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Keith Kamisugi Headshot

Does "Asian America" Leave Some Asian Americans Behind?

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I had lunch a few months ago with Bill Tamayo, the regional attorney in San Francisco for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

We both have roots in Hawai'i. Tamayo is a second-generation Filipino American. I'm a fourth-generation Japanese American. Many would consider us both "Asian American." And each of us wondered whether that label really represents our "Asian" brothers and sisters -- and if it's the banner we should be following in advancing our communities.

In remarks delivered 10 years ago on the island of O'ahu at a Joint Conference of the Asian Pacific American Law Teachers and the Western Law Professors of Color, Tamayo questioned whether all Americans of Asian descent share the same "Asian Pacific American" vision.

Filipinos, he said, and "other Asian predominantly immigrant communities don't necessarily identify with the 'Asian American' experience against discrimination the way many of us assume they should."

"Within the broader national [Asian Pacific Islander] community there is effectively a 'pecking order' not unfamiliar to Filipinos and those not otherwise Japanese and Chinese," said Tamayo. "This stratification reflects in part our nation's discriminatory immigration laws, colonialism and the need for labor at certain junctures."

The hierarchy that Tamayo talked about 10 years ago remains today and continues to manifest profound disparity in our "pan-Asian" communities.

Let's just look at Filipino Americans in California, one of the most populous Asian ethnic groups in the state, which is also home to approximately 60 percent of all Americans of Filipino heritage.

On the political front, no Filipino American has ever been elected to the California State Assembly, even though by my count, a little more than 20 Asian Americans have served in the California Legislature, including ten currently serving in the Assembly and one in the Senate.

Six of those current members are of Chinese ancestry. Three are of Japanese descent. Of the last two members, one is Korean American and the other is Vietnamese American - and both were the first from their respective communities to be elected to the Legislature.

Americans of Chinese, Filipino, South Asian and Vietnamese descent comprise the four largest Asian American communities in California. (In addition to the absence of a Filipino American from the history of the California Legislature, voters have never elected a South Asian to that body as well.)

Four Fil-Ams to date have offered their candidacies for the Legislature: Larry Asera, Henry Manayan, Christopher Cabaldon and Arlie Ricasa. In looking back at the reasons for their respective defeats, I wonder if the lack of enough support from other Asian American communities was a factor. And whether the Asian American hierarchy that Tamayo mentioned had a role in these electoral outcomes.

Granted, success and defeat in politics often results from a more complex combination of factors than simply Asian American community dynamics. And no candidate should be supported or elected to office just because of her or his ethnicity.

Although numerous other Filipino American candidates throughout the country have faced similar obstacles, Hawai'i is (no surprise) the exception. Ben Menor became the first Fil-Am elected to a state legislature in 1962 and Ben Cayetano became the first Fil-Am elected a state's governor in 1994.

Those are undeniably incredible achievements, but in the context of Hawai'i's unique demographics and longer history of Filipino American empowerment -- we cannot point to political success in Hawai'i to offset the lack of Fil-Am electoral success in the continental U.S.

This brings us back to the bigger picture of whether all communities of Asian descent have equally shared in the collective successes we attribute to "Asian Americans."

My response is a conditional "no."

If some of our communities are left behind as others move forward, we cannot claim victory for all Asian Americans, much less for "AAPIs" -- the even more artificial acronym that tries to encompass Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians.

Tamayo's speech does not broadly dismiss the Asian American and AAPI labels, but he points out the serious challenges the category creates.

"Our historic responsibility," he said, "requires that we not presume unity because unity can only be built through hard work ... and that we need to acknowledge and understand the distinct experiences that shape hearts and minds, and then use them as building blocks for unity and action."

"We simply cannot skip these steps."

In the decade since, I'm not sure we followed Bill Tamayo's wise counsel.

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