Melissa Harris-Perry: Check this out. A report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign documented by Politico earlier this year revealed that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is the least represented demographic in American politics, making up less than 1% of all those who hold office, but that may be starting to change. 2021 has been a historic election year for AAPI communities.
Michelle Wu: One of my sons asked me the other night if boys can be elected mayor in Boston.
Michelle Wu: They have been, and they will again someday, but not tonight.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Michelle Wu who's just elected as Boston's next mayor. She's the first Asian American and the first woman elected to this role. Aftab Pureval was elected as Cincinnati's first Asian American mayor and five Asian Americans were elected to the New York City Council this year. The largest number of Asian Americans ever to serve together on the council, but the wins have been hard-fought and they come after nearly two years of struggle with the rise of anti-Asian hate in the country.
Despite being the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, misconceptions about the AAPI community linger with parts of the AAPI community finding themselves discussively erased in the narrative. For more on this week's historic wins and the issues that members of the AAPI community care about, I spoke with Jane Junn, a professor at the University of Southern California, and Arun Venugopal, who is a senior reporter in the Race and Justice Unit at WNYC. Professor Junn began by giving her analysis on the Boston mayoral race.
Jane Junn: Boston is old school, in terms of old democratic party politics, but the point here is, it was super surprising this young woman who is, I think, prior to that, served on the council and was the president of the council, but prior to that, didn't have other political experience. It's not only a combination of the freshness of the candidate and the newness of the issues, but the progressive coalition that she is bringing uniting groups that otherwise I think would be difficult to see together and we haven't seen together prior to that in Boston politics.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Arun, in New York, voters chose five Asian American candidates for city council, including the first two south Asian elected officials. What does this mean for these communities in New York?
Arun Venugopal: I'll give you one example, Melissa. Jackson Heights is known as one of the most diverse if not the most diverse neighborhood in the world. There's something like 165, 170 languages spoken in this neighborhood. It's never had, to my knowledge, a non-white council member representing this district. Now it's incoming council member, Shekar Krishnan, becomes that first person. He is a person of Indian, south Asian descent. His parents moved here decades ago, and so he represents this shift in political power for south Asians, for people who come from immigrant communities.
That required not just appealing to south Asians in the neighborhood and the district, also building coalitions with people from the Latino community, with white liberals, with immigrants, speaking Spanish to them, reaching out. Same thing with another candidate who just won in Brooklyn. Her name is Shahana Hanif, she's the first Muslim woman to be entering the city council.
She appealed through Bangla to this significant proportion of Bangla residents. Se used her mom to head this whole parallel campaign. All these tactics are being deployed. It's not just about changing demographics, it's about how do you reach these people? How do you engage them and speak to them in a meaningful way?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane, to come back to you, I hear you talking about this progressive coalition and I hear Arun talking about this new and fresh and way of speaking across these divisions. I got to say I lived in Louisiana under Bobby Jindal and I have been a Nikki Haley watcher for a long time, and I want to just dig in a little bit on any kind of maybe challenging presumption that the broadly diverse category that is AAPI, much less AAPI elected officials are all necessarily progressive.
Jane Junn: In the 2020 election, two women from California, Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both representing Orange County and parts of it, both defeated Democrats who won in the 2018 interim midterm elections. They're both Republicans and very strong Republicans. Even in California, there is a diversity of opinions and certainly a diversity of party loyalties.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Arun, it brings me to this challenge around both descriptive and substantive representation that I think often emerges for communities of color. Sometimes this has been talked about around candidates who are not men or also queer candidates. How do we balance both the very real need for and desire for descriptive representation and an interest in one's own ideological representation?
Arun Venugopal: I think this is part of the challenge and you're seeing this playing out in different ways. Just take the term south Asian itself. Now, this is actually a contested term. It's not like everybody arrives from say Nepal or Bangladesh, Pakistan comes and says I'm south Asian. It is a socialized process by which people come to embrace a somewhat progressive set of ideas, and that can manifest in many different ways, but when people refer to themselves as South Asians, there is a certain kind of reaching across the aisle process saying like, "I may be Indian American, but I and maybe I'm Hindu, but I actually believe in fighting Islamaphobia," for instance, or not just ascribing to model minority notions, the success narrative and perhaps talking about class solidarity as well, showing up for taxi drivers in the case of New York City where some of these council members who are south Asian were on the front lines, they're taking part in hunger strike because they realize it's very important to do the work of fighting against class exploitation, labor exploitation.
Then you have other candidates around the country who basically don't necessarily, they live in much more segregated neighborhoods. They may be seen as good non-white candidates and they work for certain systems. When Jane was referring to Young Kim and others, it struck me. I remember like right after the Atlanta killings, although this year there was congressional hearings addressing hate crimes against Asian Americans and a bunch of Asian-American men and women in office, they towed the Republican party line that the real problem really isn't all those hate crimes, it's really access to higher education and the Ivy leagues were there fighting us.
