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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks virtually at the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Harris is the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, as well as the first Asian American and first African American vice president. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Lawmakers Reflect on COVID, Anti-Asian Bias and Look to Future

By Kevin Frazzini | May 21, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

Asian Americans make up the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States.

The AAPI population—short for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—nearly doubled between 2000 and 2019, increasing from 11.9 million to 23.2 million, or about 7% of the U.S. population, during that time, according to the Pew Research Center.

The growth is expected to continue, with the number of AAPIs projected to surpass 46 million, or more than 11% of the U.S. population, by 2060. By then, Asian Americans likely will be the largest immigrant group in the country.

Similarly, the number of AAPI lawmakers in the nation’s legislatures has roughly doubled, though their numbers are not proportional to the number of Asian Americans in the larger U.S. population. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of Asian Americans in state legislatures grew from 55 (0.7% of total state lawmakers) to 108 (1.5%), according to a study published by the Cambridge University Press.

Today, there are 163 AAPI legislators in 33 states (about 2% of total state lawmakers), according to the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators. The states with the most AAPI lawmakers are Hawaii, California, Washington, Maryland and Massachusetts (tied), and Minnesota.

Cautious Optimism

Steadily growing representation aside, 2020 presented unexpected challenges for many Asian Americans, as the coronavirus pandemic revealed widespread anti-Asian bias. In the last year, more than 6,600 anti-Asian hate incidents, ranging from verbal harassment to violent physical assault, were reported nationwide, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. The abuse was often linked to rhetoric, some of it from elected officials, that blames Asian people for the spread of COVID-19.

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close, NCSL connected with four legislators who serve on the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators Special Committee on Anti-Asian Bias and Xenophobia, which was formed to address the rise in incidents of abuse against AAPIs. How are their communities weathering the pandemic, and what does the month’s theme—purpose-driven service—mean to them?

This year’s focus on purpose-driven service is important because there are many members of our Asian American communities across the country that are impoverished, in need and invisible because of the harm that this idea of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has done. —Illinois Representative Theresa Mah

Two of the lawmakers, Minnesota Representative Fue Lee and Washington Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, began their political careers as community activists.

Lee, who was elected in 2016, is the first person of color and the first of Asian descent to represent his Minneapolis district. “Asian Heritage Month is the time of year we reflect on and celebrate the contributions of the diverse Asian American communities across the country,” he says. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are activating their communities to stand in solidarity against racism and anti-Blackness and to combat anti-Asian sentiments and AAPI hate.”

Elected in 1998, Santos has used public events to educate the broader community about the devastating effects of anti-Asian bias and xenophobia on young and old alike, she says. “Through these gatherings, I am able to remind audiences that AAPIs have not been silent observers of discrimination and racism in America but have actively challenged these older more virulent viruses throughout U.S. history.”

New Jersey Majority Whip Raj Mukherji, who was elected in 2013, is the General Assembly’s only former Marine and its only Asian American. “This year’s focus on purpose-driven service,” he says, “speaks to the type of servant leadership and the core values that are part of the experience of being raised Asian American, the values that are so often part of the cultural experience in so many Asian American immigrant homes.”

Illinois Representative Theresa Mah, who became the state’s first Asian American legislator when she was elected in 2016, says Heritage Month is meaningful to her because there is still widespread lack of awareness about Asian Americans. “We are often seen as perpetual foreigners, despite the fact that we have been an integral part of our country’s history,” she says. “This year’s focus on purpose-driven service is important because there are many members of our Asian American communities across the country that are impoverished, in need and invisible because of the harm that this idea of Asian Americans as a ‘model minority’ has done. Providing service to those communities can make a huge difference in community members’ lives.”

The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on all communities of color. But the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in discrimination against people of Asian descent. How have you sought to address this phenomenon and to support those in your community?

Lee: To combat discrimination against people of Asian descent, I have worked with legislative colleagues across the country to hold a series of online town halls known as “Rise: Asian Pacific America” to discuss where we are today, where we’ve been as a community, and where we need to go to rise up to the challenges we face in the near and remote future. I also co-chair the (National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators) Special Committee on Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Bias to convene legislators across the country to develop a national strategy toward combating anti-Asian bias and xenophobia at the state level.

