Asian Americans are often lauded as a “model minority” that has achieved complete acceptance into American society. But silent and pervasive racism has shown that American identity was never meant to include people who look like me.
By Guest Contributor: Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Executive Director, NAPAWF
Throughout Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), I have reflected on the stories I’ve heard about the deeply frustrating lack of visibility of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). While many Asian Americans are often referred to as “model minorities” whose stereotyped high achievements provide them a proxy to whiteness and American identity, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We continue to suffer from microaggressions, are still seen as perpetual foreigners, and have repeatedly been denied the ability to shine beyond the stereotypes of our communities — which were shaped by decades of American history and foreign policy. So on the last day of APAHM, I’m still thinking about why we are still striving to figure out where and how we fit into the fabric of this country. Because oftentimes, we have to fight just to be seen as American.
Earlier this week, President Trump held a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, where the president — flanked by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn — delivered an impromptu series of remarks on the weekend’s white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
It was the President’s third commentary on the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia that left one woman — Heather Heyer, 32, — dead and eighteen others injured after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of non-violent counter-protesters. In his initial remarks delivered soon after Heyer’s killing, Trump refused to condemn neo-Nazi demonstrators and instead blamed the violence “on many sides”; he received widespread and bipartisan criticism for the equivocation. The White House was quick to attempt damage control, issuing a tepid statement that attributed condemnation of white supremacists to an unnamed White House representative. On Monday — more than 48 hours after Charlottesville was besieged by white supremacists — Trump also delivered a prepared statement that labeled white supremacists and neo-Nazis as “repugnant”. Again, Trump was widely criticized for offering too little, too late. Within hours of issuing those second comments, Trump returned to Twitter to rail against his critics for being dissatisfied with the remarks.
By Tuesday, Trump was once again ready to give up the charade that he was not on the side of neo-Nazis. In Tuesday’s press conference — ostensibly held to unveil the administration’s latest infrastructure reforms — Trump doubled down on his moral equivalence between violent white supremacists and the counter-protesters who demonstrated against their racism. Manufacturing a supposed “alt-left” (experts agree that the term was invented by conservative media as a slur against leftists), Trump alleged that left-wing activists attacked white supremacists with clubs and provoked the weekend’s violence. Trump concluded his bizarre commentary by undermining his previous day’s remarks and blaming “both sides” for Charlottesville, albeit with more of his moral outrage directed towards leftist counter-protesters.
For a man who has built his entire career around manipulating the media to fuel his own preening self-image, it’s hard to believe that Trump had not planned to issue fresh remarks on Charlottesville on Tuesday. It’s also hard to miss the optics of Tuesday’s press event: Trump stood in steadfast defense of white supremacist terrorists while he surrounded himself with the highest-ranking woman of colour in his administration as well as one of his most senior Jewish American advisors. Trump presented himself alongside Chao and Cohn as if to say: “no matter what spews out of my mouth today, I can’t be accused of being racist; look who my friends are!”
Although these days, Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is predominantly seen stumping with husband Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, Chao has built an impressive history as a public servant in her own right, breaking through a number of barriers to Asian Americans in Washington.
Her career in politics began in the Reagan Administration when Chao, a Republican, worked as Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration of the US Department of Transportation. She went on to serve as Deputy Secretary of Transportation and later as Director of the Peace Corps under President George H.W. Bush. Eventually, she was appointed as the 24th Labor Secretary under the junior Bush, and became the only Cabinet member of George W. Bush’s administration to serve out his full two terms. Chao is the first Asian American woman to be appointed to any of these positions, including as a Cabinet Secretary — the nation’s highest appointed office.
A staunch conservative, Chao has politics that are very nearly the polar opposite to my own. There’s very little I agree with when it comes to Chao’s philosophy (less that I agree with when it comes to her husband Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), but no one can or should deny Chao’s accomplishments as a forthright and powerful Asian American woman in politics.
That’s why, in my mind, there is absolutely no justification for the racist, anti-Asian tirade of Kathy Groob, a Kentucky-based Democrat and founder of the Elect Women PAC, earlier this week.