Commentary Race

How the Current White House Is Harming Asian-American Communities

Sheena Sharma

Last year, two-thirds of the president’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders resigned amid an increase in rhetoric and policy proposals that were antithetical to the stances of the commission’s respective communities.

Current White House policies and rhetoric are harming Asian-American communities in a multitude of ways. President Donald Trump’s suggestion, for example, that Asian immigrants are more desirable than others perpetuates the idea that our communities are beneficial to society only when they are the “model minority,” or as the Atlantic’s Adia Harvey Wingfield defined it, “a group whose hard work, initiative, personal responsibility, and success offer proof that American meritocracy works as intended.” Despite its seemingly complimentary connotation, the label is reductive and keeps communities from reaching their full potential.

Asian-Americans have tried to shift policymaking in the White House to more accurately reflect the needs of their communities, but they’ve unfortunately been met with challenges from the current administration. Last year, two-thirds of the president’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders resigned amid an increase in rhetoric and policy proposals that were antithetical to the stances of the commission’s respective communities.

Among the committee’s concerns was opposition against President Trump’s proposals to limit the number of federal resources being funneled into sanctuary cities across the nation. There was also opposition against the repealing of the Affordable Care Act, which has been shown to benefit communities of color, including Asian-Americans.

Rejecting the proposals of Asian-Americans in politics maintains the status quo and fuels the notion that the community is reliable and hard-working, yet voiceless (thus a “model minority”). This notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Public figures like New York Times op-ed writer Wajahat Ali and CNN Contributor Jeff Yang are challenging the model-minority stereotype on behalf of their communities, using their platforms to address concerns like immigration reform and lack of racial diversity in politics.

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If the ideas of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities continue to be rejected in the White House, the president will have failed to demonstrate these needs are important. Further, if the White House continues to overlook these concerns, it will serve as a model for the way people of color are treated by their white counterparts in everyday life.

Research compiled in 2014 confirms that 37 percent of Asian-American families identify school bullying by white people as “a very serious problem,” with the problem being most significant in the South Asian community. (I can attest to this myself: As a kid, I was constantly told that I smelled like curry, and to “go back” to my own country, despite being born and raised in New York).

The bullying isn’t confined to schools, though. Just in February, three hate crimes against members of the Sikh American community occurred in three different states across the nation. The crimes involved the shooting, killing, and holding at gunpoint of Asian-Americans by non-people of color. In fact, Asian-Americans—currently the fastest-growing community in the country—are experiencing a rise in hate crimes, which have been linked to the Trump era.

“It’s become impossible to say, as a member of the federal government, ‘I encourage you to report hate crimes and bullying to the government because we’re here to help you,’ when in fact this administration does not seem to have made that a priority,” actor and former committee member Maulik Pancholy told NBC News.

Unfortunately, evidence shows there is little public access to mental health services for Asian-Americans. Aside from the fact that they are bullied due to their skin color and religious garb, being seen as the “model minority” comes with dire consequences, including the nearly insurmountable societal pressure placed on adolescents to succeed academically and financially.

Some Asian-Americans do ultimately give in to such pressure. Pushed to pursue “acceptable,” high-achieving jobs, they become medical professionals, software developers, engineers, and scientists, making them among the highest earning demographic of any in the country. But it is because Asian-Americans are both among the highest and lowest earners in the country that they need access to mental health services, like other communities of color.

There is, however, a large cultural stigma attached to receiving treatment for mental health among AAPI communities. And not only that: Schoolteachers may be more likely to ignore Asian-Americans in classroom settings. Because of the model minority stereotype, teachers may make assumptions about their performance and what their needs might be. In turn, these assumptions discourage Asian-American students to seek the help they might need to succeed healthily.

For a few reasons, pro-immigrant rhetoric in the White House, along with the elimination of anti-immigrant rhetoric, is needed now more than ever. Positive Asian-American representation must start at the top to truly shift culture on this issue. Specifically, the current administration must provide more funding to effectively disaggregate research on AAPI communities to understand how policymaking influences their professional trajectories.

During the Obama era, the administration launched the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Data Disaggregation Initiative, which sought to better understand the disparities among this vast population. However, there has yet to be any real progress made on representation of all subcommunities. Current data does not accurately reflect the “many voices and experiences” of all AAPI communities, which continues to hinder them from receiving the resources they need to succeed. For example, as Sefa Aina, who served on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, explained in a 2012 blog post, “only 13 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders 25 years of age and older have a bachelor’s degree.” Aina further explained:

While at UCLA, I was fortunate to work with a group of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) students who took it upon themselves to create a tutoring and mentoring program for NHPI high school youth in Los Angeles called PIER (Pacific Islander Education and Retention). Falling under the larger AAPI umbrella and the pervasiveness of the model minority myth, it was difficult for these NHPI students to advocate for resources to support PIER. Through their persistence they not only secured that support, but PIER joined with other Asian American student leaders at UCLA and created the successful “Count Me In” campaign which lobbied the University of California system to disaggregate their AAPI data.

The White House should also radically change its rhetoric to focus more on dismantling the “model minority” myth, by pushing for an expansion of mental health services and anti-bullying resources, along with advocating for workplace diversity. In particular, more diversity in media would mean that Asian-Americans would hear and see more people who look like them, which could ultimately help raise their self-esteem, and possibly even curtail bullying, as more people become comfortable with communities unlike their own.

Shifting our culture in this way would ensure that all Asian-Americans have equal rights and opportunities, which would lead to increased diversity overall and benefit everyone. A more diverse White House staff, for example, would help to increase perspectives on the best plan for improving the experiences of all people in the United States. And a more diverse workplace would lead to a better understanding of Asian-Americans among non Asian-Americans, which could have the added benefit of people diversifying their circle of friends, co-workers, and romantic partners, leading to the radical integration of communities our society needs.

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