To me at the time, call me naive, it was stunning right after the Atlanta shooting to see that, but you see this other formation happening too, and so these things are playing out. Increasingly there are people who definitely speak to, I guess, the power and maintaining power, and white supremacy and those kinds of things in new ways and others who are pushing back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane, I'm interested in thinking not only about some of these wins for candidates, and actually we have a few more to talk about, but also about Asian American voters, AAPI voters as voters. Obviously, everyone is dissecting in a million different ways what happened in the Virginia gubernatorial election, but I'm wondering if you see any role that could have been played that wasn't by AAPI voters in Virginia or that, in fact, manifested and helped to make this decision for a Republican governor in that state?
Jane Junn: I don't know that it was a huge surprise, the outcome of that election, and I think it's important to juxtapose that potentially with New Jersey. Then also, let's think back to the special 2020 election for the Senate races in '21 in Georgia where Asian American voters are accredited in that state with helping to push two Democrats over the top.
I think it's a little bit early to say where we don't have great exit poll data or really great data at all to find out where and how Asian American voters were mobilized, and if they were indeed mobilized, for whom? The size of the population of AAPI voters in both Virginia and New Jersey is larger than in Georgia. They form, I think, an important potential group of swing voters.
It's important to emphasize the notion of swing because while Arun is correct that Asian Americans tend to lean Democratic, particularly Indian Americans who I will note are among the largest immigrant Asian groups in the United States, but also among the newest with the majority of them arriving in the United States after 1996. You're always going to find once Indians who have been here for longer than that, but for the most part, they're relatively new population and have been much more socialized to democratic politics.
On the flip side, you'll see groups like Vietnamese Americans who vote much more Republican than certainly Indians, and in general, more Republican overall. It helps to account for why you see the wins among-- even if tight wins, among Republican candidates in Orange County which has a large Vietnamese population.
Overall, I think it's a little bit early to say the role that Asian Americans played, but now that swing voters are not only people that just decided to change their mind from one election to another, but they might also be swing voters because they're just not sure about the politics yet and the politics and this meaning which party do they belong to?
One of the largest categories within the frequency distribution of partisanship among Asian-Americans is no preference, not sure, independent. This is in part because the majority of Asian-American voters in the United States are not native-born but form-- or they're naturalized citizens. It takes a little while to become knowledgeable about politics in the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Arun, I want to sort of zero in just a bit more on South Asians who you've been talking about and giving us some reflections on. What do you think is most frequently misrepresented or misunderstood in media conversations around voters, in addition to elected officials, but voters who are South Asian?
Arun Venugopal: I certainly think that most people can't grasp the incredible diversity within this term. We're talking about 1.5 to 1.7 billion people. I'm just saying off the top of my head. In that region of South Asia that we're representing incredible linguistic diversity, incredible range of educational experiences, languages, all of these things and just like socio-political backgrounds they're coming from.
When they come here, although that we have this notion that many of them are highly educated in this country. That many of them are making well above the median American income, which many of them are. How do you square that with the fact that many are also in working-class neighborhoods, they may be struggling to put food on the table, they may be dealing with assault, indignities, humiliation on the street and the workplace or wherever in ways that many people don't necessarily see or hear about because those stories are not being elevator told?
They're such a range. It's a very unwieldy term and I don't think we, broadly speaking, really know how to. Even in the community, it's a very kind of like, "Do we really use this term or not?" South Asian as well as Asian American unwieldy. I think that's the problem that people don't necessarily know how to square the idea of Indi-American Docker making like half a million a year with the person who is an undocumented immigrant in Queens who has a totally different set of problems, ambitions, and ideas of what they're dealing with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm reminded of recent data showing that in terms of income inequality, that it's actually grown most rapidly within. Internal to that broad and diverse category that is AAPI. If you think just of income as indicating one understanding of a group of people, that both the highest one-fifth and the lowest quintile represented with this broad category. It's such an odd. Again, in the American racial binary what we do with AAPI as a political identity.
Arun Venugopal: I think it's going to be a long time before we understand even within AAPI issues like how formative this pandemic is going to be. I think it's going to take time for us to understand that. I'm just thinking of one of these five new Asian-Americans entering the city council in New York City. One of them Julie Juan, I met her at a protest against anti-Asian violence that happened earlier this year. She wasn't there by herself. She was there with a companion, a non-Asian companion who she said is her bodyguard. One of several. She says, "I don't leave my home without a non-Asian companion because I feel so unsafe. I've also taken up jujitsu, which I started learning as a kid."
That sense of threat of potential violence, it's very real for a lot of people in the community. I think also it's a very fast and harsh training in the history of this country and what imperialism means and how it can be three or four generations into living here but you're still otherized as we saw all too clearly with what's happened with the so-called Chinese flu. This stuff that's deployed so easily. I think these are the issues that are really going to potentially drive young people who are coming of agent's moment and convince them that the only way to change these things is to acquire power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you both for joining us.
Arun Venugopal: Thanks, Melissa.
Jane: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was professor Jane Junn from the University of Southern California and Arun Venugopal, senior reporter in the race and justice unit at WNYC.
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