Santos: I am proud to represent Seattle’s International District neighborhood, which encompasses historic Chinatown, Nihonmachi (Japantown), Manilatown and Little Saigon. While the coronavirus made its American debut in Washington state at the end of February 2020, the shops and restaurants of the ID neighborhood began to experience a steep downturn in business earlier in January as the public mistakenly associated the virus with Asia and Asian people. This association continues to this day as anti-Asian bias and xenophobia have become increasingly violent and pervasive.

I am fortunate to have the platform of public office to raise the visibility of these issues and their remedies in the Legislature, in the public arena and within the Asian Pacific American communities. Early in the pandemic, I joined forces with other activists in my community to establish a fund used to purchase meals from ID restaurants and deliver them to local hospital workers who were working 24/7 to treat the overflow of COVID patients. I also helped distribute groceries and hot meals to the elderly residents of the ID who were afraid to venture outside of their apartments for fear of both the virus and the violence against Asians.

Mukherji: Asian American elected officials in New Jersey have answered the call to action in the wake of thousands of hate incidents against our fellow AAPI immigrants. We have held rallies and joined with other communities to speak out against, condemn and resoundingly reject hate and intolerance in the state that Ellis Island calls home and where Lady Liberty is a stone’s throw from our shoreline. I have worked with the executive branch to successfully advocate for sufficient resources for data collection, and disaggregation of data in the process, to enable the state to better understand and combat hate incidents and discrimination. We are ensuring that our public health response to the pandemic heeds the goals of cultural competency and—like in other areas of public policy, such as voting rights and access to public services—language access and sensitivity to the needs of diverse immigrant communities. We are careful about the words we use and are calling out those leaders who use xenophobic terms that serve to inflame.

Mah: I have had a number of opportunities to speak out on this issue, from the beginning of the pandemic to the present. This has helped to bring awareness to the issue. But I have also had the privilege of working with some great partners here in Illinois. This session, we have been working to pass legislation that mandates a unit of study on Asian American history in the K-12 curriculum in Illinois schools. I am a chief co-sponsor of that bill. I am also chief sponsor of a bill that adds citizenship and immigration status as motivating factors to the Illinois hate crimes statute. In our state, 30% of foreign-born residents are from Asia.

How have you, as an Asian American lawmaker, made an impact on the legislative institution or legislative process?

Lee: As an Asian American lawmaker, I have made it a priority to include and uplift the perspectives of Minnesota’s Black, Indigenous and communities of colors in our legislative process.

Santos: Like every legislator, I hope that my lived experiences and the experiences of my communities serve to shape and inform our responses to the existing and emerging issues of our state. As an Asian American legislator, I often use my knowledge of Asian American history and culture as well as my familiarity with immigrant experiences to change the course of legislation and to establish more effective processes and practices. One example is establishing a policy and practice requiring state agencies and local jurisdictions that are required to post notices affecting public health, safety and welfare to issue these notices in languages other than English. This directive was inspired by the experiences of the Vietnamese inhabitants of New Orleans who were not informed of the order to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina.

I am also proud of institutionalizing the annual Day of Remembrance in the Legislature to remember and acknowledge the travesty of justice that occurred when “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership” led to the mass incarceration of American citizens of Japanese ancestry. This yearly event recenters our attention as a Legislature on the fragility of civil liberties during periods of extreme political stress and the ongoing responsibility that each legislator bears in protecting our democratic institutions.

Mukherji: We are enacting legislation to create an Asian American Commission to recommend specific, concrete expenditures and statutory changes to combat discrimination and hate in all their ugly forms, and we are reviewing whether our laws upgrading crimes and penalties with bias enhancements require further revision. I worked with the governor to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in tenant and landlord assistance and hundreds of millions to a fund for small-businesses assistance and relief—inspired by legislation I sponsored—much of which will aid Asian American-owned small businesses that are struggling and Asian American households.

