Sitting in the passenger seat of her parked car in Boston and peering at the Zoom app open on her phone, Michelle Wu’s voice almost cracks as she describes the difficulties she has faced trying to access city resources.
“I had fought in the wake of my mother’s mental illness to connect her with treatment and experienced such a dehumanizing system,” she recounts. “And I had fought to open a small family business to keep us going and felt just a complete helplessness in going through bureaucratic systems that seem designed to force you to give up.”
She cites these experiences to explain why she got involved in Boston politics despite growing up in a family which, like many Asian American and Pacific Islander families, discouraged political participation. Wu is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, and both sets of her grandparents fled China during the country’s civil war.
“It was not only out of the realm of conversation to discuss current events and politics,” Wu says, “but actively discouraged because of the sense of risk, or the family connotations around suspicion and active distrust of government.”
After stints working for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 senate campaign, Wu successfully ran for office herself, winning an at-large seat on the Boston City Council, which she has held since 2014. In 2016, she served as council president.
This year, she’s running for mayor. She faces six other Democrats in September’s primary and currently leads the pack with slightly more than 23% of likely voters choosing her as their first choice in a June Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll. Trailing her by less than two percentage points is Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who assumed the office this March when former Mayor Marty Walsh was appointed to lead the U.S. Labor Department. When Walsh, who is white, stepped down, Janey became the first woman and first Black mayor of Boston.
If she wins, Wu will break a political “bamboo ceiling” and become the first AAPI mayor of Boston. But AAPI advocates say that Wu’s candidacy harbors a greater significance: combating anti-Asian hate.
AAPI political participation can help combat anti-Asian hate
According to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police surged between 2019 and 2020 by 145% across the country, while hate crimes overall decreased by 6%. In Boston, there was a 133% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes as hate crimes dropped in the city overall by 14%.
Over the first year of the pandemic in America, between March 2020 and March of this year, more than 6,600 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that tracks these kinds of incidents. While the majority were verbal harassment, about 13% were physical assaults.
Some physical assaults turn deadly, like the attack on 84-year-old Thai grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco or the Atlanta spa shootings that claimed the life of Feng Daoyou, a 44-year-old working in America to help fund a new home for her family in China.
The true number of anti-Asian incidents is likely much higher than what’s currently being reported, says Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, a legal aid and advocacy organization that serves AAPI communities in Southern California.
“When you think about the vulnerable community members, we’re talking about folks who are seniors, often limited English speaking, and they don’t know how to navigate language and cultural barriers,” Chung Joe told NPR’s Rachel Martin on Morning Edition. “And so there is far more people who have not reported incidents than those who have.”
Civil rights attorney Elizabeth OuYang notes that there is a particular lens through which these incidents must be viewed.
“What is key to understanding hate crimes, particularly against Asian Americans, is the harmful stereotype that we are the perpetual foreigner, the enemy, and after 9/11, the terrorist,” she explains.
Part of the stereotype of AAPIs as “others” is rooted in a lack of visibility for the community, especially in local political life. According to data from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, AAPIs make up only 2.4% of municipal officeholders despite comprising over 6% of the national population. And of the 100 largest cities in the country, only five are led by Asian American mayors and all of them are in California.
That this stereotype begets violence is not a new phenomenon. OuYang, who has represented victims of anti-Asian hate crimes since the ’80s, looks at the pandemic-related incidents of the past year and sees a trend in anti-Asian hate in America.
“I’m 60 years old,” she says. “I’ve been a civil rights attorney for 35-plus years. Certain things like that theme of Asian Americans being portrayed as the persistent foreigner, constant threat, is still the same.”
Often, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to discern the prevalence of this stereotype in anti-Asian incidents.
“In many of the instances that I’ve been involved in and followed, it’s often preceded by rhetoric like ‘go back to your country, go home,’ very hurtful rhetoric when this is for many of us, our home,” OuYang recalls. “Because once you do that, by labeling somebody as not part of your community, an outsider and so forth, it gives you a green light to then do things to them.”
