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Asian-Americans: Speaking Out and Gaining Strength

The role of Asian citizens in politics and public life is a story that will surprise a good many Americans.

Siblings Anna Xie, center left, and Alex Xie, both 17, rally against Asian hate during a march and protest in Logan Square neighborhood on March 20, 2021. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune/TNS
The current #StopAsianHate protests provide only one example of the challenges Asian and Pacific Islander men and women have made over many years in the fight against injustices in urban America. As the fastest growing demographic group in this country,  their activism and political participation, especially in cities, will make them a powerful force in years to come.

The violent crimes of recent months against Asian Americans are now widely known. What many of us do not know is that Asian citizens and immigrants are the fastest growing minority in American cities, and that they have a long history of civil rights efforts and political activism.
As immigrants, they began migrating to the U.S. during the late 1800s, although their population grew fastest after passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson, this federal law allowed the parents, spouses, and children of many immigrants of color to emigrate to America and abolished a 1924 quota that placed barriers in the path of African and Asian immigrants. 

Since 2000, the Asian American population has grown by more than 70 percent nationally. From 2000 to 2020, the number of Asian American eligible voters grew by 139 percent, outpacing the growth of the Hispanic (121 percent), black (33 percent), and white electorates (7 percent). It is predicted that the Asian electorate will double from 5.9 million eligible voters in 2015 to 12.2 million in 2040, and that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will become the nation’s largest immigrant group by 2055. 

Regardless of whether their population in cities has been large or small, Asians have experienced discrimination for more than a hundred years. Asian immigration, especially that of the Chinese, was limited in the 19th century because Asians were said to be a “Yellow Peril” plotting to disrupt the American way of life. During the Chinese Massacre of 1871, a mob murdered 19 Chinatown residents in Los Angeles. In 1875, the Page Exclusion Act banned the entry of Asian women. Then, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned the continued migration of all Chinese workers to the U.S.   

Asians have been scapegoated during times of national stress. Two months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, resulting in the relocation and internment of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry-an estimated 62 percent of whom were American citizens. Many Vietnamese immigrants were treated as the nation’s enemy in the years during and after the Vietnam War. In 1979, the Ku Klux Klan set fire to the homes of Vietnamese fishermen and hung one in effigy in Seadrift, Texas. In 1982 in Detroit, 27 year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, was severely beaten while celebrating his upcoming wedding after an argument with two unemployed white auto workers. At the time, many Americans blamed the decline of the American auto industry on cars imported from Japan. Allegedly, the men believed Chin was Japanese. They followed him to a parking lot and bludgeoned him. He later died of his injuries. 

During times of turmoil, Asian citizens and immigrants have responded in many ways. In their early years in America, they filed landmark lawsuits challenging discrimination. Although they usually lost these cases, they documented the intolerance directed at them. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Asian Americans joined other college students in persuading their campuses to diversify enrollments during the height of the Asian American Movement.   

In recent years, urban gentrification has been the target of Asian protests, especially in Chinatown areas of cities.  Because of gentrification, some Asian citizens can no longer afford to live in neighborhoods where they have resided for years.  And with the coming of COVID-19, some individuals stopped patronizing Chinatown businesses in communities that had already been hard hit by gentrification projects.  In addition, Asian Americans have supported the Black Lives Matter movement by participating in demonstrations and online protests.   

Asian Americans have made their most significant impact through political activism. Currently, 160 Asian American and Pacific Islanders serve in 33 state legislatures nationwide, 51 in Hawaii and 17 in Congress. Since last year, Asian American members of Congress have taken the lead in protesting the numerous hate crimes that have been directed at Asians. Younger Asian voters now belong to a “New South” coalition of African American, Latino, and white progressive voters who have shifted Georgia and other states from red to purple. Chinese American attorney and entrepreneur Andrew Yang raised $1.7 in two months for his presidential campaign in 2020. Now Yang is a front-running candidate for mayor of New York City. Asian Americans lean Democratic, but are also active in Republican Party politics, especially Vietnamese Americans.  In November 2020, two Korean Republican women, Young Kim and Michelle Steel, won U.S. House seats in California, making them part of a growing number of Asian female elected officials.

Sharon Wright Austin is a professor of Political Science at the University of Florida where she teaches courses in Asian American politics, African American politics, American politics, and public policy.
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