Census 2020: Asian Americans Stand to be Heard

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Historic Chinatown along Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue, Chicago. Pui Tak Center pictured on the left, Chinatown Gate center with Willis Tower in the background.

On the South Side of Chicago sits Chinatown, the historic lively business district concentrated primarily along Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue. A staple among the many shops and cafes is the Triple Crown Restaurant, a family-owned icon serving dim sum and other delights for 25-years. More than a third of the City’s Chinese population calls this ethnic enclave – home.

About nine miles north of Chinatown, there’s QIdeas Plants and Gifts on 1134 W Argyle St. in an area of Uptown known as “Little Vietnam” and “Asia on Argyle.” That’s where for more than 20 years, shop owner Bill Dong sees to the needs of Chicago’s plant moms and dads, who look for Pink Allusion Syngoniums and Mican Pothos or Calla lilies and Cebu Blue Pothos (while they last).

Just a little more than three miles north of QIdeas, customers are weaving through the aisles at the Patel Brothers grocery store, shopping for fresh produce, dry goods, including chapati flour and jaggery sweetener. Patel Brothers on 2610 W. Devon Ave. in the West Ridge neighborhood is one of the dozens of Indian and Pakistani businesses in the section known as “Little India.”

Chicago’s Asian American community’s diversity is a strength. However, it is a challenge for organizers calling for better representation of a group often misunderstood due to the biased political one-dimensional narratives existing only in the United States.

In the 2020 Bureau of Census population report, Asian Americans  saw the most significant gain of any race or ethnic group in the City — up nearly 31-percent, at more than 192,000 people. Those numbers, along with the group’s many economic and social contributions, prompt calls for a long-sought-after majority Asian ward in City Council.

Diverse and Growing

The diversity of the Asian community, which numbers 25 million in the US, is often neglected by the media treating the group as a monolith, but in actuality, it is more nuanced. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, almost all Asian Americans  trace their roots to specific countries or populations from East and Southeast Asia and the Indian  subcontinent.Approximately 19.9 million people identified as Asian alone in 2020, an increase in population from the 14.7 million counted in 2010.

Add the 4.1 million respondents who identified as Asian with another race group, such as white or Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander – the Asian alone or in combination population comprised a total of 24 million people.

Another way to look at it is that the Asian alone population grew by 35.5% between 2010 and 2020, but the Asian combined population grew by 55.5%.

Chicago has one of the largest Asian American populations among major U.S. cities. The oldest community is in Chinatown, where most foreign-born residents speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

The first Chinese to arrive in Chicago escaped ethnic violence and political discrimination in the west after the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. They settled along Clark Street between Van Buren and Harrison Streets in Chicago’s South Loop.

Chinese residents were commonly welcomed in the City until racial prejudice, cultural bias, and economic competition drove them to move south to Armour Square. Since 1912, the community’s economic and social influence has grown dramatically despite systemic barriers perpetuating inequity and inaccessibility.

“Asians as the ‘Model Minority’ is a myth that undermines the demands of the civil rights movement,” said Grace Pai, Executive Director, Asian Americans  Advancing Justice. Pai says Asian Americans  are painted with a broad brush by those in power in creating a false narrative that the community isn’t facing the same racial issues as other people of color.

Commonplace Racism

Like other marginalized communities, COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Asian Americans. Additionally, the group is a target of racial abuse exacerbated by hostile political rhetoric blaming China for the pandemic. In

Like other marginalized communities, COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Asian Americans . Additionally, the group is a target of racial abuse exacerbated by hostile political rhetoric blaming China for the pandemic. In addition, economic stereotypes render them virtually invisible and forgotten as small business owners struggle with the same disparities as other people of color in getting financial assistance.

“Asian Americans  have similar obstacles (in acquiring wealth) as Black and brown communities,” says Pai explaining that the model minority trope drives a wedge between people of color.

The stereotype uses Asian Americans  as achieving a higher degree of success than other marginalized groups, namely Black and Hispanic-Latino, arguing it’s because they’re docile, law-abiding, hardworking citizens and immigrants. Therefore claiming that racial disparities don’t exist with this community and there is no need for government to provide vital resources.

However, like all stereotypes, the model minority myth ignores the differences among individuals. Asian Americans  are much more dynamic than government studies pretend.

The often-used aggregate statistics showing higher median incomes and educational attainment for Asian Americans  is misleading. When broken down into its respective ethnic groups (more than 20 countries), it neglects that a large share continues to struggle economically

Spencer Ng, the owner of the Triple Crown restaurant, said overall, business is down 60% from a year ago. “We had to close for over a month,” said Dong as shop owners like he in Uptown had to adhere to COVID mitigations handed down by the state.