Mah: In our General Assembly in Illinois, there are now five Asian American legislators, four in the House and one in the Senate. In the House, we are recognized as a caucus by the speaker and represented on his leadership team, meaning we are consulted on important issues, the budget and legislation. Our presence, outspokenness and increased visibility on Asian American issues has made it possible for us to move legislation such as the TEAACH Act—the bill I mentioned earlier that mandates the teaching of Asian American history in the K-12 curriculum.

From your perspective, what should legislatures do to address diversity and a culture of inclusion internally and externally?

Lee: In my perspective, legislatures need to be intentional in hiring staff and providing the resources necessary to meet the needs of all Minnesotans as we strive for a culture of inclusion in our institutions and processes. To this end, I chair the Minnesota House Democratic-Farmer-Labor Caucus’ Personnel Committee and have made it a priority to hire a caucus staff that is diverse and knowledgeable of our state’s diversity, and I’m leading the effort to hire nonpartisan bilingual staff to provide communication support for our legislative branch of government in Minnesota.

Santos: I think legislatures—like our society as a whole—are becoming more aware that our institutional processes and practices have excluded and continue to exclude the perspectives and the participation of many constituent groups, whether non-English speaking people, people of color or people with disabilities. Having identified the problem, the next step is to move forward from exclusion to inclusion in terms of access—physically and figuratively—within the policymaking process. The challenge is, how?

It requires a willingness to acknowledge that inequities exist, an equal willingness to rectify the inequities, and—above all—a willingness to listen and learn from those who are most directly affected by the inequities. Even in the midst of intense deliberations, we must pause to look around and assess who is missing from our view, then reach out to and develop relationships with these constituents.

This year, in Washington state, the transportation leaders held dozens of “listening sessions” with communities of color, with immigrant, poor and other under-represented communities to understand the specific challenges experienced by these constituencies before crafting a transportation agenda. The Legislature also directed the Department of Commerce to facilitate a comprehensive community-driven review of its programs and to report recommendations about legislative actions that would reduce barriers to access and participation by underserved communities.

Like all things legislative, learning to live with diversity and a culture of inclusion is an iterative process that will take time, if only we are willing.

Mukherji: It is critical that state legislatures across the nation—as the laboratories of democracy where action can be taken more swiftly than in Washington, D.C.—take steps to protect vulnerable communities, to promote diversity and inclusion and fight overt intolerance as well as microaggressions, to address disparities in access to health care and a quality education and the root causes of these disparities, and to protect the civil liberties of vulnerable populations.

Mah: Legislatures need to be actively aware of issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. Diversity needs to be reflected at all levels, including staff. The issues of the various communities that we represent need to be taken seriously, and state governments need to adopt policies that promote diversity, inclusion and equity, such as language-access policies, recruitment and hiring plans, and data gathering, that can help improve current deficiencies in these areas.

How have you encouraged your constituents to get involved in the legislative process?

Lee: I have encouraged my constituents to get involved in the legislative process through hosting legislative town halls; engaging with my local schools’ administrators, teachers, students and families; and meeting with my constituents wherever it is most accessible to them.

Santos: I proudly represent a legislative district that is historically identified as the most diverse in the state of Washington. In addition to being a majority-minority district, with Asian Pacific Americans representing nearly 30% of the overall population, the district includes a significant immigrant and refugee base with more than 1 in 4 residents born in another country. Consequently, the constituents of my district enjoy a wide array of community-based social service organizations—some more than 100 years old—which have learned how to teach and support civic engagement and advocacy. Indeed, the Asian Pacific American Lobby Day is one the largest gatherings in our state Capitol, attracting more than 2,500 attendees annually. As a state legislator, I have helped to facilitate and augment these community-led efforts by participating in the events, by supporting state funding for citizenship programs, and by making translations of written communications and interpreters for verbal communications available.

Mukherji: My district mates and I actively solicit from our constituents input on pending legislation and the budget process. Over the past seven years, dozens of bills that I authored—which were successfully signed into law—were constituent ideas or suggestions. In terms of public participation in our democracy, we have also sought to expand access to the sacrosanct right to vote, and we conduct intensive voter registration efforts every year (without regard to whether we are on the ballot). We regularly disseminate information in our urban community about vacancies on boards, commissions and authorities so that our constituents can volunteer and seek appointment.

