‘It’s Our Turn’: Asian Americans want a place at the head of the table

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Presidential candidate Joe Biden, second from left, with AAPI Victory Fund chairman and founder Shekar Narasimhan to his left, and other AAPI leaders Jan. 10, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo: courtesy Joe Biden Campaign)

The launch of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a 501-c4 organization, April 11, 2021, is the culmination of years of hard work. More particularly, it follows on the heels of the massive outreach effort to Asian Americans in the immediate past 2020 elections, and the attendant rise in visibility of this multicultural community composed of varied ancestries, and vastly differing socio-economic indicators.

For organizers, the launch of AAPI VA is meant to put them not just at the table but at the ‘head’ of the table. The warning coined by some leading Asian American, “It’s better to be at the table rather than on the menu’ is almost old school now.

The 2020 Presidential elections saw a spurt in Indian American and various Asian American organizations as these groups felt the impact of immigration and other policies. One of the leading political PACs was the Indian-American Impact Fund which focused on this subgroup within the Asian American umbrella. IMPACT poured millions into campaigns to support candidates from the community with considerable success.

There was also the AAPI Victory Fund with a wider focus that reached out to various Asian groups in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

The AAPI Victory Alliance is a sister organization of the AAPI Victory Fund which, along with other Asian groups, was influential in bringing more Asian Americans to the polls than ever before, and making a provable difference to the outcome, organizers and activists believe, especially in battleground states holding the key to President Joe Biden’s ultimate victory.

One of the key figures behind the scenes, but also in the front lines of bringing Asian American demands and pushing for change is Democratic political activist and co-founder of AAPI Victory Fund, Shekar Narasimhan, a businessman by profession.

“We had a lot of people come to us saying, ‘we don’t have a think tank for Asian Americans’,” Narasimhan told Desi Talk. This despite the existence of myriad Asian American issue-based organizations like Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, South Asian Americans Leading Together, or others like ancestry-specific groups for Indian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, etc. Americans.

The new organization aims to do advocacy but on for political campaigns. Rather it advocates by gathering data, highlighting those left behind, all supported by research.

“There is such a lack of authentic information, although a whole lot more now than a few years ago, but still …,” notes Narasimhan. With research and data to back up outreach, one can go into campaigns with strengthened hands.

According to the latest analysis released by Pew Research, April 9, 2021, a survey done in March this year, before the fatal shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta March 16, some 87 percent of Asian Americans said there is “a lot or some discrimination’ against them in society. Less than a year before that in June 2020, 31 percent of Asians reported they had been the subject of slurs or jokes since the Covid-19 outbreak, Pew Research found, and 26 percent said they feared someone might threaten and attack them.

Asian Americans recorded the fastest population growth rate, 81 percent, among all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. between 2000 and 2019, an increase from approximately 10.5 million to 19.9 million. Pew predicts that by 2060 Asians will number almost 39 million, more than triple what they were in 2000 (pewresearch.org). These increases were a nationwide phenomenon and in some states like New York, Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island, the Asian population increased more than the overall state population increased

The founders of AAPI Victory Alliance see themselves partnering with think tanks like Pew or AAPI Data, and issue-specific Asian American organizations, to produce the kind of work needed for what they see as not-well-understood communities.

“Strategically, it makes sense to have an organization like this,” said Ann Kalayil, chair and founder of South Asian American Policy and Research Institute (SAAPRI) based in Chicago.  . “Collaboration among groups doing this kind of research will probably provide a great platform to come together,” she added.

Organizers see this latest AAPI Victory Alliance as a mechanism to allow a ‘semi-academic’ discussion which would feed into policy, advocacy, and ultimately electoral action.

“We need a think tank type of body that does authentic research and then when you go into campaigns you have real information,” Narasimhan emphasizes. He uses the health care field as an example.

“There is a lot of disparity in service, Covid and non-Covid – the impact on families, nurses of Filipino or other origin, doctors of Indian origin … We get drowned out by all the rest of the noise,” he says. “For example, I want to know what AAPIs feel about policing, hate crimes, you name it.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor at University of California, Riverside, and founder of AAPI Data which has carried out significant research and conducted surveys of Asian Americans on various issues of importance, said there was need for more investments, more research, and more attention being paid to the Asian American community. “In order for the community to be strong and influential we need a wide variety of investments,” Ramakrishnan told Desi Talk.

At AAPI Data, which is a non-partisan academic group, much of the research is done with community organizations, Ramakrishnan noted.

“Given the importance of Asian Americans within the Democratic Party and national politics more generally, an organization like this (AAPI Victory Alliance) will play an important research function. We see this effort as aiming to be more influential in national politics and Democratic Party circles,” Ramakrishnan said.

For years Asian American activists have tried to rid the mainstream of its fixation with the ‘model minority’ myth about this constituency. But it has remained dominant, at least in perceptions of the Indian-American community.

“We want to break that ‘model minority’ myth because there are great disparities within our overall community of Asians,” Narasimhan notes.

There are parts of the economy where Asian Americans have been worst hit and one does not hear of that with substantive numbers and research.

For example, the hospitality and hotel-motel industry of which Indian-Americans own some 50 percent or so where the workers and hit from tourist and travel downturns hit the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, This (AAHOA) is the largest hotel owners association in the world, predominantly Indian-American, with nearly 20,000 members representing almost one in every two hotels in the United States (aahoa.com).

In its latest report, “The Road to Recovery Runs Through AAHOA: Measuring Impact One Year Later – March 2020-March 2021,” the hoteliers note how the organization mobilized during Covid-19, when “political engagement reached new heights” and nearly 70,000 letters were sent to lawmakers urging them to pass a stimulus package “to ease the unprecedented liquidity crisis gripping our industry” and “Despite the significant economic challenges facing Members” AAHOA was able to raise nearly $843,000 to support lawmakers who stood up for small business relief.

“Where is the study about that – about how some groups are having a much tougher time finding jobs? Why isn’t it in the mainstream media? Narasimhan questions.

“Our problem is we haven’t been insisting on it. We need to move ahead of ‘We’re okay’ , ‘don’t worry about us’, it’s okay to call me Sam or Joe and not my real name’,” Narasimhan says with passion in his voice.

“It’s our turn to be seen and treated as full-fledged Americans. I want a place for us at the head of the table, not just at the table,” he asserts.

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