When Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president this year, it marked many firsts. She was the first woman to hold the office. She was the first African American. And—too often overlooked—she was the first Asian American.
As we kick off Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, it is a good time to reflect on the progress made in the decades since Dalip Singh Saund became the first member of Congress of Asian descent in 1956 and Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Asian-American woman roughly a decade later.
The last year has seen many advances. In addition to Harris, three Representatives became the first Korean-American women to serve in Congress and Asian American state lawmakers made “first-ever” gains in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.
Yet despite so much progress, this has been a challenging time. Studies show that hate crimes targeting Asian Americans increased 150 percent in 16 major cities last year, fed in part by the “China virus” rhetoric used by former President Trump. In a rare moment of bipartisan action, the Senate passed a bill to better protect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The House is expected to approve it and President Biden is expected to sign it.
That makes this year’s heritage month more important than ever. The Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution and other organizations are all marking the occasion.
Public affairs and government relations teams may want to do the same.
Like many minority groups, the number of Asian Americans serving in Congress has grown over the years. Yet, as is too often the case, the number today still falls short of equal representation.
There are 21 federal lawmakers of Asian, South Asian or Pacific Islander descent. That is three times the number serving in 1985, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it is still only about 3.9 percent of the House and Senate. U.S. Census data shows that Asians make up 5.9 percent of America’s population, a number that grows to 6.1 percent when Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are added.
As is often the case, representation is better in the House, where 19 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders serve, more than in the Senate, where only two members out of 100 are of Asian descent.
Questions about representation become even more pronounced when you consider that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are anything but a monolith in America. Rather, they are an incredibly diverse group, representing more than a dozen very different countries and cultures.
The U.S. Census defines Asian as people hailing from Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam. The category for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders adds people from Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands to that list.
Celebration in May
For public affairs and government relations teams that want to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, there are many ways to do so. Here are some ideas.
- Celebrate on Social. A series of social posts celebrating Asian Americans throughout history can help educate your audience. Norman Mineta became the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city in 1971 (and later held cabinet posts in both Democratic and Republican administrations). That same year, Herbert Choy became the first Asian-American federal court judge. Three years later, George Ariyoshi became the first Asian-American governor. There is much to celebrate.
- Reach Out to Congress. Many members of Congress will be active during heritage month and will no doubt welcome support for their activities. Of particular interest might be Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim of California and Democrat Marilyn Strickland of Washington, who became the first Korean-American women to serve in Congress when they were sworn in this year.
- Focus on State Lawmakers. There are plenty of figures to focus on outside of Washington as well. Some examples: Adrian Tam is the first only openly gay Asian American to serve in Hawaii’s legislature; Francesca Hong is the first Asian American to serve in Wisconsin’s legislature; Jenifer Rajkumar and Zohran Mamdani are the first South Asian Americans to serve in New York’s assembly; and Nikil Saval is the first South Asian American to serve in Pennsylvania’s senate.
- Support the Bill. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (S. 937), sponsored by Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, passed 94-1 in the Senate with support from both Republicans and Democrats. Your organization may want to support the effort in the House and before the administration. The bill’s sponsors have been vocal about the need. “Everybody in our country deserves to feel safe,” Representative Grace Meng of New York said in a statement. “That includes the Asian American community.”
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