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‘I need to vote.’ Why more Asian Americans are staking a political claim.

Voter turnout by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders increased in the 2020 election more than for any other racial or ethnic group. It’s just one aspect of what Asian American leaders call a surge in political engagement in recent years. Around 23 million people identify as Asian American in the United States, and many in…

Voter turnout by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders increased in the 2020 election more than for any other racial or ethnic group. It’s just one aspect of what Asian American leaders call a surge in political engagement in recent years. Around 23 million people identify as Asian American in the United States, and many in this diverse community have banded together in the face of rising racism and attacks during the pandemic. 

Chinese American leaders, in particular, say they’ve seen a striking growth in political engagement. “An uptick would be an understatement,” says Haipei Shue, president of the United Chinese Americans, a nonprofit that was formed in 2016.

Why We Wrote This

Discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have made headlines this year. Overlooked in some coverage, though, is a key part of their communities’ response: renewed pride and a political reawakening.

He attributes the change to a “triple whammy”: the Trump presidency and U.S.-Chinese economic and political tensions that made the Chinese community “very nervous and worried about its future”; the intensifying polarization of American politics; and the disproportionately high number of pandemic deaths in the Chinese American community.

“In the Chinese community, like it or not, everybody has become more politicized” in recent years, says Mr. Shue. “Not necessarily because they love it, but most likely because they cannot run away from it.”

Seattle

About 150 Chinese American high school and college students from across the United States are engaging online with a young presidential and congressional campaign worker, peppering him with questions.

“When you’re campaigning, how do you really mobilize Asian Americans?” asks Luis Xu, a high school student from Illinois, during a weeklong civics program designed to empower a new generation of leaders.

“I’m really impressed by your activism at such a young age. … How did you network so effectively in high school and college?” asks another student, Arthur Sun.

Why We Wrote This

Discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have made headlines this year. Overlooked in some coverage, though, is a key part of their communities’ response: renewed pride and a political reawakening.

“Have you ever had any difficulties in your political career as a Chinese American? How did you overcome them?” inquires Lin Pei, a student at the University of Maryland. 

Asian Americans say their community is experiencing a broad political awakening, reflected in such enthusiastic exchanges between students and elected officials, activists, and community leaders attending the civics program organized by the Washington-based nonprofit United Chinese Americans. Though the 23 million people who identify as Asian American today are a vastly diverse group, they’ve united to a degree against a surge in racism and attacks during the pandemic.

“What you’re seeing right now at the national level … but also at the state and local levels, is this kind of reckoning” in response to heightened polarization during the Trump presidency and a wave of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, says Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Center and the Asian American Studies program of Hunter College at the City University of New York.

“Folks who have never really been politically active … have responded by mobilizing, by seeking to build coalitions within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and across Americans of all different backgrounds.”

Voter turnout by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders surged by 10 percentage points and 14 percentage points, respectively, in the 2020 election compared with 2016, more than for any other racial or ethnic categories, according to census data analyzed by the demographic research group AAPI Data. Exit polls indicated that 63% of the Asian American electorate voted for Joe Biden, compared with 31% for President Donald Trump.  

Chinese American leaders, in particular, say the growth in political engagement has been striking within their community, which with 5.4 million people is the biggest segment of the Asian American population, according to U.S. census data.

“An uptick would be an understatement” in describing the newfound political activism, says Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans. He attributes the change to a “triple whammy”: the Trump presidency “making the Chinese community very nervous and worried about its future,” with soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing; the intensifying polarization of U.S. politics; and the heavy blow of the pandemic to the Chinese American community specifically.

“In the Chinese community, like it or not, everybody has become more politicized” in recent years, says Mr. Shue. “Not necessarily because they love it, but most likely because they cannot run away from it.” 

“I need to vote”

To be sure, Asian American activists have a long history of fighting for their rights and have waged landmark court battles over issues such as citizenship, immigration, and education, Professor Louie notes. Yet she says many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders themselves are not aware of this history.

Alice Cai is one of 10 student leaders participating in a Summer University civics program put on by United Chinese Americans on June 25, 2021. Ms. Cai is a rising fres

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