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Asian American leaders see ‘a pivotal moment’ for political participation amid rising hate

As anti-Asian hate incidents spike, some AAPI politicians and analysts predict they will spark even greater involvement from America’s fastest-growing demographic group.

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (left, D., N.J.), with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), during an April 13 news conference promoting an anti-Asian hate bill in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (left, D., N.J.), with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), during an April 13 news conference promoting an anti-Asian hate bill in Washington.Read moreJose Luis Magana / AP

WASHINGTON — Andy Kim remembers the warnings from political professionals when he first considered running for Congress in South Jersey: There was no way an Asian American could win.

“They just told me flat out, ‘No. No chance,’ ” Kim, a Democrat, recalled this month. “And that really hurt, because the district I represent is where I went to kindergarten, where my oldest son is going to kindergarten right now. It’s our home. And to tell me that people in my own home are going to see me as ‘the other’ and not see that I’m a neighbor? I’m glad I proved them wrong. Twice.”

Kim, whose district in Burlington and Ocean Counties is 79% white, won in 2018 and again last year. He’s now one of four Korean Americans in Congress, part of a growing contingent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in public office and leading activist groups.

Now, as anti-Asian hate incidents spike, some AAPI politicians and analysts predict they will spark even greater involvement from America’s fastest growing demographic group.

“This will be a pivotal moment in Asian American political participation for decades to come, where you’re seeing a community getting politically activated in a way they never have been before,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the research group AAPI Data.

Asian American officials note their communities have long taken an interest in politics, particularly in Philadelphia, which has two Asian Americans on City Council and long-standing civic groups such as Asian Americans United and VietLead.

But politicians, analysts, and activists said that presence is growing and reaching new areas, thanks to population growth and a rising generation of Asian Americans — often adult children of immigrants, such as Kim. Several also pointed to the influence of the country’s wider reckoning with systemic racism and inequality.

» READ MORE: Philly Asian Americans have experienced a year of hateful acts, and fear it’s going to get even worse

The AAPI vote grew by about 46% in the 2020 presidential election compared to 2016, according to preliminary estimates from the Democratic firm TargetSmart, one of the largest increases ever among any racial demographic. Among all other groups it was 12%. Some 158 AAPI candidates ran for state legislatures in 2020, the most ever, according to AAPI Data.

After last month’s mass shootings in Atlanta that killed eight, including six women of Asian descent, Kim announced plans for a political committee to recruit and support Asian American candidates. The Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance formed last year, billing itself as Pennsylvania’s first statewide AAPI political group, is backing candidates for state legislature. Philadelphia attorney Neil Makhija is now leading the Indian American Impact Fund (IMPACT), a national group that supports Indian American Democrats.

And Vanita Gupta, born and raised in the Philadelphia region, was confirmed this week as the first woman of color to hold the No. 3 position in the Department of Justice. Her Senate confirmation came a day before lawmakers advanced a bipartisan bill to combat hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.

“We’ve come an enormously long way where you had multiple Asian American candidates running for president. I would never have conceived of that growing up,” said U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.), who grew up in Bucks County.

Khanna, 44, recalled how significant it felt in 2000 when Norman Minetta became the first Asian American cabinet member. Now, the vice president, Kamala Harris, is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, and Andrew Yang is a leading contender for mayor of New York.

Kris Kolluri was one of only a handful of Asian American staffers on Capitol Hill in the 1990s. He went on to become New Jersey’s transportation secretary. Kolluri, who came to New Jersey from India when he was 15, said his path is typical for many immigrant families: Parents focus first on economic security and their children’s education. Those children use that foundation for wider civic involvement as adults.

“My own parents were more focused on making sure they got their roots,” he said. “Now it’s about focusing on what it means to be a full participant in our democratic system.”

Pearl Kim, a Delaware County Republican who ran for Congress in 2018, tries to help others get started in politics as a board member of Korean Americans for Political Action.

“A lot of folks in general just have such little exposure to our political system,” Kim said.

