The top political organization representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is forming a policy-focused arm in response to new engagement in their community following a year of racially motivated attacks, record voter turnout in the 2020 election and the killings last month of six Asian women in Atlanta.
But the coronavirus pandemic brought both of those issues to the forefront for Asian Americans, who have been subjected to racist slurs, perpetrated by former president Donald Trump and other Republicans using derogatory and stigmatizing terms to describe the virus, such as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu.”
Asian workers in low-wage jobs also have been hit hardest by the economic fallout of shuttered businesses such as nail salons, dry cleaners and shopping centers. Long-term unemployment among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the first quarter of 2021 surpassed that of Blacks, Whites and Latinos, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Then, the March 16 shooting of six Chinese and Korean American women working at spas and massage parlors in Atlanta “shone a spotlight on our community like nothing before” and created a sense of urgency for a more issue-based, educational effort, said Varun Nikore, who will serve as executive director of the new entity, the AAPI Victory Alliance.
It “fills a critical gap in the AAPI community right now, and that’s because it’s focused on lifting up the AAPI political agenda which is much broader than most people realize,” said Janelle Wong, an AAPI Victory Alliance board member and professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland. “The past year has made it clear to both Asian Americans and the broader population that race matters for Asian Americans and we have to think about those particularized needs in a different way than we have in the past.”
Part of the group’s mission will be to dispel the “model minority” myth that persists around the Asian population that they are well educated and successful and thus don’t require the same attention as other marginalized groups.
More than 22 million Asian American and Pacific Islanders live in the United States, making up about 7 percent of the U.S. population. Viewed together as one group, nearly 50 percent have a college degree, but when broken down by ethnicity, data show that less than 20 percent of other subgroups such as Pacific Islanders, Cambodians or native Hawaiians have bachelor’s degrees.
“You can’t understand the experience of Asian Americans through a single lens like aggregate income or educational achievement; instead, a more multifaceted understanding will help highlight areas that still remain quite challenging, like political representation,” Wong said.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders represent the fastest-growing segment of the country’s electorate. AAPI voters turned out in record numbers last year to support Democrat Joe Biden over Trump by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, and were critical to Biden’s victory in states such as Georgia, which had not swung Democratic since 1992.
In Georgia, a week before the 2020 election, more AAPI voters had cast early ballots than had voted in the 2016 presidential election, said Tom Bonier of TargetSmart, which analyzes voting data. Across 47 states and the District of Columbia that had data on Asian American and Pacific Islander voting, AAPI voting was up 47.3 percentage points over 2016 compared to 12 percentage points across the general population, Bonier said.
Moreover, he said, 23 percent of AAPI voters were first-time voters in 2020.
“I’ve never seen a surge in turnout like this before,” Bonier said.
Nikore said: “All the data and research has shown it was Trump’s rhetoric that drew out the numbers. This was a largely organic effort … no one invested and yet it still happened.”
Part of the new group’s mission will be to harness that voter engagement and build grass- roots support for AAPI candidates and for candidates who support causes of importance to the community.
The AAPI Victory Fund super PAC endorsed Biden in January 2020 at a critical point in the Democratic primary in exchange for an assurance that he would name a “visible” AAPI person as a campaign co-chair, but that never happened. AAPI groups and lawmakers were then disappointed that the Biden administration didn’t nominate an Asian American Cabinet secretary.
“Although you promised to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, AAPIs have so far been excluded from the 15 Cabinet Secretary slots that oversee executive departments and are responsible for shaping and implementing your administration’s policies,” read one letter from more than 100 members of Congress to Biden’s transition team sent in December.
Biden’s team has repeatedly pointed to Vice President Harris, whose mother immigrated from India, whenever AAPI groups have raised their concerns. Frustration came to a boil last month when Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) threatened to vote “no” on most of Biden’s remaining Cabinet nominees until the White House addressed what they said was a lack of sufficient AAPI representation.
“To be told that, ‘Well, you have Kamala Harris. We’re very proud of her. You don’t need anybody else,’ is insulting,” Duckworth said then. “And that is not something you would say to the Black Caucus: ‘Well, you have Kamala. We’re not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet, because you have Kamala.’ Why would you say it to AAPI?”
The White House has said it will add a senior-level administration member who will act as a liaison to the Asian American Pacific Islander communities. That person has not yet been named.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers have prioritized combating hate crimes against Asians. The Senate returned Monday from a two-week break and its first legislative action will be debate on a bill to require the Justice Department to appoint a point person at the agency to address the coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“It sends a very important signal from the Congress of the United States to the American public: These crimes will not be tolerated and there will be consequences,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a floor speech. “We all know, every one of us, that racism against one is racism against all. We must stop it.”