Illustration: Maria Voronovich / Getty

Politicians: Ignore Young AAPIs at Your Own Risk

We speak up, and we have political clout

Jacqueline Thanh, MSW
Published in
4 min readMay 26, 2021

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In March, a White man in Atlanta murdered six Asian women while they were at work. A lot of people were shocked — but not the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. To us, it was predictable. As an Asian community organizer in New Orleans, I’ve always been aware of the intergenerational traumas, exploitation, sexual violence, poverty, colonialism, and erasure that working-class Asian women experience.

Assaults continue to happen. Recently, a man collecting bottles was attacked in Harlem. Earlier this month, a 65-year-old woman was attacked in broad daylight in New York City. Within the last year alone, we’ve been targeted in thousands of hate incidents nationally, including attacks on scores of Asian-owned businesses. Many more incidents have gone undocumented. For years, immigrants in my community have learned to keep our suffering inside. But our pain has become too much. Our elected officials must act swiftly to confront xenophobia and racism. If they don’t, there will be political consequences.

It’s worth remembering how we got to this moment. Asian Americans are used to microaggressions and racism, but when Donald Trump branded Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” everything changed. In December, while trying to buy a Christmas tree, a man wearing a “Fuck China” face mask followed me around the lot until I finally left. There have been countless other “harmless” moments in recent years, where I was leered at or fetishized for my eyes, my body, my food, my language, my very existence.

All of this paves a dangerous pathway for violence. So why don’t more politicians recognize this violence for what it clearly is? President Joe Biden publicly condemned the Atlanta crime spree when it happened. But he wouldn’t call it a hate crime. Even now that Congress passed bipartisan legislation to investigate hate crimes against Asians, I doubt most of them really understand the impact of casual xenophobia.

This failure to listen to us — to really see us — is going to have consequences, especially for the Democratic Party. Last fall, while discussing whether my nonprofit should sign on to the Green New Deal for the Gulf Coast, a colleague said something I’d heard a lot recently: “I’m not political.” I paused the meeting to collect my thoughts so I wouldn’t scream. We’re a team of mostly Asian American social justice organizers; even if we weren’t activists, our existence as minorities in America makes our identities inherently political. But increasingly, my millennial and Gen Z colleagues, as well as the young people we mobilize, are growing disillusioned with our political system. This worries me. If my peers don’t believe in the system they’re fighting to change, they may stop fighting altogether.

I can’t blame them. Apart from news stories about crimes against us, or allegations we’re taking college spots from other (read: white) students, Asian Americans are treated as invisible. In reality, we are the country’s fastest-growing minority group, according to New American Economy. And yet, a recent survey showed more than half of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had “little or no contact” from either political party ahead of the election. In the end, we still headed to the polls in record numbers, electing Biden two to one over Trump.

Biden has taken a few important steps. He pledged to reverse many of Trump’s racist immigration policies, like the travel ban and family separations. He’s tackling other discriminatory measures, like the public charge rule. But race and socioeconomic status are intertwined; we’ll never combat social inequities without giving people of color equal access to health care, higher education, citizenship, and positions of leadership. Failing to do so entrenches white supremacy and systemically disempowers all BIPOC folx. Biden’s Cabinet may be “the most diverse in American history,” but there’s just one secretary of Asian American descent. And after Biden’s soft response to the Atlanta murders, Washington seems to be saying just because you show up for us, it doesn’t mean we’ll show up for you.

So to any politicians — especially Democrats — who are reading: You’ve got to stop taking us for granted. Confront the xenophobia that Asian Americans and many other immigrants face. Our young people are done with the “model minority” stereotype. We want to be seen and heard. We want to feel protected. That means you should give us a platform to speak and be prepared to listen. My organization, VAYLA, recently launched a portal to help document anti-Asian crimes here in New Orleans. Look at it, and you’ll see what so many of us experience every day.

It’s not pleasant, but real engagement is slow and gritty. It requires dropping your assumptions about who we are, what we need, and, yes, whether we’ll show up for you at the ballot box. There’s a lot at stake between now and the 2022 midterm elections — for all of us. We’re asking for you to show up in solidarity.

Jacqueline Thanh is the executive director of VAYLA, an intersectional AAPI community organizing nonprofit in New Orleans that incubates Asian American Pacific Islander leaders for a more just tomorrow.

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