New York City is home to more Asian Americans than any other city in the country. As the fastest growing segment of the city population -- over 50 percent since 1990, according to the census -- Asian Americans are now seeking to receive their fair share of attention on the myriad issues that affect their community.
The problems affecting Asian New Yorkers are not that different from the city's other minority communities: Hate crimes, racial profiling and police-community relations, the state of public education, a low wage workforce, and a large immigrant population, many of whom face poverty. Yet somehow Asian Americans are often forgotten and excluded from public discourse on these matters.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a non-profit civil rights organization based in New York, states on its website that "despite our community's size and growing economic clout, however, we frequently are ignored by elected officials, left out of important policy decisions, and overlooked in dialogues about key issues, such as affirmative action, police brutality, and race relations."
How is it that with a population of almost 800,000, Asian New Yorkers are given the cold shoulder? One such reason is a serious lack of representation. Despite such a large presence, there has never been an Asian American elected to any citywide or statewide office. "The fact that no Asian American has ever been elected is an issue," says Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF. That will probably change this year with some thirteen Asian American candidates running for seven city council seats. While electing an Asian American to the city council will not bring about changes overnight, Jessica Lee, executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, believes that an "Asian American council member would give more visibility to Asian American issues as well as give more access to the city government for all members of the Asian American community, even those outside of the district." Even if only one or two win "it's good that a lot of Asians are running," says Fung. "Hopefully it will spark greater participation and voter turnout among the Asian population."
Low civic participation among Asian-Americans has historically always been a problem. Recent studies seem to indicate a change, with Asians becoming more involved in the political process, thanks in large part to organizations like AALDEF. According to a study by John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban research, Asian Americans were just as likely to vote in last November's election as were other New Yorkers. The problem is that just about one in five eligible Asian New Yorkers are registered to vote. This should come as no surprise, though, considering the United States' history of discriminatory immigration and naturalization policies.
The Chinese have the distinction of being the only nationality to have been specifically prohibited from immigrating to the United States by federal law.
New York's residents were some of the strongest supporters of the 1882 Chinese Exclusionary act that prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. During the 1882 congressional debate, United States House Representative Roswell Pettibone Flower from New York City, a future governor of NY, expressing the will of his constituents, echoed popular sentiment against the Chinese. "Shall we protect our labor, or shall we allow it to be degraded to the coolie standards? Not like the European immigrant, who brings us wealth and love of liberty, he [the Chinese] comes to take wealth away, and to stamp upon labor the servile characteristics of his race." It wasn't until 1943 that Chinese Americans were allowed to become citizens, and it took another nine years until Japanese Americans and other Asians gained that same right. After being denied admission to the country for well over half a century, Asian immigrants began coming in record numbers after 1965, when the immigration laws were changed. Still, some argue, the xenophobia and discrimination that were built into American law continue to have their effect.
Even though Asian Americans are now covered by city, state, and federal civil rights laws, anti-Asian violence and discrimination remain serious problems. As the perpetual foreign "other," Asian Americans are constantly ridiculed and singled out for persecution.
The murder of Queens restaurant worker Jong Rim Lee is a deadly example of such a case. The Korean father of four was bashed over the head with a ten-pound cobblestone last September for no apparent reason other than his race. But the New York Police Department decided not to categorize it as a hate crime, though his attackers did not take his wallet full of cash.
A serious problem is the underreporting of anti-Asian violence. Police statistics show only seven hate crimes committed against Asians in 2000. Advocates and the police themselves agree the actual numbers are much higher. Barbara Sicilia, a commanding officer of the New York Police Department's Hate Crime Task Force told the Daily News, "clearly, they are underreported." Narrow definitions of hate crimes as well as problems with police-community relations all contribute to underreporting. The issue gets compounded when victims of hate crimes or discrimination do not feel that anyone cares or is paying attention.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights has received 155 complaints of discrimination filed by Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino residents (they categorize by national origin) over the past three years in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. Though not a lot as compared with other groups, it is still a cause for concern for members of the Asian American community.
Another incident involving bias against Asians occurred at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Last September, at the beginning of their senior year, 5 Chinese immigrant students were told they had to leave school because they had already completed all of their requirements for graduation. Feeling like they were not yet prepared to leave, and still not having completed college applications, the students protested. They were eventually escorted back into the school by a delegation including two members of the Board of Education and allowed to complete their senior year, but not before accusations of racial discrimination were levied at the school's administration by students, parents, and even teachers. Mark Talo, a former teacher at the school told the Times, "It was like being in the Deep South during Jim Crow."
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund is investigating the incident and considering filing a civil rights lawsuit in Federal District Court. "I hope that it is one of the more extreme incidents because of the wide range of discrimination that it represents," exclaims Fung. "This reflects some of the challenges in the public education system of how to address the needs of a very diverse population." Indeed, according to a 1996 report by the NYC board of education, 36 percent of Asian American students in city public high schools drop out or do not graduate on time, contradicting the model minority myth and indicating that Asians too are at risk of failure.
What are some ways the city can be more responsive to its Asian-American residents? "I'd like to see the city government support more services for Asians," says Lee. Asian Americans make up close to ten percent of the city population, yet according to her organization, Asian communities only receive about 2 percent of the city funding for social services. "Funding has to change to match the changing demographics of the city."
James Wong writes frequently for the Village Voice.