ATLANTA — Asian Americans in Georgia turned out in historic numbers to elect Joe Biden and send two Democrats to the Senate. Over the last four years, they’ve more than quadrupled their representation in the state house. Now, in the wake of last week's deadly shootings here, fear and anger is driving a new push for political change.
The majority of the victims of the massacre at three Atlanta area spas were Asian women. That fact — coupled with law enforcement’s reluctance to designate their murders as hate crimes — is fueling fury in Georgia's Asian American and Pacific Islander community. AAPI leaders are pushing for policy changes with a renewed sense of urgency. They want to change the way hate crimes are monitored. They want a national database that accurately tracks race-based violence.
And they want to channel that anger to efforts to increase voter turnout, boosting AAPI political representation at the state and national level.
Their success — or failure — could have lasting implications for both the survival of pending hate crimes legislation in Congress and the strength of Democrats’ hold on the Peach State.
So they’re calling on their own to mobilize. Asian Americans, political leaders say, once largely sat at the fringes of U.S. politics. Their headfirst dive into organizing, which has been building for decades and yielded its greatest results in 2020, is keeping Georgia at the center of the political universe.
“With the newfound political currency that Asian Americans in Georgia have, we're willing to spend that and get stuff done,” said Chris Chan, advisory chair to the Asian American Action Fund’s Georgia chapter.
That desire for action was palpable at a weekend protest near the Georgia State Capitol. Flags were at half-staff on Saturday; metal barricades surrounded the entire building and stretched down the block.
Police are “trying to humanize the murderer,” said Lucy Lee, a Chinese American Marietta resident who was among the more than 600 protesters.
“They are trying to stigmatize the victims and Asian community,” said Lee, who wore a red, white and blue jacket and carried a massive American flag. “That's the part I really cannot tolerate anymore.”
Before the March 16 shooting, Lee said, she wasn’t politically active. That’s now changed.
“I'm an American. I'm not here just to make the money and go back to Asia,” Lee said. “I'm here to stay.”
‘You need to be involved’
Last year, a combination of grassroots organizing and targeted advertising helped increase AAPI political participation ahead of the presidential election and Senate runoffs. Groups like the Asian American Action Fund spent millions tailoring their messages to AAPI voters. Campaign mailers and online and TV ads decried Donald Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic — and extolled the power of AAPI voters to make history in the 2020 elections. Organizers knocked on doors and cold-called voters in more than a dozen languages.
Then, too, a yearlong spike in anti-Asian violence driven by rhetoric coming from the Trump White House also motivated Asian Americans to get involved, particularly in Georgia, experts say. Asian Americans in the state saw the largest jump of any group in voter participation between 2016 and 2020, with a 91 percent increase in ballots cast. Exit polls showed a majority of those votes were cast for Joe Biden.
If Democrats rely on the same playbook of consistent outreach to AAPI voters, they will likely maintain their momentum across the state in future elections. Georgia’s Asian American leaders, largely Democrats, want to keep the rapidly diversifying Atlanta suburbs blue. Young Asian activists, older voters who were once more reticent to be politically involved and Black and Latino communities have all become part of that coalition. That coalition was on display at the weekend rally, where hundreds of Black, Latino and Asian leaders and community members gathered in memory of the shooting victims.
“We've seen the Asian American community with this economic power and with the demographic growth translate into actual political power,” said state Rep. Sam Park, who is Georgia’s first Korean American state representative.
Gwinnett County, once a Republican stronghold and Georgia’s second most populous, elected Park in 2017, making him the first Asian American Democrat elected to the General Assembly. The influx of immigrants from nearly a half-dozen Asian countries — Korea, China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan — helped propel his success. Gwinnett County, which is now 11 percent Asian American, swung to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by six points. Biden tripled those gains in 2020, winning the district by 18 points.
Park and other Asian American state leaders say they can draw a straight line from Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric around the coronavirus last March to the steep uptick in violence against members of their communities.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found a nearly 150 percent increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s 15 most populous cities since March 2020. Advocates believe many more crimes go unreported due to victims’ reluctance to come forward, sometimes out of victims’ mistrust of police or fear of retaliation. And until recently, a majority of incidents have come to pass without much public attention. Women and elders are particularly vulnerable, advocates say. Among the eight victims killed on March 16, six were Chinese and Korean women between the ages of 51 and 74. (The two other victims were white and Latina.)
“Certainly for AAPIs who may not have been involved before, this is a wake up call to say, ‘You need to be involved,’” said Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. At 21 members, the group is the largest it’s been in congressional history.
