Fear, Racism, and Violence is Driving Asian Americans To Politics, and They Have Just Begun to Scratch the Surface of Their Real Political Power
First of its kind Michigan survey discovered alarming racism levels experienced by Asian American communities before the Atlanta shooting.
By Laura Misumi and Roshni Nedungadi
Laura is Executive Director of the Michigan Asian American Progressives, a project of Tides Advocacy. Roshni is a founding partner at HIT Strategies, a research and analytics firm targeting young people and communities of color.
In the weeks before 8 people, including 6 Asian American women spa workers, were killed in Atlanta, we were wrapping up one of the first expansive surveys of Michigan’s Asian American & Pacific Islander community. Accurate data on the AAPI communities in the Midwest is a rare commodity and because many consider the AAPI community “hard-to-reach,” AAPI-community polls are challenging to come by. Yet, we were committed to examining how our community experiences the world and how best to empower AAPIs politically and socially.
Among the more than 40 findings, a shocking but not surprising figure stood out. An alarming number of Asian Americans in Michigan told us that they or someone they know was a victim of anti-Asian racism.
Confirming our own experiences and anecdotes by friends, 41 percent of respondents said they’ve either personally experienced or knew someone who has experienced anti-Asian racism, primarily due to the coronavirus rhetoric. We expected this trend to increase if left unchecked; however, we could have never predicted the tragedy on March 16 in Atlanta. When the Atlanta shooter targeted Asians, out community collectively yelled, “we have been saying this could happen.”
It’s impossible to determine the actual number of hate incidents inflicted upon Asian Americans over the past year. But if we had listened to the Asian community until this point, none of us would be surprised. For a year now, activists have been calling on leaders to combat the growing anti-Asian sentiment and address the steep rise in documented violent attacks in numerous American cities. As home to one of the fastest-growing AAPI populations, understanding the experience of communities in Michigan is critical not only keeping us safe but harnessing our growing electoral force.
Like many communities of color, 2020 ushered in a double pandemic for Asian Americans. Not only did Asian Americans disparately die from the virus, but 2020 also ignited another wave of feverish anti-Asian sentiment sparked by Donald Trump. These attacks have spurred the AAPI community to raise their voices on the street and at the ballot box in response. No longer content to stand on the sidelines.
The rise in anti-Asian racist acts is being met with resistance. Though American history is replete with examples of anti-Asian hate incidents rising with racist political rhetoric, the events of the last 12 months represent a watershed moment for the resistance movement. Led by organizers, the AAPI community is taking a hard-charging approach to combat racism. Our lives now depend on it.
The door for increased political engagement is wide open. Though we believe in multiple pathways to change, showing up at the ballot box is imperative goal. Last year, the Asian community showed they can show up and change the direction of local and presidential political campaigns.
Despite being the least likely to receive contact by any major political party, AAPI voter turnout hit its peak in the last two elections. Many political consultants deem the AAPI community too expensive to reach and instead continue a hyper-focused strategy on white swing voters. Compelled by the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and racist rhetoric by Republican leaders, the Asian American vote rate increased in Georgia and critical districts across the country.
Late investments and targeted messaging also helped translate to historic turnout in the 2020 election cycle and the 2021 Georgia runoff. MAAP recruited seven volunteers to knock over 1,800 doors in Georgia and had volunteers at home make hundreds of calls to support the Asian American Advocacy Fund PAC’s field operations. AAPI turnout increased more than that of any other demographic group in the 2021 Georgia runoff election. In Michigan, our efforts help elect the first Hmong American to the Macomb County Commission and first Asian American to represent Michigan House District 21.
The numbers illustrate Asian American’s political power and potential political power. And we have just begun to scratch the surface. As a community, we are taking our experiences to drive our politics. Asian politicians, community groups, and activists are more visible than ever before.
We can say for sure that Asian erasure will be faced with loud opposition. Across the country, Asian American leaders and groups have upped the ante. National and local groups have organized day-long and week-long online action summits to advocate for our issues and AAPI political professionals are forming new groups to combat anti-Asian sentiment.
Toward the end of our Michigan survey, we ask an important question, which gives us the most hope for the future: Regardless of how much you vote, how much power do you feel that your vote has to move elections? We asked this question because historic Asian erasure can contribute to a sentiment of powerlessness.
The glimmer of hope we received is that our Asian community in Michigan firmly believes in its political power. Most respondents said they felt powerful enough to move the election, and 41 percent believed voting could create real change.
There is no doubt that last year’s events have awakened our community to the new reality. We are willing to engage in all the methods to keep our community safe from the virus and racism. For the AAPI community, this fight has just begun.