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In the wake of spikes in violence, young Asian Americans are inspired to take up the battle for civil rights and eyeing political office

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Alex Lee
Alex Lee is the youngest lawmaker elected in California in over 80 years and represents a largely Democratic and majority Asian American district that includes Silicon Valley. Alex Lee
  • Millennial and Gen Z Asian Americans are rising up, moving from activism to political office.

  • After a year of attacks, many in the AAPI community say they've been galvanized to take action.

  • But a younger, more progressive generation is often in opposition to their parents' conservative leanings.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Alex Lee thought he was sure to lose the California Assembly race last November, all the way up until election night. He was outspent 15 to one by a competitor, he said, but ended up winning with an overwhelming 73.1% of the vote.

Lee, who is 25 and was born to immigrants from Hong Kong, is the youngest lawmaker elected in California in over 80 years and represents a largely Democratic and majority Asian American district that includes Silicon Valley.

"It's also the bedroom community for Silicon Valley," Lee told Insider. "Just by culture, it's the people that innovate, disrupt, and I think they're also progressive."

Lee himself identifies as a progressive, helping earn him a key endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

His predecessor, Kansen Chu, is a 68-year-old Taiwanese American Democrat and former computer programmer.

Because we grew up here and our friends are much more representative of the society at large than our parents, we see ourselves as part of that fight and we see ourselves as part of that movement.

Tiffany Chang, Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Yet Chu and Lee are of different ideologies and represent Asian Americans' shifting generational politics - Lee is part of a younger cohort of US-born AAPIs, coming of age in an America much different than that of his parents, who are closer to Chu's generation and tend to lean more conservative.

"To go from Kansen Chu to me I feel like is almost in a way a metaphor for the changing time," Lee said, noting he is "half the average age of the legislature."

"Not only am I the youngest and first Gen Z and all of that stuff, but attitudinally, generational, experientially, very different," he said.

In Georgia, Sam Park, who is serving his second term as state representative, is just ten years older than Lee. First elected in 2016 when he was 31, his victory on the same night President Trump was elected was heralded by Democrats as a "silver lining," he told Insider.

Park is also the first openly gay man and Asian American Democrat elected to Georgia's House of Representatives. Born to Korean immigrants, Park prevailed over a three-time incumbent Republican to represent Gwinnett County, a populous and increasingly diverse region home to the state's largest Asian American population.

Young progressives like Lee and Park, who both identify as LGBTQ, are aimed at pushing the Democratic Party left and bringing Asian American voters - not just their generation of US-born AAPIs, but a broader swath that includes their parents' generation - along with them.

And they're set to do so at a moment when the Asian American community is in spotlight - events of the past year, including a rise in anti-Asian violence that some tie to President Trump's continued reference to the "China virus," has led to fear and uncertainty in the AAPI community, but also galvanized them to political action.

"As an elected official and the first Asian American Democrat elected in the Georgia state legislature, one of the things that I want Asian American communities to really understand as we continue to move forward is that yes, these are incredibly challenging times," Park told Insider, "but we've been here before and we've also overcome these challenges as well."

President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act last week to help address the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, which have been historically underreported, and comes after the shooting of six women of Asian descent at Atlanta spas in March sparked nationwide outrage.

The rise of anti-Asian violence is spurring young AAPIs into 'answering that call'

Park lost his mother in 2018, and says that experience created a deep empathy with the spa shooting victims' sons. "When I learned that the shooting victims, four of the women in Atlanta were of Korean-American descent between the ages of 50 and 70 years old, I broke down," he said.

The shootings felt far too close to home for many in Georgia's Asian American community.

"One of the most common refrains that I heard immediately after the shooting was, 'Am I next?" Park said. "But there's also a sort of quiet determination, and Asian American communities are coming together and becoming more organized."

Indeed, young Asian Americans are reacting to recent events by turning to civic action or organizing on their own, says Tiffany Chang, director of community engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a nonprofit that advocates for AAPI civil rights.

But the roots of their activism were planted far before the pandemic, she said.

Many are millennials and Gen Zers, now "coming of age" as the children of immigrants who came to the US after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which allowed for large-scale immigration from countries other than Western European nations, Chang said.

Anti-Asian Hate Rally
Taking part in anti-Asian hate rallies across the country, young US-born Asian Americans, who now number 6.7 million, are "coming of age." David Ryder/Getty Images

Not only are Asian Americans the country's fastest growing minority, data from the New American Economy, an immigration reform and research group, shows that the country's 6.7 million US-born Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of that group. And their median age is 21 - much lower than the country's average of 43.

As they've gotten older, Chang says many have been inspired by President Obama's election, and challenged by the Trump presidency to "confront their own identities and their own place within the broader racial political discourse."

