WASHINGTON – Speaking on the floor of the Georgia state Senate last week, Michelle Au implored her colleagues to “stand up” to the hatred aimed at Asian Americans that's increased during the pandemic. A day later, a gunman shook the Atlanta area by killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
For Au, who joined the state Senate in January as its first Asian American woman, the attack was a heartbreaking validation of her fears. It's also spurring her and other Asian Americans to push for greater political influence in Washington and other power centers.
“People in our communities are hungry for representation that looks like them,” Au said in an interview. “I don’t think people can see problems if they haven’t lived it in the past.”
There are at least 160 Asian American and Pacific Islanders in 33 state legislatures nationwide, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. A whopping 51 of those sit in Hawaii's legislature. And, out of the 535 members of Congress, just 17 are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, according to the Congressional Research Service. There are also three nonvoting delegates who are Asian American and Pacific Islanders.
President Joe Biden and his aides have been repeatedly pressed to include Asian Americans in his Cabinet. On Tuesday, two Democratic senators, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, threatened to oppose any upcoming nominees who don't enhance the administration's diversity.
“I’ve been talking to them for months and they’re still not aggressive,” Duckworth said. “I’ll be a no on everyone until they figure this out.”
Later, the two senators set aside their blockade after talks with the administration. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced late Tuesday the addition of a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison “who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented.”
Biden did pick Katherine Tai, who is Taiwanese American, as his top trade envoy. She was confirmed last week, becoming the only Asian American to hold a Cabinet-level post in the new administration. Vivek Murthy, the son of Indian parents, Biden's nominee for surgeon general, a sub-Cabinet position, was confirmed Tuesday.