To help combat hate crimes, OuYang argues that increasing AAPI representation in city governments will help dispel the perpetual foreigner stereotype at the heart of anti-Asian hate. She says that “because politics is local and the mayor is high profile, a person of Asian descent representing all of their municipality sends an important signal that a person who happens to be Asian can represent a diverse municipality, can be trusted to do that, can be held accountable at the same time.”
And it’s not just about deterrence. OuYang says that having AAPIs in city offices helps advocates like her resolve cases when they do arise, especially because of the oversight municipal governments have over their city’s police forces. She recalls one case from 2006 in Queens, New York when two white men hurled racial slurs and physically assaulted four Asian American men. The attack was so vicious, two of the victims and two arresting officers were hospitalized with injuries.
OuYang says that then-City Council Member John Liu, a Democrat who did not even represent the neighborhood where the attack occurred, was instrumental in bringing attention to the crime and pressuring the city and NYPD to take the incident seriously. Liu now serves in the New York State Senate, but at the time was a trailblazer as the first AAPI elected to the city council. Between serving on the city council and in the state senate, he was the city’s comptroller for one term before unsuccessfully running for mayor in 2013.
2021 is a year of groundbreaking AAPI candidates
The most well-known AAPI mayoral candidate this year was Andrew Yang, who harnessed high name recognition earned during his 2020 presidential campaign to enter the New York mayoral race in January. Between 2019 and 2020, New York saw the largest increase in anti-Asian hate crimes of any big city, with a surge of 833%, while hate crimes in the city overall dropped by 38% according to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
But after a series of gaffes and revelations that his history of voting in local elections was sparse, Yang came in fourth in the June Democratic primary, meaning New York will not be swearing in its first AAPI mayor next year. But three other big cities still might.
In addition to Wu in Boston, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval came out on top in Cincinnati’s six-way nonpartisan mayoral primary in May, earning 39.1% of primary votes. Pureval will face David Mann in November’s general election to replace term-limited incumbent John Cranley — both Mann and Cranley are white. Mann currently sits on the Cincinnati City Council and served as mayor from 1980 to 1982 and in 1991.
In Seattle, former City Council President Bruce Harrell is running for the seat he held for five days as acting mayor in 2017, when then-Mayor Ed Murray resigned in the midst of sexual abuse allegations. In a July poll conducted by Change Research independent of any campaign, Harrell leads with 20% of votes, the most of any of the 15 candidates running in August’s nonpartisan primary to replace incumbent Jenny Durkan, who is white and declined to run for reelection.
According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes surged in Seattle by 33% while hate crimes overall increased by 11% from 2019 to 2020. Cincinnati has a much smaller AAPI population at around 6,000 residents, compared to Boston’s over 67,000 and Seattle’s over 127,000 AAPIs. New York has the country’s largest AAPI population, with over 1.2 million AAPIs.
Christine Chen is the co-founder and executive director of APIAVote, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase civic engagement and political participation among AAPIs. She says that it is critical for AAPIs to participate in local politics because local elected officials are the public servants closest to their communities. She points out that local decision makers govern matters that impact their communities’ daily lives, such as road closures and schools. An added benefit, she believes, is that community members are more likely to bump into local elected officials on the street than they are to encounter any other politicians.
Chen is excited to see Wu, Harrell and Pureval run because their candidacies will get more AAPIs involved in politics.
“We know that when Asian American Pacific Islander candidates run for office, the first thing that they do is tap into their own family and friends network, which will include the Asian American Pacific Islander community,” Chen says. “So they are educating those that typically would not have focused on politics or the elections, but because now they know someone that is running for office they are more inclined to pay attention, to donate, to volunteer and participate.”
In turn, OuYang believes that this increased participation and greater visibility will continue to dismantle the dangerous perpetual foreigner stereotype.