Mah: I regularly communicate with my constituents about what I am doing and how they can get involved. I publish materials in three languages and always hire bilingual staff. I am always communicating my accessibility and speak regularly with young people and groups of advocates.

Who has inspired you or had a big influence in your work?

Lee: My parents have had the biggest influence in my work because of their strength and perseverance in providing opportunities for my siblings and me to obtain higher education despite their struggles early as refugees and living in poverty for most of their life in this country.

Santos: Martin Luther King Jr., who is properly known and recognized for his advocacy of racial equality and his leadership in the U.S. civil rights movement, was an influential public figure during my childhood, and his principles continue to inform my work today. I am inspired by the intellectual pillars of his liberationist convictions, which he attributed to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In my mind, the strength of King’s convictions gave him the ability to speak truthfully to the parallels between American racism against African Americans and U.S. racism in the war in Vietnam, and the courage to speak out against injustice anywhere and against anyone.

Whenever I feel conflicted about a policy matter, I turn to his last sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and I contemplate the questions he posed: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?” These questions often have helped me shape the course of my legislative decisions.

Mukherji: My mom, who proved three times over why the phrase “working mother” is redundant, and dad, who is no longer with us. My South Asian immigrant parents instilled in me the importance of core values and of purpose-driven service, this year’s theme for Asian Heritage Month.

Mah: I always look to my family’s experience as immigrants in this country and champion policies that would have made their lives easier as newcomers. I have a lot of constituents who are going through similar experiences as immigrants themselves. My job is to do my best to improve their lives and help them reach the American dream. My parents really inspire me because they needed to be represented, to have a voice, and they deserved to have policies that worked for them, just like my constituents do. 

With this being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, what message do you have for your state legislative colleagues across the country?

Lee: I encourage my legislative colleagues across the country to take the time and connect with their neighbors of Asian descent to learn about their stories, dreams, and how they have made an impact on their state and our country.

Santos: Against the current backdrop of rising anti-Asian hate crime and incidents across the country, I hope that state legislators will take some time—even an hour or two—to explore the contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to the history and culture of their specific state or region, or to learn about their personal interests and causes.

From the first reported settlement of “Manilamen” shrimpers in Louisiana in the 1760s to Chinese miners and railway workers who broke through the Rocky Mountains for transcontinental commerce in the mid-1800s, Asian Pacific Americans have enabled and shaped the American landscape and economy, supporting our nation’s growth and prosperity.

In the end, I hope that my legislative colleagues will appreciate the historical presence, contributions and accomplishments of Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders everywhere in America—the place we call home, the place we have helped build, the place we will defend, the place where we deserve to be seen and be safe.

Mukherji: Within the legislature, lawmakers from diverse backgrounds—such as Asian Americans—should be invited to the “room where it happens” and promoted to committee chairpersonships and positions of leadership so that decisions made in the corridors of power are made by people who reflect the diversity of the populations they represent. Externally, enact laws ensuring that marginalized groups are treated fairly, enhancing penalties for crimes motivated by bias and promoting voting rights, and repeal discriminatory laws and stop treating immigrant communities as “others” (i.e., through laws disallowing driver’s licenses/IDs or tuition aid or occupational licenses or pandemic relief based on immigration status).

Mah: Do what you can to recognize the contributions of Asian Americans in this country, to be allies, and do what you can to reinforce their belonging. Champion policies that recognize their needs and help to improve their lives. Keep in mind that there is a harmful myth out there that represents all Asian Americans as affluent professionals who are not politically active and do not face widespread racism. That myth obscures the real character of our communities. There are high rates of poverty and need that are largely hidden, and a history of Asian American activism that is often brushed aside or forgotten. It is really important to acknowledge the contributions of immigrants and Asian Americans to the building of this country; otherwise, the hate and violence continues and the idea of Asian Americans as forever foreign continues.

Kevin Frazzini is an editor in NCSL's Communications Division.

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