Breaking Down Barriers: Legal and Political Advocacy for AAPI Communities
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN YANG BY AIMEE HWANG
This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
I’m proud of the fact that in some ways my own background is a microcosm of the complexity of the Asian American experience.
AAPR: Can you briefly introduce yourself and your organization?
YANG: My name is John Yang. I am the President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC in Washington, DC.
AAPR: What are the most pressing issues for the AAPI communities and other communities of color today that you see?
YANG: Certainly over the past couple of years and looking into 2020, I would characterize the following issues as being my top priority: immigration, census, voting rights, and what I characterize as discrimination generally along with racial profiling. Some other issues that would be up there would be tech and telecoms equity and health equity.
AAPR: AAJC is experiencing a resurgence in the telecommunications and technology area. What brought that about, and what is AAJC working on in that issue?
YANG: It’s an interesting issue because that’s an issue where the first reaction that people have is why is a civil rights organization like AAJC involved in telecoms as it sounds like a much more technical issue. And the reason is simple. Just as housing, employment, and banking has a civil rights component, technology has a clear civil rights component. Especially now given that people find jobs, find houses, get lines of credit, get loans through technology and the internet. So, making sure that Asian Americans are a part of that conversation and have equity in that space is critical. Otherwise, we are getting left behind when it comes to these issues.
In terms of what we at Advancing Justice | AAJC are doing in this space, it is really making sure that the Asian American perspective is represented, with respect to making sure that our community has access to that technology in an equitable manner. We are making sure that our community is being considered with respect to privacy, artificial intelligence algorithms, when it comes to how people see ads, how people see job ads, and to make sure that people understand that the Asian American community is a very diverse community. I think one of the very common misperceptions is that Asian Americans are already very technologically savvy and that we don’t have issues in this area. And although it is true that a segment of the Asian American community does have access to technology and that are the what we would call “early adopters” of new technology, there’s another huge segment of our population that is getting left behind. We want to make sure that we don’t fall into the “model minority stereotype,” which is a very rudimentary understanding of our community.
I think that’s one of the things that certainly technology companies and policymakers are often surprised by is how complex our community actually is. Another aspect of this is oftentimes when we think of technology companies, it is true that there is a large number of Asian Americans working on the technical side of these companies and engineering side. But whether that translates to making sure that these products are appropriate, friendly, or usable for Asian Americans, there’s still definitely a lag there. That’s part of what we seek to address with respect to this particular program.
AAPR: So, you mention how incredibly diverse the AAPI community is. How does AAJC reconcile with that?
YANG: Part of it is just making sure that people have the data. That’s why census work is critical to us. That’s literally about making sure that our community gets counted and the complexities and nuances of our community gets counted. I always describe the Asian American community as like a barbell. On one end of the spectrum, you have a large number of community members that from a median income point of view and from an education point of view are doing quite well. But then you have another segment of our population, particularly the Southeast Asian community, from an education, poverty, and health care standpoint are lagging quite far behind. For us at Advancing Justice | AAJC, it’s really about making sure those stories get lifted up as well so that the narrative isn’t only about the successes of Asian Americans, which certainly we are proud of, but to elevate the needs that are out there that have yet to be addressed.
AAPR: I know that AAJC often partners with other organizations that aren’t necessarily representing AAPIs specifically. How does AAJC balance supporting AAPI issues while also being a supportive ally for other people of color?
YANG: Advancing Justice | AAJC lifts up and protects and advances the interests of those in our community generally that are vulnerable. There’s two aspects of that. One aspect, which we started talking a little bit about, is with respect to the Southeast Asian community, but then just more generally immigrant communities. Immigrant communities, regardless of wealth, are a vulnerable community because of language issues and because of unfamiliarity with our basic democracy. And so in those particular areas, oftentimes we align ourselves with Latino organizations because they share many of the same issues, concerns, and outlook that we do. It makes sense for us to work together to provide an even broader narrative with respect to what immigrant communities look like and what immigrant communities think, so a quite a bit of our work does include partners and allies that are not in the Asian American space.
I think it’s also important to recognize that Asian Americans are probably about 6.5% of the American population, and it’s the fastest growing community in the United States. We’ve grown by 42% between the 2000 and 2010 Census, and certainly we’ve probably grown by a somewhat similar rate, but perhaps a little bit less, between 2010 and now. But because we are only 6.5%, it’s important to work with the Latino communities and the African American communities to make sure that all of us as communities of color and all of us as vulnerable communities are protected. Certainly in this day and age, with the politics that we face, there are people who try to divide us and people that try to use Asian Americans as a wedge and I think that’s the other aspect of why we are very intentional about working with partners that are outside of the Asian American space.
AAPR: What kinds of barriers does AAJC experience in its work?
