May marks Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and Gregory Cendana, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, breaks down the meaning behind this year’s celebration.
In this wide-ranging conversation with PowerPAC+’s Aimee Allison, Gregory dismisses the “model minority” myth once and for all. Hard hit by long-term unemployment and joining the Democratic Party rolls in huge numbers, Asian Americans are growing in influence and a cornerstone of the progressive multiracial future in the country. In his view, pushing for a higher minimum wage is just the start. Gregory is a PowerPAC+ board member -- follow him on Twitter at @gregorycendana.
Aimee Allison: What does Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month mean in 2014?
Gregory Cendana: In 2014, we want to use this month to remind people that it’s time to stop using out of date and untrue labels-- Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not your model minority. They face many challenges that many others in the country face whether it’s dealing with immigration, unemployment insurance or lack of a minimum wage. Moving forward, I hope to continue addressing these challenges together.
I just read an article in this week’s New York Times that Asian Americans are the fastest growing group of color in the United States and are now more likely to register as Democrats, bringing their registration rates closer to African Americans and Latinos. How do you respond to their shifting role in American politics today?
I remember after the 2012 election, it was the first time any major news outlet listed “Asian” as one of the demographic categories. For the first time, Asian Americans voted over 76% for the Democratic candidate, in this case, Barack Obama. And in that same election cycle, they also voted for mostly Democratic candidates for Congress. We’re seeing a shift in American politics for a couple of reasons. First, there’s been an increased effort to engage on behalf of both respective parties, Democrats and Republicans. Second, there’s been a concerted effort to connect the political work that we do as a community with the issue work that we do in our day-to-day lives. We’ve been able to tell people that the reason you haven’t been seeing advancement in immigration reform is because of these elected officials. Now we have to figure out how to transfer those messages so we can elect people that actually match our values and push the issues we want to see addressed.
What do you see as the issues driving the Asian American Pacific Islander community?
The issues for the Asian American community are similar to the issues of the larger electorate. We’re looking to address economic and employment issues. What some people don’t know and what’s not talked about in the media is that Asian Americans are the most impacted by long-term unemployment -- higher than any other racial group. When we talk about addressing unemployment and providing more job opportunities, apprenticeships and trainings to enter the workforce, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are absolutely impacted.
Another reason to be very angry at the House for not extending unemployment benefits.
Yes. Whether it’s not voting on immigration reform or extending unemployment benefits, there’s a lot of reasons to be upset at the House for their lack of leadership.
You mentioned immigration. Is this an issue where Asian American and Pacific Islanders are reaching across and working with Latinos to get something done? Would you say those two communities have very similar goals and interests as it relates to immigration reform?
I think the opportunity for immigration reform brings together all communities. We’ve seen support not just from the diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander community, but also support from African immigrants to Native populations. Furthermore, even though the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is so diverse and we as a community experience immigration differently, between concern over reuniting with our families or refugees fearing deportations and incarceration, we’ve all come together knowing that we want to work on this issue together.
What are the bright spots that you see this year, things that should be celebrated that relates to the community?
One bright spot this year was the induction of the Chinese railroad workers to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor. They were the first people of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent ever to be inducted and it was a great honor to witness that historic event. The railroad workers were extremely integral in building a community and a culture of organizing within the Asian Pacific Islander community and they led the effort in framing workplace justice as part of broader economic social justice.
I follow your tweets and I wanted to ask about something you commented on. You said that the Asian American group would get a huge bump if minimum wage was just raised a little.
Yes, actually a report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) recently found that if the minimum wage was increased to more than $10 an hour, more than 1 million Asian Americans would benefit.
Do Asian Americans know this fact?
I believe so. We’re seeing more and more stories everyday of people who are making minimum wage connect the dots.They now know that a wage increase would make a difference when it comes to deciding either to pay rent this month or put food on the table. They know this and they feel this everyday and this continues to push us to work for a higher minimum wage.
Do you think with the growing population of all of the subgroups that comprise the term Asian Pacific Islander that the term alone is not useful when it comes to the diversity of the community, or do you think the term still has a role?
I believe that the Asian American and Pacific Islander term is pretty encompassing and that it matters more how we’re engaging the diversity of our community and making sure that there’s different representations.The more important question to ask ourselves is who’s being represented, who’s sitting at the table and is it as representative of how diverse the community actually is.
Do we have reason to hope and look forward to this upcoming year as it relates to the Asian American Pacific Islander community?
I think we’re in a very exciting political moment as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The significant population growth from the 2010 Census and the amazing turnout in the 2008 and 2012 political election have shown us that Asian American and Pacific Islanders have influence. The community has come together and said, “The stronger we can be seen as a collective community, the more we can accomplish.” I think that the community understands the importance. Going into this 2014 election, I think folks are counting on us not to turnout, not to connect the fact that immigration reform, minimum wage or unemployment insurance hasn’t been addressed yet. I look forward to harnessing the power of our community.
Do you buy that? I just read an article saying that Asian Americans are going to have a low turnout in the midterms this year. Do you think those are based on false assumptions?
I think they’re based on false assumptions. I also think there have been many articles leading up to other elections saying that young people or people of color won’t turnout. Even in the last couple of years, when voting rights attacks have been hit the hardest, I think that’s when we saw people say we’re going to fight back. The media will speculate, but I believe that as we continue to work with our community, people are coming up with more creative and strategic outreach efforts while also trying to leverage resources and continue to turnout our broader Asian American and Pacific Islander community.