For Park, whose parents immigrated from Korea in the 1980s, being part of this generation means many aspects of Asian American identity are still relatively new.

"A lot of the Asian American communities today are to a certain degree disconnected from that longer history," he said.

Growing up in deeply conservative Georgia, Park says he didn't learn the history of Asian Americans in the US, and was taught the Confederacy was "the good guy."

Yet learning that history and coming to terms with the rise in anti-Asian violence has made many Asian Americans feel "targeted for the first time personally," Chang told Insider.

"Not just with the microaggressions that we face every single day, the street harassment that especially Asian women face all the time, but actually directed capricious violence against our communities," she said.

The result is an awakening for Asian Americans who weren't politically active before, Chang said, and includes those who "previously bought into the 'model minority' myth that we were somehow accepted in society."

"I think this past year has been a big wake-up call for the movement, and young people are answering that call," Chang told Insider.

Combating vaccine misinformation and eyeing political office: how young AAPIs are taking action

AAJC's annual Youth Leadership Summit, which aims to empower a new crop of young AAPI leaders, saw a 25% increase in applications this year, Chang said, and a recent cohort met with the offices of Sens. Mark Warner, Ted Cruz, Kristen Gillibrand, and Rick Scott.

"When we went to these Senate offices and said, 'We have this group of students who want to talk to you about hate crimes and they want to talk to you about immigration,' we got a tremendous response," she said. "I think that's partially because of the unique voice that youth have especially in this day and age, but also because of everything that's happening and wanting to be responsive to AAPI youth at this time."

Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan civic organization Asian Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote), told Insider she's seen an increase in young Chinese and Vietnamese Americans addressing misinformation and disinformation related to the pandemic and vaccine within their communities, often spread through chat apps like WeChat and WhatsApp.

Stop Asian Hate Rally
Asian American activists, residents, and local politicians demanded more attention for anti-Asian violence during a protest in New York City in April. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The pandemic also forced families to be together and have conversations about racism, Chen said, sparking a greater interest in civic action for young people.

Lee, the California assemblymember, said his generation has been initiating dialogues with their parents and grandparents, and recognizing that the rise in anti-Asian violence "is larger than just people being mean on the streets."

He says he is encouraging his AAPI peers to take advantage of the "awful burning spotlight on the Asian American community" to practice interracial solidarity with Black and Latinx communities: "While we have the spotlight on us, it does not mean it's happening in a vacuum," he said.

One of the most common refrains that I heard immediately after the shooting was, 'Am I next?' But there's also a sort of quiet determination, and Asian American communities are coming together and becoming more organized.

Sam Park, Georgia state representative

AAJC's Chang notes that young Asian Americans aren't just talking about the "bread and butter" issues like immigration, jobs, and education of their parents' era, but also speaking up about gun violence and climate change. "That's a trend that we will see grow," she said.

Chang draws a further contrast between the younger generation's politics and that of their parents, many of whom were immigrants learning to navigate a new country: "Rocking the boat isn't necessarily always their first priority."

"I think the second generation, we look at things like racial microaggressions and police brutality against Black and Brown communities," she said. "And because we grew up here and our friends are much more representative of the society at large than our parents, we see ourselves as part of that fight and we see ourselves as part of that movement."

Vida Lin, founder of the nonpartisan Las Vegas-based Asian Community Development Council, which aims to increase AAPI voter turnout, has seen some of those differences in the nearly three decades she's been in Nevada.

But Lin also questions why her generation worries about younger Asian Americans becoming more politically active.

"In our generation, in the past, has always been taught not to speak out, so now that the young people are willing to speak out, I think people are kind of concerned," she said.

"My parents came before me, or my forefathers came before me to America, for our young generation to have a better life and a better voice. So why aren't we all embracing it?"

With a younger AAPI electorate, voting patterns are also likely to change. While the majority of AAPI voters are currently born outside the country, that will change as "more of the 18-year-olds continue to increase their voter registration and participation," Chen said.

Indeed, the number of US-born AAPI eligible voters grew by 45% from 2010 to 2019, according to New American Economy data, and Asian Americans overall were the fastest growing group of eligible voters from 2000 to 2020, according to Census data.

As seen with California assemblymembers Lee and Chu, there's a likely changing of the guard coming in Asian American politics too. With the younger AAPI generation maturing and figuring out identities separate from that of their immigrant parents, they're forging a new one that will and already has shaped electoral politics.

"I am a true believer that youth are our future," Lin said. "I am very happy to get these young people fired up. I think the time of Asians staying silent is in the past, and that we're all as American as anyone can be."

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