Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders on the rise at Dem Convention

This article is part of a series on the Democratic National Convention.

PHILADELPHIA – They may not always receive their due in the media or in film and television, but the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is a group on the rise in the politics of this country. It is a community of communities, whose members come from a diversity of national and ethnic backgrounds spanning half the globe. But as a whole, what they are looking for in this election is candidates who are serious about creating tangible change.

This demographic is rapidly growing as a proportion of the U.S. population and is an important part of the progressive coalition. At the meeting of the Democratic Party’s AAPI Caucus here Wednesday, delegates formulated plans for getting out the vote for November and encouraging a new generation of leaders.

A community oriented toward the future

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing group in the United States and make up the largest share of recent immigrants. In many election contests across the nation, they are increasingly in a position to provide the margin of victory.

The last few election cycles have demonstrated they are also a group that is moving solidly into the progressive camp. In 1992, the majority of AAPI voters voted for George H.W. Bush. Twenty years later, in 2012, 73 percent of them went with Obama and the Democrats.

That swing is reflective of the pragmatic progressivism that prevails among all generations of AAPIs, but especially among millennials. Bing Chen, a board member at the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), says it is less about party loyalty, but rather that the community “is looking for specific plans for immigration, for economic growth, and so much more.”

Elaborating on this practical orientation, Chen said, “We don’t care how much money or pizazz a party or a candidate has, we just want to know what they are going to do on hard issues. We want to know whether they are real changemakers.”

Olivia Chow, who previously headed up digital media work at the Center for Community Change, said, “It’s not enough to just say Trump is evil and bad.” “Democrats,” she emphasized, “need to have an uplifting message – something to be for.”

To get a sense of just how central AAPI people will be to America’s future, John Chiang, the State Treasurer of California, says look to his state. “California today is what the U.S. will look like by 2065,” he told caucus-goers. “Our state is already 15-16 percent AAPI,” he said, compared to their current 5 percent nationally.

Also showcased at the caucus was a new generation of progressive AAPI leaders who are stepping up in states and cities around the country. Stephanie Murphy, candidate for Congress in Florida’s 7th District, addressed the delegates and emphasized the need for voters to pick capable leaders when they head to the ballot box. “Our future depends on the quality of the people who are at the helm of the state.”

Her district is home to the Pulse nightclub, where a mass shooting attack occurred last month. It has been targeted as a “red to blue” district and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has earmarked $3 million for her race. Speaking about Trump’s anti-science and anti-immigrant tirades, Murphy, whose family came from Vietnam, said that defending public education is part of why she is seeking office. “Education is the opportunity piece of the American dream story, and it’s one of the reasons I’m running.”

Democratic platform is for everyone

This year’s Democratic platform has been widely hailed as the party’s most progressive ever. Karen Narasaki, one of the two AAPIs on the platform committee, said, “It reflects the values and interests of our communities.”

In its preamble, the document recognizes an Asian American hero for the first time. Larry Itliong, who helped organize Filipino farmworkers, is hailed alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, as one of the three founders of the United Farm Workers (UFW).

“The platform commits to a $15 minimum wage, keeping Wall Street honest, and family immigration as one component of comprehensive immigration reform,” Narasaki said. The fairer tax system it proposes would unlock resources to “train workers, repair our roads and bridges, invest in 21st century infrastructure, and build a green economy we can be proud of.”

Narasaki also praised the platform’s “thoughtful approaches to ending mass incarceration and repairing tensions between communities and the police.” The voting rights provisions of the document, which commit to providing multilingual voting materials, was highlighted as particularly important. “Bilingual election materials have allowed so many in our community to participate in our democracy,” Narasaki said.

Shifting to a comparison with Trump and the GOP, delegates were told there was only one clear choice in the race for president. Trump’s harsh anti-refugee stances came in for heavy criticism, as many people in the AAPI community have shared in the refugee experience themselves. Republican plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act were marked as another reason to stop Trump, as “1 in 6 AAPIs lacked insurance” before it became law. “The GOP wants to tear it apart,” she said.

“The Supreme Court is in the balance and the Republicans have gutted the Voting Rights Act. Elections matter, ideas matter,” Narasaki declared at the end of her report. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro joined her, saying that, “There is only one candidate in the race who can beat the divisiveness and scapegoating being offered by the other side.”

Castro predicted, “In the years to come, we are going to see the first Asian American vice president or president.”

Sounding the call to the next generation of AAPI leaders, Evan Low, 33-year-old California State Assembly member for the 28th District, said, “As a millennial, I encourage anyone who wants to be in public service to keep getting involved. Follow the example of those like Stephanie Murphy and others who have put themselves forward and offered to serve.”

AAPIs have come a long way since the racist murder of Vincent Chin in Highland Park, Michigan in 1982, the event which heralded the political awakening of the Asian American community. Today, this is an engaged and assertive group, ready to take the lead in building cooperation and fostering solidarity across communities.

Photo: California State Assembly member Evan Low addresses delegates at the Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 27, 2016.  |  C.J. Atkins/PW


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.