YANG: From an issues standpoint, the most common barrier is typically ignorance of the Asian American community. It is always surprising to me the number of people that don’t know that approximately two million Asian Americans are undocumented in the United States and that when we talk about Dreamers, there are approximately 30,000 Dreamers that are Asian. Justifiably, understandably immigration is often seen through a Latino lens and I don’t take anything away from that because whether you talk about undocumented immigrants or Dreamers, that is the largest population. But at the same time, there is a robust community of Asians such that whenever you talk about immigration as an example, you should be talking about Asian issues as well. So the first barrier I would definitely say is ignorance, the lack of understanding of Asian American communities.
Along those lines, certainly, would be the notion of the model minority stereotype. Oftentimes, especially right now with the Harvard case, when it comes to affirmative action there’s a very big misunderstanding about where Asian Americans stand. Yes, there is a local group of Asians that does not support affirmative action, but all the polling that has been done has said that that group is in the minority. Rather, Asian Americans support affirmative action, typically around a 65% rate. And that is surprising to people. So, making sure that people understand where Asian Americans stand on certain types of issues and the complexity of it in terms of barriers, that’s definitely a starting point.
But what that also means is that in terms of resources that the Asian American community has is oftentimes an afterthought, whether that’s funding for many of our grassroots organizations, how policymakers think about laws that are being crafted, and which stories that are being told. Again, we’ve talked about stories around hate crimes. Rightfully, many of the stories revolve around African Americans and I do not take anything away from that. But the number of Asian Americans, particularly South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans facing hate crimes and racial profiling is significant. And making sure that people see those stories as well that would be the other barrier that I see, making sure that Asian Americans are not rendered invisible.
AAPR: How is AAJC working towards overcoming those barriers?
YANG: Certainly a lot of our work I would put into a couple of different buckets. First, it’s defending the interests of Asian Americans whether through discussions and conversations with policymakers to enact policies that take into account the Asian American experience, whether it is through lawsuits that protect Asian Americans, or whether it is through community activism to show the Asian American experience. That would be one bucket.
The second bucket would certainly just be lifting up Asian Americans more generally. That is through Census work, that is through data that we try to gather on our hate crimes database, that is through reports that we put out on immigration and how immigration policy affects Asian Americans. That information alone is helpful in making sure that the community at large, not just the Asian American community, but the overall community sees Asian Americans and Asian American issues.
The last bucket is advancing the interests of Asian Americans. Again, that could take these different forms that we’ve talked about in terms of advocacy and community engagement, but it’s also about making the lives of Asian Americans better. Take voting rights as an example. We’re making sure that we have policies in place that address language barriers. After all, certainly someone is not less of a citizen because English is not their first language just as someone is not less of a citizen because they have a disability. So we are making sure that we have policies in place that allow our communities to overcome those barriers. Obviously, we try to engage with the media and we try to engage with corporations as well. We do make a deliberate effort to try to talk to as many people as we can to engage in that dialogue and through that we advance the interests that are important to our community.
AAPR: How can policymakers, advocates, researchers, communities support the AAPI movement?
YANG: If you are Asian American/Pacific Islander yourself, certainly it’s about getting engaged with your identity and informing yourself and then just trying to play a role, and it could be any number of roles. One of the things I always say is that that we need all types in this movement. Certainly, we need organizations like mine that are filing lawsuits, that are educating lawmakers, that are trying to draw attention to rallies and to issues affecting our community. But at the same time, we need more Asian Americans that are running for office so they are actually part of the hallways of power or Asian Americans who are staff members to members of Congress. But we also need more Asian Americans in the corporate world. I always tell people, especially students, that it’s ok to work for a corporation. I’m a lawyer by training – it’s ok to work at a law firm as long as you remember your roots. We need Asian American advocates in all of those professions. Asian Americans are still underrepresented in corporate America, and they are still underrepresented in terms of equity partners at law firms.
And if you use those positions to make sure that issues affecting our communities get lifted up, don’t forget that you’re accomplishing something. Don’t think that anything is too small. There are so many different ways to help the community that you shouldn’t feel that you have to take one path or another. Rather, even if you are a programmer working for Microsoft or Facebook or Google, remember that when you’re programming, these algorithms you’re creating, how you’re creating them, how you’re using data will have an effect on the community and be sensitive to whether that data is flawed going in because it will have an effect on what people see coming at them with respect to advertisements, job listings, bank loans, or mortgages. I think there’s so many ways to help.
And the other thing is that our community is still a very young community. Certainly, there are the Chinese Americans who came over to work on the Trans-Continental Railroad, there are Japanese American and Filipino Americans that also came over to work on farms from very early on. But it wasn’t really until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that you saw a large number of Asian Americans come to the United States and have a path to citizenship because prior to that there were racial quotas for each country. And so, in that sense, our community is just coming of age right now. The possibilities are limitless and in that I also think that our community should not think of themselves as having to fit into one box or another.
AAPR: As part of the journal we try to get our edition into the hands of policymakers and Congresspeople if possible. What do you think they should be doing?
