making change, and unite with all communities of color to advocate for change.

“By standing together, we can get something done,” he said. “Our voice is powerful.”

Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.

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