The pandemic also hurt businesses along Devon Avenue, where a spike in COVID-19 cases early on kept customers away because of misinformation that restaurants, stores, and other businesses had shut down.

But, Asian American businesses began to feel the economic downturn before Governor J. B. Pritzker enacted the shelter in place order in the Spring of 2020 due to early incessant news coverage making Asians the face of the coronavirus. And when federal funds were made available, language barriers kept many small business owners from getting the help they needed. The task of translating says Pai falls on ethnic organizations due to the lack of government resources afforded to immigrants lacking English language proficiency.

The communication breakdown includes information invaluable to the health and wellness of the people. The Chinese American Service League and the Pui Tak Center are among the many organizations providing information about COVID-19, vaccinations, and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE).

The continuing inequity in communication, economic development, and microaggressions is not new to a community that hopes the same conversations that are elevating historic polarities in the Black community aggravated by the pandemic, killing of George Floyd, and the divisive presidential election will afford them the opportunity of better representation.

 “Asian Americans  represent 7% of Chicago, but they currently represent 0% of seats in the city council,” said Justin Sia, the democracy, voting rights, and redistricting counsel at Asian Americans  Advancing Justice Chicago.

A Voice of Their Own

Redistricting, the once-every-ten-year process by Chicago’s City Council to redraw and approve a map reflecting population changes

Using data based on the U.S. Census Bureau is a closed-door process that Sia says is not in the best interest of residents.

He favors a transparent independent system where the community has a voice in what an Asian majority ward would look like. “The community is split into different wards, diminishing our ability to influence government,” Sia said. Pai agrees that having more than one alderman for residents to voice their concerns isn’t productive and adds, “We want to see elected officials that understand the issues (of the community) and work to prioritize them.”

Asian Americans  have historically had low numbers and were fragmented throughout Chicago; Chinatown being the exception. But the last two Census counts place the community in a strong position to finally create a majority Asian American ward.

Ameya Pawar, who stepped down in 2019, was the Chicago City Council’s first and only Asian American alderman. Pawar served in the city’s 47th Ward on the North Side.

“We can win more if we ban together,” said Pai, who led a coalition of dozens of groups successfully lobbying for Illinois to be the first state requiring the inclusion of Asian American history in public school curriculums. “We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history,” said Gov. Pritzker after signing the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act in July. “It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another and, ultimately, to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals.” The law goes into effect on January 1.

The hope is that including Asian American experiences in classrooms builds more understanding chipping away at damaging stereotypes persisting for decades. But, unfortunately, those types of biases led to hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent to rise by 70% last year compared to 2019, according to an FBI report released in August.

The wave of anti-Asian hate crimes coincides with the COVID-19 outbreak. In March, eight people died in a shooting rampage, six of them Asian women at spas in and around Atlanta. Suspect Robert Aaron Long faces the death penalty.

A survey published in August by Stop AAPI Hate indicates that more than 9,000 reports of bias have been made since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization found the majority of the incidents were cases of verbal harassment.

Addressing the increase in anti-Asian American crime, President Joe Biden signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in May. “For centuries, Asian Americans , Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, diverse and vibrant communities have helped build this nation only to be often stepped over, forgotten, or ignored,” said President Biden at the time. “We heard that too many Asian Americans  have been waking up each morning this past year, genuinely, genuinely fearing for their safety.” The signing ceremony coincided with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Fearing an increase in attacks as COVID-19 cases begin to rise due in part to the delta variant, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Rep. Grace Meng of New York urged the Justice Department to expedite the federal law. In a letter sent on September 21, they say, “Full implementation of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act will help stem the tide against further violence.”

Hirono and Meng are among the Asian American democrats credited with helping deliver the White House to Biden. Exit Polls indicated that most Asian American voters across the country favored Biden over Trump (68% to 28%, AAPI Civic Engagement Fund).

The U.S. Census Bureau reports a record high of nearly 60% of Asian Americans  voted in 2020. Building Back Together wants to add to those numbers. The nonprofit spearheads a new voting rights effort to ensure that Asian residents with limited English language skills are granted resources as required by federal law. The marketing campaign will educate local organizations in cities and counties on reporting language access violations to the Justice Department.

Language barriers are on a long list of policy needs that Asian Americans  hope will be addressed by representation in City Hall inclusive of their identity and experience.

For Sia, whose group is building aldermanic support and advocating in the remap process, the time for a majority Asian ward is “long overdue.”