Municipal governments have historically oppressed AAPI communities
Bruce Harrell is “proudly biracial,” he tells NPR in an email. His father was African American and his mother Japanese American. He fondly calls the Black and AAPI Seattle communities in which he grew up his “home base.”
In explaining his decision to run for mayor after retiring from the city council in 2019, Harrell is blunt. “I will not lie that one of the reasons I decided to run was to confront this spike in hatred and do whatever I can to build trust,” says the former city council president.
He says building trust is especially important to him, as Harrell’s mother, Rose Kobata, was incarcerated by the federal government during World War II in Idaho’s Minidoka internment camp. “My mother’s life was shaped by the trauma of government sponsored hate and incarceration,” he says. “Her family lost their home and small business, and had to build from nothing.”
Today, Harrell describes his mother as his “strongest advocate and teacher,” and believes that the memory of her resilience helps keep him going.
“While she was a remarkably positive person, her story left an indelible lesson to never take anything for granted, to excel and achieve, and to never allow hate and bias to manifest in our culture and community,” he says.
Kobata’s internment is one example of a long history of municipal leaders playing an outsized role in the oppression of AAPI communities. Charlotte Brooks, a professor of history at Baruch College who specializes in Asian American political history, says that local political support for a national Japanese incarceration policy came from cities many would not expect to have had substantial support for such a racist policy.
She points to Fletcher Bowron, who served as mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953, as an example of a big city mayor propagating the perpetual foreigner stereotype by wholeheartedly and very vocally pushing for the internment of Japanese Americans.
To his credit, Brooks qualifies, “as big of a terrible jerk as he was, he apologized for this after the war, which is something that very few politicians did.”
Brooks also gives the example of wartime New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, “who made a name for supposedly being a progressive and much more integrationist and pro African American than previous mayors and definitely mayors of other cities. And he basically talked about not wanting Japanese Americans to resettle in his city — if they weren’t safe for the West Coast, they weren’t safe for New York.”
Ellen Wu, associate professor of history and a former director of the Asian American Studies program at Indiana University Bloomington, agrees that mayors have long influenced outcomes for AAPI communities. Regarding La Guardia, she adds that not all was hopeless for Japanese Americans needing resettlement.
The “Japanese American Citizens League and some of their allies really worked to intervene and have conversations with the mayor and try to smooth the transition for Japanese Americans wanting to move to New York City,” she says.
Back on the West Coast, she incriminates San Francisco, a city now known for its Chinatown and large AAPI population.
“San Francisco was a leader in the Chinese and then Asian exclusion movement in the 19th century and the early 20th century,” the historian says. “For example, segregated schools for ‘Oriental’ children. And certainly we think of San Francisco Chinatown as the quintessential Chinatown. But the whole reason it exists is basically because of racial segregation and wanting to contain what people thought of as a ‘Chinese menace’ in really close quarters.”
AAPI communities boast a little-known progressive streak
All three candidates — Michelle Wu, Harrell and Pureval — identify as progressive Democrats. The two historians quickly drew parallels between these contemporary progressives and the underrecognized history of progressive politics in AAPI communities.
“There was a lot of talk of Asian American conservatism in the eighties,” says Brooks. “But if you look locally, you don’t see it nearly as much.” In fact, the history of AAPI progressivism begins even further back with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“What drew Chinese Americans in particular and Japanese Americans into politics was the New Deal,” Brooks says. In the 1930s, these communities were in desperate need of decent housing and jobs while paying higher taxes and receiving almost no services in return.
Brooks concludes that they “did not run from progressivism … they just wanted to get the garbage taken away.”
And Ellen Wu says that AAPI communities have been mobilized in political and social advocacy for longer than many realize. She says that it is especially true when considering the little-known historical parallels between AAPI activism and Black activism. She argues that similarities in the way both groups were treated in the 20th century, such as suffering public degradation, assaults and lynchings, meant “Asian exclusion in a lot of ways was like a cousin of Jim Crow.”
