Despite national grieving for Vincent Chin’s murder in Detroit in 1982, the tragedy spurred the mobilization of Michigan’s Asian American Pacific Islander community. Local activists founded American Citizens for Justice, an AAPI civil rights organization, and expanded their advocacy efforts to create the Michigan Asian-Pacific American Bar Association.
Three decades later, the movement to uplift AAPI voices reached a new milestone. In 2018, Michiganders elected Stephanie Chang to be the first AAPI woman to serve in the state legislature. However, Chang’s story is not unique to Michigan’s 3rd District, as AAPI candidates across the country are increasingly running for and serving in office.
Despite political progress, the AAPI community remains drastically underrepresented in positions of political power. While AAPI individuals make up 7% of the United States’ population and roughly 3.5% of Michigan’s population, they only hold 0.9% of seats across all levels of government. For comparison, white men compose 30% of the American population, yet occupy 62% of seats nationwide. The low percentage of AAPI politicians is especially problematic because this community is the fastest-growing demographic in the country.
One of the primary reasons for underrepresentation is structural gatekeeping from the political process. Political parties and large donors restrict endorsements and resources, which precludes AAPI candidates from entering their names on ballots. Furthermore, many AAPI families immigrated to the United States after the federal government removed discriminatory quotas in 1965, so they lack connections and generational privileges within the political process.
Despite systemic inequities, AAPI candidates ultimately strive to promote their community’s representation.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Roland Hwang, American culture lecturer at the University of Michigan, discussed the ultimate goal for AAPI representation.
“The first step is to make sure that we are heard at all,” Hwang said. “But then secondly, (we must) try and reach parity in terms of full representation.”
With full parity, AAPI politicians would hold 7% of seats nationwide and 3.5% of seats within Michigan, mirroring population numbers within governing bodies. While equal representation currently remains elusive, at least 158 members of the AAPI community ran for state legislatures in 2020, which is an increase of 15% over two years. One reason for the uptick in representation is the increase in organizing against pandemic-era xenophobia and anti-AAPI sentiment.
While national and state politics dominate the media landscape, parity remains equally important on local levels. From city council commissions to school boards, the presence of AAPI voices is critical in promoting diverse and equitable community policies. In fact, following AAPI activism and community support over the past few years, Northville Public Schools has added Mandarin to its language curriculum after AAPI activism and community support.
Beyond offering a direct voice in community matters, local organizing provides people with another opportunity to promote their advocacy. Hwang commented on the upstream impacts of this type of activism.
“Political parties are focusing on local races because activism starts at the lowest level,” Hwang said. “It could be the school board is probably the lowest elected office that you consider … but it could lead to a stepwise progression to some commission, state (representative) or State Senate.”
Given the interconnectedness between different levels of government, an AAPI committee leader or judge is crucial for both local representation and equity on higher levels of government. In fact, U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., began her political career on the California State Board of Equalization and as a Chairwoman for the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen followed a similar progression to become the first AAPI woman to serve on a federal court of appeals: She externed at her local district court as a law school student before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney and, now, as a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Beyond these case studies, local government allows the AAPI community to break into the political world and build upstream momentum into higher levels of government. The elections of AAPI candidates empower more members of the community to run and open the door to greater representation. Small-scale races help alleviate the challenges of resource restrictions and lack of connections that contribute to underrepresentation, leveling the playing field for candidates across the community. Representation starts from grassroots, not Capitol Hill.
However, progress is a double-edged sword, and many “firsts” in politics face challenges in fulfilling their positions. While we should celebrate the election of AAPI candidates, we should also bemoan the decades of structural issues that delay true parity and question why this community is only gaining representation now. In addition to the slow pace of progress, some are concerned about the “tokenization” of these leaders and that their constituents expect them to represent the entire AAPI community.
To alleviate idealistic expectations of these leaders, we must consider AAPI politicians within a greater context of promoting parity in representation. First, we must applaud them for their accomplishments in office yet hold them accountable to their campaign promises. By humanizing leaders, we mitigate the double standard between candidates of different races, and we remind ourselves that they contribute to the greater picture of equitable representation.
Beyond altering our viewpoint about leaders, we should take advantage of the power of local organizing and engage in issues on campus. The University has to offer more than 1,600 student organizations, and we each have a multitude of opportunities both on and off campus to promote causes that we are passionate about. Through advocating for important issues, we promote awareness among the community and push lawmakers to consider policy solutions. In addition to organizing, we should volunteer our time and money, and vote for candidates who align with our beliefs, especially those from historically marginalized communities.
By actively engaging in politics, we address centuries of structural inequities and help usher in a new generation of AAPI leaders. Given Michigan’s rich history of AAPI advocacy, we should continue to exercise our voice from city council to the presidency and promote true parity on all levels of government, creating a framework for more equitable elections in the coming years.
Sarah Zhang is an Opinion Columnist who writes about social justice, popular culture and media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.