For the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, the last two years have been defined in large part by a devastating rise in discrimination and hate crimes. Tragedies including the Atlanta spa and Indianapolis warehouse attacks filled national headlines with harrowing frequency, while incidents such as refusal of service, verbal harassment, and physical threats filled many hearts with concern and fear.
In an October NPR poll , a full “1 in 4 Asian Americans feared — in the past few months — that members of their household would be attacked or threatened because of their race or ethnicity.” And overall, a new Stop AAPI Hate survey estimated that “nearly one in five Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)” experienced “a hate incident” last year.
As we celebrate the Lunar New Year, however, my optimism for the future can be traced to an outstanding and moving record of achievements that has characterized the Asian American experience since the first wave of immigrants arrived. But as the next generation of leaders builds on a storied legacy, our country needs to also remember to teach and cherish it — an imperative whose importance only grows in light of the darkness born out of the COVID-19 crisis, which compounded existing bigotry and catalyzed new forms of the menace.
In a recent survey by an Asian American organization called LAAUNCH, for instance, the public still struggled to name prominent members of this community. In fact, 42% of people answered “don’t know,” the most commonly cited answer, when asked to name prominent Asian Americans.
The effort to acknowledge, understand, and showcase the contributions by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is important to our country’s own self-interest, particularly amid the ever-growing gulf in what we offer and how we are perceived. Think of high-profile Asian Americans such as acclaimed violinist Yo-Yo Ma, basketball star Jeremy Lin, public servants such as Reps. Michelle Steel, Young Kim, Grace Meng, and Judy Chu, business leaders such as Eric Yuan, founder of the now indispensable videoconferencing phenomenon ZOOM; Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced MicroDevices; Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia; Tony Xu, founder of DoorDash; and entrepreneurs such as Wen Hsieh, Partner at Kleiner Perkins; Peng Zhao, CEO of Citadel Securities; Joe Bae, co-CEO of KKR; Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo; and Li Lu, founder of Himalaya Capital. The latter four founded the Asian American Foundation with the mission to improve Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy, power, and representation, and it raised over $1 billion in commitments last year.
Asian Americans also have “low visibility in the media” and “continue to be seen as perpetual foreigners” — statistics and stereotypes that actors such as Daniel Dae Kim, film producer Dan Lin, and director Jon Chu are also working to change.
There are so many more prominent and accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Asian American and Pacific Islander community’s remarkable contributions date to the previous century and earlier — from the 12,000 Chinese immigrants who braved incredible hardships to construct the transcontinental railroad that connected our country and enabled us to be the economic powerhouse that we are today to the astronauts with Asian roots in this century who blazed a path to outer space. Asian Americans have served with valor in defending the freedoms we enjoy in our country here and abroad. Towering figures in fields such as medicine, the arts, athletics, journalism, and public service merit much admiration for enriching the fabric, and shaping the future, of the United States.
At the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Chinese American Museum in Washington, D.C., I asked attendees, “How many in mainstream America know that Americans of Asian ancestry have been fighting for our country since the War of 1812? Or that 34 Asian Pacific Americans have been awarded the congressional Medal of Honor? How many know that the principle of citizenship by birth on American soil was first established by an 1898 Supreme Court decision involving a Chinese American, Wong Kim Ark?” The answer, as it turns out: far too few.
Yet more than merely increasing our awareness of the Asian Americans who, for example, completed one of America’s most important infrastructure projects, formed cutting-edge technology companies, and served at the highest levels of government, it enriches our nation to celebrate them. The Asian American community has been an integral part of this nation for hundreds of years. As we celebrate this Lunar New Year, I hope our country continues to increase our collective recognition of the contributions of this community.
Elaine Chao was the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet, the 24th secretary of labor, and the 18th secretary of transportation.