Why Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders need stronger political representation

Only a seat at the decision-making table can bring about long-overdue reforms

As Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth has argued, our government needs officials who understand the unique challenges faced by the AAPI community, Le writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
As Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth has argued, our government needs officials who understand the unique challenges faced by the AAPI community, Le writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 30, 2021 at 2:06pm

Once again, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is grappling with horrifying acts of racism and violence. At last, the rest of the country seems to have noticed. The murders of eight people at three Asian-owned small businesses, including six women of Asian descent, unleashed an outpouring of grief and anger.

But these alarm bells have been ringing for some time. The roughly 3,800 reported hate incidents in the past year represent only a fraction of the unreported violence and racism toward AAPI communities. Women have especially felt the brunt of this disturbing trend, facing at least two-thirds of the reported attacks. My family — Vietnamese refugees who escaped communism and eventually resettled in southern Georgia as farmers — has sadly experienced unprovoked hostility over the course of their time as Americans.

While many AAPI individuals now feel seen, we still lack serious representation at the highest levels of government. Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, have argued that our government needs officials who understand the unique challenges our communities face. Only then can policies meet our specific needs in voting rights, criminal justice reform and economic opportunity.

[Opinion: Prejudice against Asian Americans is real and it’s ugly]

Voting rights are under attack across America under the guise of Jim Crow 2.0. In my family’s home state of Georgia, the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp fast-tracked a deeply controversial new law to dramatically limit no-excuse absentee voting for all elections, eliminate Sunday voting in runoffs and prosecute people for even handing out water to voters in long lines. The measure’s passage came after AAPI voter turnout increased 91 percent in November’s historic general election and helped tip the Senate’s balance of power toward the Democrats.

The timing is no coincidence, and Georgia is no outlier. More than 250 bills in 43 states seek to tighten voting rules. They masquerade as methods to stop voter fraud, but these anti-democratic power grabs are really aimed at reducing the participation of communities of color in future elections.

The Georgia measure will likely crush Black turnout, including the “souls to the polls” program. It will undercut AAPI communities who vote primarily by absentee ballots. Many have working-class jobs and can’t go to the polls before 5 p.m. They also face language and cultural barriers, and a higher likelihood of having names prone to clerical errors. After the shootings, imagine being told that you can only vote in person when you’re fearful for your life. 

Beyond the voting booth, the Georgia law will deepen the disproportionate economic hardships that Black, brown and AAPI communities already face. Despite the stereotype of being financially well off, the vast majority of AAPI individuals are working class, and many are small business operators.

As COVID-19 ravaged the country, AAPI-owned businesses saw the biggest decline through the end of 2020. The jobless rate for AAPI communities rose from 2.8 percent in 2019 to as high as 15 percent last May — well above the rate for whites and Latinos. Income inequality is now greater in the AAPI community than among any other group in America.

Growing anti-Asian sentiment worsened these disparities over the past year, especially for low-income Chinatown businesses, nail salons, dry cleaners and restaurants. Notably, more than one-third of AAPI communities, on average, have limited English language proficiency and face steep cultural barriers. 

To make matters worse, the government’s pandemic rescue packages did not give AAPI-owned business special consideration. The Small Business Administration must do more to provide governments with the inclusive guidance on engaging with AAPI-owned businesses that was promised to Black and brown businesses. 

Finally, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders need to be protected from crimes targeting us for who we are. Georgia’s recently enacted hate crime law came about after political pressure from the business community and communities of color, rising from last year’s social justice movement. However, the Atlanta murders have highlighted just how challenging hate crime prosecutions can be.

That is why the Biden administration should work with Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act to stem violence against communities of color, and hold the Department of Justice and states like Georgia accountable. 

2021 could be a defining year for channeling years of heartbreak and adversity into long-overdue reforms. Instead of silently suffering, AAPI individuals have found the courage to speak out about their disenfranchisement. I hope this energy translates into real momentum to ensure we always have a seat at the decision-making table.

It’s time for the Biden administration, the private sector and other communities of color to champion AAPI communities everywhere. This can only be done with AAPI leaders at the table, with the influence of, and a commitment from, allies to support these efforts.

Other senators from communities of color should also commit to supporting AAPI leadership and representation. Sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., have a timely voice to demonstrate allyship. Having AAPI communities as a valued part of America’s recovery, the justice system and the political process is an important and necessary step for a stronger and more equitable union.

Jeff Le is a political partner at the Truman National Security Project, which is dedicated to building a new generation of progressive leaders in national security. He was deputy director of external and international affairs and deputy cabinet secretary to former California Gov. Jerry Brown.