“The fact that we do have AAPI leaders at all is a result of increased AAPI political participation. But we need even more of it at every level of governance,” Chu said.
Four other Asian Americans now join Park in the Georgia state house as representatives and senators; they represent the varied Asian communities in Georgia. A core tenet of their outreach is a desire to squash the idea that Asian Americans are a “model minority,” one that leaders say is a myth painting them as monolithic, universally successful and lacking political agency. Inspiring more Asian Americans to get involved has allowed more nuance in policy that impacts them.
“A lot of the conventional wisdom, or what I've been told or heard from people, is that Asian people don't turn out. There's not that many of them,” said Michelle Au, a state senator elected in 2020. “People tend to have these unfair stereotypes about this electorate and the power of their votes.”
Au’s state Senate district has the highest percentage of Asian Americans in Georgia, according to Census data — nearly a quarter of her constituents identify as Asian, more than twice the Georgia average and four times the United States average. She’s convinced those demographics played a role in Georgia’s newly-minted blue status.
"You could very plausibly argue that [Asian Americans] were the margin of victory in the state of Georgia,” Au said. “Because we did turn out.”
That newfound sense of political agency is giving Georgia’s AAPI leaders a heightened level of responsibility to deliver on anti-hate crimes legislation while getting more members of their community involved politically. Last June, in the wake of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man killed by white vigilantes last, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation that punishes hate crimes. But the March 16 shootings will test the limits of this law, which does not apply to standalone crimes and can only be used as an additional charge.
Robert Aaron Long was charged in Fulton and Cherokee counties with eight counts of murder for the shooting. Investigators in both counties have yet to classify the shooting as a hate crime. Cherokee County law enforcement instead cited his alleged sexual addiction as the motive.
Their reluctance has frustrated many state leaders within and outside the AAPI demographic who helped push for passage of last summer’s hate crimes law.
“I'm sick and tired of hearing about what happened with this sick and misguided person. I'm not interested in whether or not he had a bad day,” said Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock in his remarks during Saturday’s rally.
‘You’ll only invite more robbers’
Still, not all Asian Americans in Georgia see the massacre as inherently political. The Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta, the region’s most established community group representing more than 50,000 Korean Americans, was slow to acknowledge that the shooting was a hate crime.
Their silence caused friction among members of Atlanta’s Korean American community. Advocates familiar with discussions say the association at first did not want to call the shooting a hate crime until investigators did. Waiting too long, they argue, could have lead to more tension.
“You’ll only invite more robbers if you leave a room with a broken window unattended,” said Brian Kim, a Gwinnett County organizer and religious leader in the Korean American community. Kim said that he and others in the area have taken the lead in organizing anti-hate crime events while the Korean American Association has taken a step back.
There is also a level of internal conflict around political involvement among Asian Americans. Many who have been in the United States for generations are fairly conservative. Before Democrats increased their outreach to Asian Americans and more began running for office, a larger proportion were more likely to vote Republican, according to Asian Americans who have lived in Georgia for decades. Republicans in the state have yet to launch a sustained outreach campaign to the voting bloc ahead of next year’s elections.
Meanwhile, AAPI Democrats say they are planning to harness the voting power of this demographic beyond next years’ battleground Senate and gubernatorial elections.
“We've got to keep everything warm,” Chan said. Asian American political organizers need to “keep our political strength going and our momentum, and then we're going to sweep into 2022,” he said.
Au and Park were among the Asian leaders who met with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday. During the meeting, they proposed a number of actions to curb the spread of anti-Asian violence, including using better data to track and report the number of hate crimes that occur.
Sheikh Rahman, a Bangladeshi American state senator, also met with Biden and Harris last week. He said the president had tears in his eyes as he listened to community advocates and political leaders talk about the racist violence they’ve faced over the years.
“They understood what was going on,” Rahman said. “This was a somber meeting.”
The day after that meeting, at the rally in the shadow of the Georgia state Capitol, Lee talked about how she never spoke up about issues affecting the Asian American community, despite living in the U.S. for more than 30 years. But, she said, the shootings presented her with little choice, particularly when Cherokee County officials refused to call the shootings a hate crime. As she sees it, the massacre is the climax of the string of hate crimes against Asians in the country over the past year.
“I want to be part of this country,” Lee said. “That's why I feel, as a loyal American like everybody else, I want to make this country — although already the greatest country in the world — even better.”
Catherine Kim and Eugene Daniels contributed to this report.