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Op Eds

The Role of Asian-Americans in 2017

By Julie S. Chung, Crimson Staff Writer

As we hobble into a Trump presidency, many of my friends have wondered how they will fare in the next four years. Undocumented students have rallied across campus, and women are marching on Washington in anticipation of a dismal future. There has been a burgeoning reflection of identity among me and my friends. Some of us have never felt so aware of our race, gender, religion, sexuality, and citizenship status. In the midst of this introspection, I want to bring up a part of my identity that often gets lost in these politicized struggles. I am wondering what role Asian-Americans can play in the next four years of American politics.

While I imagine more organization and political mobilization in the future, Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) civic participation has been discouraging at best for the past couple decades. The racial group has historically had some of the lowest voter turnout rates, and in 2014 nearly half considered themselves to be politically independent. Yet Asian-Americans are currently the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. For some, these characteristics may only reinforce stereotypes of the “apolitical” Asian-American, but within this voting vacuum, I see a great realm of opportunity for political action. It seems that now more than ever, the uncertain future of Asian-American politics calls for more collective action.

At this point, Asian-Americans are still developing their political identities and values. To give a sense of the malleability of the Asian-American bloc’s current political state, there has been a dramatic shift from Republican to Democratic political alignment in Asian American voters just in the past couple election cycles. Some think that Trump himself may have encouraged this trend. In The New York Times, one reporter writes, “Mr. Trump’s talk of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants has also stirred up painful memories among a group that has been singled out under American law before, whether by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers until 1943, or by the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

The push against Trump offers hope that Asian-Americans will see their own proximity to the controversial issues that so many other groups are visibly fighting today. For example, Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants, now surpassing immigrants from Latin America. When politicians invoked Japanese internment camps as a “precedent” for a Muslim registry, Asian Americans Advancing Justice condemned this rhetoric, pointing out the extremist discrimination faced by Japanese-Americans during those times. Furthermore, Asian-Americans saw some of the biggest gains in health insurance coverage after the Affordable Care Act reduced health disparities stemming from historical barriers.

Asian-Americans need to see that immigration issues are Asian-American issues. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is an Asian-American issue. Repealing affordable health care is an Asian-American issue.

Key to the formation of Asian-American political identity is our own generation—the millennial generation—so I hope to see Asian-American students at Harvard take account of their proximity to these issues. We must continue to fight back against these attacks that our community now faces under the current political climate.

Because Asian-American students at Harvard often feel trivialized for their activism, I tend to see them left out of conversations that tackle the politics of identity and marginalization. The model minority myth and the diverse nature of the AAPI community particularly create a complicated role for Asian-Americans in activist spaces on campus. While I don’t advocate for the AAPI agenda at the expense of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Brown Lives Matter, it has the potential to enrich the discussion, especially if AAPI groups show more solidarity with these causes in the future.

By labelling immigration, Muslim, and and health care issues as “Asian-American” issues, I hope Harvard’s large AAPI community can connect these broader struggles to their own backgrounds. AAPIs represent around 24 percent of Harvard’s population. We have the numbers to make a difference. Now is the time to make it count.

Julie S. Chung ‘20, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.


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