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Harris To Asian Americans: Turn Pain And Outrage Into Political Power

Vice President Harris addresses the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit on Wednesday.
Vice President Harris addresses the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit on Wednesday.

Vice President Harris on Wednesday urged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to turn their pain, after a year marked by a surge of racially motivated attacks, into power.

She also praised the passage of legislation to address the increase in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

"As a member of this community, I share in that outrage and that grief," Harris said. "And I believe we have an opportunity now to turn that pain into action. To turn that pain, that righteous anger, because of the injustice of it, we have an opportunity to turn that into power."

Harris — a daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and the first vice president of Asian descent — was the keynote speaker for the inaugural AAPI Virtual Unity Summit hosted by the AAPI Victory Alliance on Wednesday evening.

AAPI voter turnout jumped in 2020

After a year in which they were galvanized by the racially motivated attacks, Asian Americans are seeking — and wielding — more political power.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

And while historically they have had some of the lowest turnout levels nationally, in 2020 voter turnout for Asian Americans was higher than it has ever been.

An analysis of the U.S. Current Population Survey from AAPI Data found that turnout among Asian American citizens grew from 49% in 2016 to 60% in 2020. Among Pacific Islanders, turnout increased from 41% in 2016 to 55% in 2020.

According to the Census Bureau, about 67% of all eligible voters cast ballots in 2020.

chart of AAPI turnout increases from 2016 to 2020
/ Current Population Survey/AAPI Data
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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had the highest increases in voter turnout for any racial or ethnic group from 2016 to 2020, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, the director of AAPI Data.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the increase in Asian American turnout. Some Democrats point to former President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including his repeated references to the "China virus," which repelled many voters. Some cite the impact of Harris' presence on the Democratic ticket. But organizers and experts also point to years of local outreach.

"It's important to pay attention both to short-term campaign dynamics that help increase voter turnout because of increased investments by partisan organizations, but it's also important to acknowledge that those short-term increases build on a foundation of long-term investments in community organizing, naturalization, voter registration and voter education," Ramakrishnan said.

Data suggests that the majority of Asian voters cast ballots for then-candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 general election, Ramakrishnan said. Strong turnout among Asian Americans played a decisive role in swinging Georgia to Democrats for the first time since 1992. And analysts say that demographic change also played a role in places like Arizona, Michigan and Nevada.

The U.S. Asian electorate is also an incredibly diverse group, and there are meaningful differences among origin groups. Indian Americans, for example are more likely to be Democrats than other Asian origin groups, according to the Pew Research Center, while Vietnamese Americans are more likely to identify as Republicans.

Ramakrishnan said there was a stark increase in voting among second-generation immigrants, who were born in the United States to immigrant parents.

"This second generation is coming of political age and especially during this moment of COVID and the increase in anti-Asian racism and hate incidents, you are seeing a kind of political consciousness that's forming that will likely last a generation," he said. "So I think looking ahead, we're going to see a lot more civic engagement, political activism among the younger Asian American population, and especially given the circumstances of the past year."

Inspired to run and leading by example

New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a press conference on May 11.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
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New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a press conference on May 11.

Alongside the increased turnout, more Asian Americans are running for office than ever before. They include Andrew Yang, who ran for president in 2020 and is now running for mayor of New York City, and Michelle Wu, who is running to be the mayor of Boston.

Ramakrishnan and others say there are a variety of reasons why the number of Asian American political candidates has been on the rise, though he and other say there is still a long way to go. A recent report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that Asian American and Pacific Islander elected officials make up just 0.9% of elected leaders in the U.S.

Madalene Mielke, president of the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies, says that part of the reason there have been fewer Asian elected officials is due to historic barriers.

"There wasn't a lot of Asian Americans running in the past because when you think about immigration, being U.S. citizens, having that opportunity to actually be a part of that electorate, there have been many public policies in the past that have excluded Asian Americans," Mielke said. "You start to think about how these types of public policies discriminated and excluded the community itself and how the community then basically had to turn around and catch up."

Mielke said that Asian Americans seeking office also must confront cultural biases, as well as the challenge of building fundraising networks.

Ramakrishnan pointed out that when Asian candidates run for office and win, it encourages other potential candidates to come off the sidelines and either run themselves or become donors.

"Given the success of Kamala Harris as the highest-ranking Asian American elected official, as well as senators and members of Congress that have done very well over the last decade, we will likely see many more Asian Americans running for office in the future inspired by those examples," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.