‘I need to vote.’ Why more Asian Americans are staking a political claim.

From Zoom
Screen shots taken of an online presentation on June 25, 2021, to Chinese American students by Mason Ji, a Harvard Law School graduate and former White House ambassador for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Mr. Ji was addressing about 150 students taking part in a civics leadership program organized by United Chinese Americans.
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Voter turnout by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders increased in the 2020 election more than for any other racial or ethnic group. It’s just one aspect of what Asian American leaders call a surge in political engagement in recent years. Around 23 million people identify as Asian American in the United States, and many in this diverse community have banded together in the face of rising racism and attacks during the pandemic. 

Chinese American leaders, in particular, say they’ve seen a striking growth in political engagement. “An uptick would be an understatement,” says Haipei Shue, president of the United Chinese Americans, a nonprofit that was formed in 2016.

Why We Wrote This

Discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have made headlines this year. Overlooked in some coverage, though, is a key part of their communities’ response: renewed pride and a political reawakening.

He attributes the change to a “triple whammy”: the Trump presidency and U.S.-Chinese economic and political tensions that made the Chinese community “very nervous and worried about its future”; the intensifying polarization of American politics; and the disproportionately high number of pandemic deaths in the Chinese American community.

“In the Chinese community, like it or not, everybody has become more politicized” in recent years, says Mr. Shue. “Not necessarily because they love it, but most likely because they cannot run away from it.”

About 150 Chinese American high school and college students from across the United States are engaging online with a young presidential and congressional campaign worker, peppering him with questions.

“When you’re campaigning, how do you really mobilize Asian Americans?” asks Luis Xu, a high school student from Illinois, during a weeklong civics program designed to empower a new generation of leaders.

“I’m really impressed by your activism at such a young age. … How did you network so effectively in high school and college?” asks another student, Arthur Sun.

Why We Wrote This

Discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have made headlines this year. Overlooked in some coverage, though, is a key part of their communities’ response: renewed pride and a political reawakening.

“Have you ever had any difficulties in your political career as a Chinese American? How did you overcome them?” inquires Lin Pei, a student at the University of Maryland. 

Asian Americans say their community is experiencing a broad political awakening, reflected in such enthusiastic exchanges between students and elected officials, activists, and community leaders attending the civics program organized by the Washington-based nonprofit United Chinese Americans. Though the 23 million people who identify as Asian American today are a vastly diverse group, they’ve united to a degree against a surge in racism and attacks during the pandemic.

“What you’re seeing right now at the national level … but also at the state and local levels, is this kind of reckoning” in response to heightened polarization during the Trump presidency and a wave of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, says Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Center and the Asian American Studies program of Hunter College at the City University of New York.

“Folks who have never really been politically active … have responded by mobilizing, by seeking to build coalitions within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and across Americans of all different backgrounds.”

Voter turnout by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders surged by 10 percentage points and 14 percentage points, respectively, in the 2020 election compared with 2016, more than for any other racial or ethnic categories, according to census data analyzed by the demographic research group AAPI Data. Exit polls indicated that 63% of the Asian American electorate voted for Joe Biden, compared with 31% for President Donald Trump.  

Chinese American leaders, in particular, say the growth in political engagement has been striking within their community, which with 5.4 million people is the biggest segment of the Asian American population, according to U.S. census data.

“An uptick would be an understatement” in describing the newfound political activism, says Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans. He attributes the change to a “triple whammy”: the Trump presidency “making the Chinese community very nervous and worried about its future,” with soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing; the intensifying polarization of U.S. politics; and the heavy blow of the pandemic to the Chinese American community specifically.

“In the Chinese community, like it or not, everybody has become more politicized” in recent years, says Mr. Shue. “Not necessarily because they love it, but most likely because they cannot run away from it.” 

“I need to vote”

To be sure, Asian American activists have a long history of fighting for their rights and have waged landmark court battles over issues such as citizenship, immigration, and education, Professor Louie notes. Yet she says many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders themselves are not aware of this history.

From Zoom
Alice Cai is one of 10 student leaders participating in a Summer University civics program put on by United Chinese Americans on June 25, 2021. Ms. Cai is a rising freshman at Harvard.

Among newer Chinese Americans, reluctance to take part in democratic politics has stemmed in part from their roots in China, Mr. Shue says. “We come from a society where … not only do you never know what democracy is, but you are much discouraged from any activism or advocacy,” he says, noting about two-thirds of Chinese Americans are first-generation immigrants.

Language barriers are another obstacle, with a third of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders having limited English, according to survey data. 

“They fear they cannot be an adequate voter,” says Hong Qi, who moved to the Seattle area from Beijing in 1988 and has since worked on programs to boost voting by Chinese Americans and other minority groups. “Even if the material is translated, they will say they don’t know the candidates, or don’t understand the resolutions.” Prior to the 2020 elections, Ms. Hong translated voting instructions for every state into Chinese and posted them online.

But for many, concern over the spike in physical and verbal attacks and other forms of discrimination against Asian Americans – along with a dangerously divisive political atmosphere – has spurred them into action. The group Stop AAPI Hate tracked more than 6,000 reported incidents of discrimination in the year to March 30, including more than 800 physical assaults.

“I never voted because I felt I needed to have a better understanding of the U.S. system” and faced a language barrier, says Cathy, who moved to the Seattle area from China 18 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. But after her Chinese American husband was assaulted and his nose fractured in a June attack that she believes was racially motivated, she is taking action. She wrote to the Seattle City Council about the assault and is determined to vote in the next election. "I need to vote," she says.

“We used to be the silent people,” says Cathy, who asked that her last name be withheld for her protection. But now, she believes, “the Chinese community should take more participation in improving the society.”

Taking action

In addition to turning out the vote, more Asian Americans are running for office and working on political campaigns, and grassroots organizing, says Professor Louie. In New York, nearly one-fifth of the candidates running for city council in November are of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent.

“I am very conscious of the fact that there are not many Chinese Americans broadly in politics,” says one young Chinese American Senate staff member who has worked on political campaigns. “I frankly don’t see a lot of folks who look like me,” he says, requesting anonymity because his job does not authorize him to speak on the record.

Still, he feels compelled to pursue a career in politics, in part to represent Asian Americans.

“When you have the president of the United States throwing out racial slurs and targeting the community specifically … you realize you have no choice but to make your voice heard,” he says, referring to Mr. Trump. “That’s what we saw over this part year – we saw the tragic shooting in Atlanta, for instance – moments like that really shock your system and make you realize you have no choice but to be part of the process,” he says. The March shootings at Atlanta area spas killed eight people, including six Asian women. The shooter pled guilty this week to four counts of murder. 

Advocates stress that education is also vital to counter discrimination and violence against Asian Americans and ease their feeling of being unappreciated, or even invisible. In a recent victory, Illinois this month became the first state to require a unit on Asian American history to be added to public schools’ curriculum.

As Chinese Americans, “you must show you are part of the United States and have built the United States from the beginning,” says former senior U.S. diplomat Ted Gong. Mr. Gong is executive director of the 1882 Foundation, which promotes public awareness of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States.

“Don’t be silent,” Mr. Gong told the students attending last month’s online civic leadership program. “Blow the whistle, not just if you are in danger,” he says, referring to a Yellow Whistle campaign launched in April to counter racial violence against Asian Americans. “Let people know you are here.”

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