YANG: Number one would be visibility. For policymakers at a very base level, they should work to give voice or give visibility to the Asian American community. So often, I have seen polls that are conducted – it’s getting a little bit better now I suppose – but so often I have seen polls that are conducted on any number of topics, on commercial issues or political issues, that will then break it down into what do White Americans think? What do African Americans think? What do Latino Americans think? And then there’s an “Other.” Just simply acknowledging and giving statistics to the Asian American experience is critical as a starting point. Obviously for us, we would want to delve deeper into disaggregating the Asian American/Pacific Islander community into all of our different sub-parts. But having members of Congress giving voice to the Asian American experience is critical. In Congress, not only do they write laws, they actually produce a lot of studies. Through their budgeting process, they give grants or federal disbursements to different agencies that then produce data on the American experience. That data should include Asian Americans.
Number two would be making sure that Asian Americans are included at the table at all of these discussions. And not just as a token, but really so that our voice is heard. Then they must think about what piece of policy would really have a disproportionate effect on Asian Americans. I think those are just some of the things that legislators could do.
Legislators and policymakers definitely can do a better job of helping us set that narrative because they have the power of the podium and they can use that podium to give voice to our communities and other vulnerable communities. That’s some of what we’re seeing right now in the immigration debate is there’s this anti-immigration rhetoric out there and part of this rhetoric is created by a false narrative of immigrants as a drain on society, immigrants as being criminals, immigrants taking resources that belong to other so-called more deserving Americans. But those are all false narratives. We don’t need to go into it here, but if you go into the studies behind it, studies show that crime rates among immigrants are lower than the native-born population. The economic contribution of immigrants is huge and really is helping to ensure that America is still growing. Having policymakers and opinion leaders make sure that they voice those opinions and push back against false narratives that seem to criminalize, marginalize, minimize immigrants and communities of color is so important. Because we are already fighting an uphill battle to get that need filled, the more people that already have the ability to shine light on these problems, it’s just critical.
AAPR: How has your background and identity informed your own approach to your work and how you want to guide AAJC into the future?
YANG: I’m proud of the fact that in some ways my own background is a microcosm of the complexity of the Asian American experience. I have been very privileged in that before this job, I had served as a political appointee during the Obama Administration. I was a partner at a very large law firm. So, I had the benefit of privileges being at those types of positions. And recognizing that I’m Chinese American, which brings with it a certain amount of privilege when compared to other Asian populations. At the same time, I was once an undocumented immigrant. For a period of about eight or nine years we were here without papers. And that experience and watching my parents navigate that experience and not having a path to citizenship myself, I think has given me a deep appreciation of what it means to protect this community, what it means to advance this community and all the things that we need to do. I think also having lived in China for six years as an adult, as a practicing lawyer, informs how our Asian American experience is even changing that with respect to newer immigrants who are coming to the United States.
So, I feel very blessed and privileged to bring all these different experiences to bear in terms of our at work at Advancing Justice | AAJC and to be really thoughtful about what issues are important to the Asian American community and how to address them in a thoughtful way. Our organization prides ourselves on being constructive with everyone and trying to build bridges within the Asian American community, within communities of color, as well as communities that don’t even necessarily think the same way we do or hold the same beliefs. And keeping that in mind, especially as the world is continuing to become more polarized, especially as with social media it becomes easier to just go into your own bubble or your own silo.
AAPR: Moving forward, what do you see as AAJC’s role in the advocacy space? What are you targeting towards? What’s the goal in this next couple years?
YANG: Some of it will depend on the 2020 election. Up and down, the ballot will inform what we need to do in the next couple of years. Right now, we’re just trying to defend Asian Americans and protect Asian Americans and the issues that we care about, whether they are immigration, voting, ensuring that we are fully counted in the Census, or protecting Asian Americans from racial profiling, especially as this trade war with China lingers on. Depending on the elections in 2020, we may be looking two years from now at trying to undo some of the damage that has been done with respect to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and this othering of these vulnerable communities. Certainly, we are trying to build a more inclusive society, as our mission statement says, “fair and equitable for all.” That’s obviously a long-term goal and that’s obviously a goal that will take a lot of work in getting towards. But that’s our goal.
In some ways, my goal is to put myself out of a job. It would be wonderful to have a day and age where organizations like mine are not really necessary because Asian Americans are already fully and equitably included in all of society and talking about the Asian American experience is already fully integrated into any discussions that are happening whether they are about policies, storytelling, etc. But obviously we are not there, and it will take a long time to get there, but that’s the goal.
John Yang is an experienced attorney with over two decades of policy, litigation, and corporate expertise and has been a leader in the Asian American and Pacific Islander and broader civic community. At Advancing Justice | AAJC, John leads the organization’s efforts to fight for civil rights and empower Asian Americans to create a more just America for all through public policy advocacy, education, and litigation. His extensive legal background enables Advancing Justice | AAJC to address systemic policies, programs, and legislative attempts to discriminate against and marginalize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and other minority communities.
John graduated with honors from George Washington University Law School. Chambers USA recognized John as one of “America’s Leading Business Lawyers” and as a Washington, D.C. “Super Lawyer” by Law & Politics.
Aimee Hwang is the Co-Partnerships Director for the Asian American Policy Review. She is a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She received her B.A. in Public Policy and a minor in Human Rights from the University of Chicago in 2019.