It’s no surprise then, she says, that the two communities often had similar goals, such as fighting to dismantle the same systemic barriers to equality that long suppressed both groups. Among these barriers she lists “workplace discrimination, housing segregation, school segregation, voting rights, the filibuster.”
And she is quick to also point out that when activists first began using the term “Asian American” in the 1960s, “they had a clear political vision, which was both anti-racist and anti-imperialist.”
As for the present, she says, “I think today we’re seeing again this kind of this burst of political energy in the United States that is among Asian Americans, very much inspired, I think, by the Movement for Black Lives.”
The three campaigns are laying the groundwork for the future
When Aftab Pureval ran for office for the first time in 2016, he realized that something was clouding his chances at victory.
“Oftentimes Asian Americans have proudly ethnic names. And so when name ID, particularly for local races, is so critically important, if the electorate is uncomfortable with pronouncing your name or uncomfortable with spelling your name or is just unfamiliar with your name and the origins of your name, that can be really difficult to overcome,” says Pureval, whose first name is Persian and translates into English as “sunshine.”
“I really relied heavily on humor,” he says. “When you see ‘Aftab’ on a yard sign, a lot of people don’t immediately think, oh, that’s a human being, right? People sometimes would think, oh, that’s an insurance company advertisement.”
So, he got creative.
“In our campaign advertisements,” he recalls, “every time I said my name, a yellow duck puppet would pop up and say ‘Aftab’ in the Aflac voice.”
Ducks aside, Pureval is also proud of his campaign because of the visibility it has given to AAPIs in Ohio, a state with a population that is about 3% Asian American or Pacific Islander.
“When I was growing up in Beavercreek, Ohio, in the ’80s and ’90s, there just weren’t a lot of AAPI role models who were in politics,” he says. When describing his own identity, he proudly states that he’s “half Tibetan, half Indian. I actually have a Persian first name, but I’m all Ohio.”
In looking to the future, he’s optimistic.
“I won’t be the last Asian American candidate to run and win or lose,” he says. “There is a whole generation of folks behind me who look like me, who are passionate, who are committed to public service, are ready to lead and will one day win and lead.”
OuYang also eagerly looks ahead to such a future.
“It is imperative that Asian Americans run for elected office so they can play an important role in government, in the public, demystifying many of these stereotypes and bridging that gap from fear to education, from fear to understanding and from fear to integration so there is a peaceful transition of this country in 2045,” says the civil rights attorney, referencing the year the United States is expected by some estimates to become a majority-minority nation.
And Chen sees another welcome impact of Pureval’s candidacy in expanding the public’s notion of what a candidate of AAPI descent can look like.
“For the longest time, Asian Americans were always seen as East Asian, mostly coming from Chinese, Korean or Japanese descent,” says the APIAVote executive director. “The reality is, in the last 20 years, that has really diversified and our stories are different, but at the same time similar.”
Brooks makes it a point to note that the population of AAPIs prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was mostly of East Asian descent. Today, the umbrella term “Asian American Pacific Islander” encompasses a much broader swath of Americans, who have varying political leanings.
In general, AAPIs lean left, according to data from APIAVote. But disaggregating the data reveals that AAPIs are not a political monolith. Today, Indian Americans are the most Democratic while Vietnamese Americans are the most Republican, and Chinese Americans have the highest rate of identifying as political independents.
Regardless of party, Chen believes that more Americans should embrace local politics as an escape from the divisiveness of national politics.
“I think by paying attention to local elected officials and the elections that are being held this year, it’s a way for our community overall as Americans to be able to heal, because I think and I really hope and believe that the dialogue can be a lot more healing, and the debates hopefully are not as divisive, especially when you really have to live and work with those individuals on a day to day basis,” Chen says. “And so that’s why my belief is that part of our healing process in American politics is going to have to happen at the local level.”
As Pureval says, “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.”
Daniel Lam is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.