2020 was a year of electoral triumph and newfound power for Asian Americans. However, it was also a time when people were more vulnerable to racist attacks.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office, will visit Atlanta on Friday, just days after a white gunman killed eight people, the majority of whom were Asian American women, in three metro-area massage parlors. The killings follow an increase in anti-Asian violence across the country.
The president’s trip was scheduled in advance of the shooting as part of a victory lap to promote the benefits of pandemic relief legislation. However, Biden and Harris would spend their time in Georgia consoling a population whose growing voting strength helped them win in Georgia and elsewhere.
Asian Americans’ political clout was felt around the country as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the electorate. With their congressional wins in California, two Korean American Republican women made history. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which is usually dominated by Democrats, now has the most members it has ever had, including Asian American and Pacific Islander members as well as others who serve large numbers of Asian Americans.
“We’re becoming increasingly visible and involved in the political ecosystem,” said Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents a part of the city’s growing, diverse suburbs north of the city. “What I’ve learned personally, and what I’ve felt, is that people don’t always tend to listen to us,” Au said.
Au said that a White House spotlight, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster, is welcomed by a group whose influence — and challenges — are often overlooked in national discussions about diversity. She points out that when President Donald Trump and other Republicans called coronavirus the “China virus” because of its roots, they were actually brushing off allegations of prejudice.
Activists claim that there has been an increase in racial attacks. Since March 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its affiliate advocacy groups have earned nearly 3,800 reports.
Last Thursday, five days before the Atlanta killings, Biden delivered his first primetime address to the nation as president, calling attacks on Asian Americans “un-American.”
“To have them speak about it in such a public way, and to tell AAPI, or to acknowledge that our societies are going through tough times, is huge,” Au said.
Biden and Harris will meet with Asian American state legislators and other community leaders on Friday to discuss racial rhetoric and behavior directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to the White House. Biden will also pay a visit to the main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was supposed to be promoted at a political gathering, but it was canceled. The White House announced that Trump will also meet with Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, who is expected to run for governor in 2022 while a Democrat, as Republicans in the state legislature pursue many bills to make it more difficult to vote in the state.
While Asian American and Pacific Islander voters outnumber Black and Latino voters nationally and in Georgia, the Asian American and Pacific Islander population is increasing at a faster pace. According to the Asian American Advocacy Fund, more than 300,000 of Georgia’s 7.3 million registered voters identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander.
Democrats’ orchestrated 2020 initiative in Georgia — a collaboration between Biden’s campaign and state Democrats — targeted Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. According to the Advocacy Fund, more than 185,000 people voted in 2020, up 63 percent from four years earlier. In the end, Biden won the state by just over 13,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. Democrats have forced and won two Senate runoff elections, granting them control of the house.
Now, staffers with the Georgia Democratic Party are promoting their Asian American outreach program as a blueprint for other state parties.
Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux said, “We definitely aren’t taking the neighborhood for granted.”
In 2018, the freshman congresswoman lost by less than 1,000 votes in Atlanta’s suburban 7th District. She won by 10,000 votes in November, flipping a once-Republican stronghold. She claims that according to her campaign’s results, the number of Asian American voters in the district increased from 7% in 2016 to 11% in 2020, making the group decisive in her political fortunes.
This power isn’t only beneficial to Democrats. Young Kim and Michelle Steele, both Republicans, became the first Korean American women elected to Congress while giving the GOP two major wins in California, where the Asian American and Pacific Islander culture has long been a political force.
According to Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, Asian Americans are especially important as Democrats target suburban voters throughout the Sun Belt, including the growing communities around Charlotte, Houston, and Phoenix.
According to a Priorities analysis of November election results, Asian Americans raised their share of the suburban vote in Georgia by 2.5 percentage points from 2016. They also accounted for a sizable proportion of new voters in Arizona and Wisconsin, places where new voters supported Biden and contributed to his victories, according to the party.
“In 2022, we must organize the same people. Cecil said, “It will be important for Democrats to retain our majorities (in Congress) and win governorships.”
According to Au, a Georgia state senator, and Bourdeaux, it’s also important for elected officials and others to recognize the diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander population rather than treating it as a voting bloc.
Despite the fact that the Asian population in Atlanta is mostly suburban, attracted in part by high-performing public schools, Au believes policymakers must recognize the region’s diversity and economic challenges. “I get it, right, I’m also a doctor,” she explained. “So everybody thinks that all Asians are doctors and lawyers and that they’re doing well… but that doesn’t account for a significant portion of the AAPI population.”
“A diverse culture that is South Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, a host of different religions, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, non-religious, and so on, just an incredibly diverse group of people,” Bourdeaux said.
However, because of this diversity, some Americans view these disparities as a threat.
“We have faced institutional oppression, exclusion, and abuse before,” said Georgia state Rep. Sam Park, speaking alongside his Asian American and Pacific Islander colleagues in the legislature on Thursday. “Despite all, we have thrived.”