The AAPI population grew by 81% nationally from 2000 to 2019 according to the Pew Research Center. The population in Pennsylvania roughly doubled, and New Jersey, already with one of the country’s largest AAPI communities, saw one of the biggest increases.

The designation encompasses a sprawling, diverse set of backgrounds that span from Indian and Bangladeshi Americans, to Korean and Japanese Americans, Filipinos, Samoans, and many others.

“We’re a very, very diverse community,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, a Democrat. “There’s no common language amongst us - we are just as impacted by colorism, immigration status, language status, class status as any other group in the U.S. and sometimes even more so.”

» READ MORE: Asian American voters in Pennsylvania show there is no one Asian vote

Even with recent growth, the communities are still relatively small.

Asian Americans cast about 4.1 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, up from 2.8 million in 2016, according to TargetSmart estimates. That was about 2.6% of the nationwide vote.

In Pennsylvania, the AAPI vote total grew by about 20%, to about 61,000 presidential votes, roughly 1% of the electorate. That was one of the country’s smallest percentage increases, though. New Jersey’s AAPI votes grew by 46%, and they were 4% of the electorate.

Makhija said that with major elections decided by slim margins, AAPI voters can still have a big impact. In Georgia, where the presidential race was decided by about 12,000 votes, Asian Americans cast more than 134,000 ballots, an 85% jump from 2016, according to TargetSmart.

The group leans heavily Democratic, but Ramakrishnan said AAPI voters are a “classic persuadable constituency.”

“Because most Asian American citizens are naturalized, they don’t have strong party affiliation, because they didn’t grow up in a Democratic household or a Republican household,” he said.

The group’s small share of the overall vote presents challenges.

Most Asian American elected officials, especially in Congress, “do not live in Asian-majority districts, and that’s a contrast from when you look at Black members of Congress and Latino members of Congress,” Ramakrishnan said. “Where Asian American electeds have been able to make headway is by making an appeal to broad constituencies.”

Activists say the communities are still underrepresented in elected office, and often overlooked politically. Pennsylvania’s legislature has just two Asian American members, Makhija said, or 0.8% in a state that is 4% Asian American.

API PA, the statewide group, is focused on changing that.

“We really see the state level as just this massive priority,” said Mohan Seshadri, the group’s co-executive director.

» READ MORE: Senate passes bill to fight hate crimes against Asian Americans

A former adviser to Gov. Tom Wolf, Seshadri said he saw firsthand the importance of being at the table for key decisions. He pointed to data showing that 78% of Pennsylvania’s Asian Americans speak a language other than English at home, and the importance of recognizing that challenge when delivering information about voting or COVID-19.

AAPI politicians and analysts stressed that while political participation is growing, it’s not new. Neither is racism or discrimination.

“Feeling targeted has always been part of the history of Asian Americans in America,” said Republican City Councilmember David Oh.

That history includes bans on Chinese immigrants in the 1800s and, in 1917, the creation of the “Asiatic barred zone” restricting immigration from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and Asians weren’t allowed to naturalize until the 1950s. Asian immigration was severely limited until 1965.

Ending that restriction allowed Asians to arrive in significant numbers, become citizens, and set the stage for the current political surge. But racism has continued.

South Asian communities absorbed hatred after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, COVID-19 has brought a spike in physical and verbal attacks on Asian Americans — which many tie to the racist rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.

“The Republican Party has done a terrible job courting the Asian American community and racial minorities in general,” said Pearl Kim, the onetime GOP candidate. “A lot of small business owners would identify with the Republican platform, but we have to get our message out.”

While anti-Asian racism has a long history, she said, “Trump’s rhetoric and hate-filled discourse contributed to this environment.”

Andy Kim worries that geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China could unleash more xenophobia. He recalled his mother, a nurse, once being told by a patient to “go home where you’re from,” another reminder of how even some neighbors see his family as outsiders.

“That weighs on you and makes you not feel like you can participate in government and in the political system,” Kim said.

Years later, however, as a national security aide in the Obama administration, he brought her to the Oval Office to meet the president.

“I just want to make that more of the norm that people can experience here, rather than the constant erosion of our feeling of belonging here,” he said.