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Are Race-Based Advisory Groups Just Political Symbols?

Protesters march in New York's Times Square on February 19, 2017, in solidarity with American Muslims and against the travel ban ordered by President Donald Trump.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Protesters march in New York's Times Square on February 19, 2017, in solidarity with American Muslims and against the travel ban ordered by President Donald Trump.

The day Donald Trump took office, six members of the presidential advisory commission for Asian American Pacific Islanders stepped down. Last week, another 10 resigned. They wrote in a scathing letter that Trump's immigration executive orders, slash of federal funds to sanctuary cities, bans on refugees and opposition to the Affordable Care Act, had "deleterious consequences" for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

"We object to your portrayal of immigrants, refugees, people of color and people of various faiths as untrustworthy, threatening and a drain on our nation," the letter stated.

Only four commissioners remain on the panel.

While political resignations are common at the start of presidential transitions, this was a remarkably public, mass exodus from an advisory group created by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and renewed by each president through an executive order ever since. These resignations are a reminder that appointees to race-specific commissions are inevitably racial representatives, whose work is seen as both powerful symbol and political shield. And for Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing racial group in the United States that saw a 46 percent population jump between 2000 and 2010,this reflects the end of what Pei-te Lien, a University of California, Santa Barbara political science professor, called the community's "cozy" relationship with the White House.

About 60 percent of AAPIs were born outside the U.S., and from 2001 and 2010, Asians made up 26 percent of refugee arrivals. Surveys show that AAPIs as a whole are drifting from the Republican Party, and a majority voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. And in each presidential election cycle, according to a report from the National Asian American Survey, there's an average increase of 600,000 registered AAPI voters.

The point of such a commission, and in this case, a presidential one for AAPIs, is pretty straightforward: to create a two-way flow of information between the highest levels of government and the broader AAPI community, said Linda X. Phan, executive director of Asian Family Support Services in Austin, Texas, who resigned from the commission last week.

"Our charge was to make sure the policies put in place were to help out the AAPI community, and to make the federal government much more accessible to everyone," Phan said.

At least, that's how it's worked before. On Inauguration Day, the AAPI commission's signature project on disaggregating data about Asian-Americans was deleted from, along with a LGBT rights page. According to multiple commissioners who stepped down, their messages to the White House calling for meetings and expressing their concerns were met with silence. The White House did not immediately respond to NPR's request for an on-the-record comment.

"Under Trump, we tried to hold on and wait as long as possible," Daphne Kwok, who served as chair of President Obama's AAPI committee for four years and also runs the AARP's multicultural markets for Asian-Americans, said. The task force members would have held their seats until September 30, 2017, at which point, as past transitions showed, the president could reauthorize the commission and appoint new members. Kwok said she'd plan to serve out her term, but with the executive orders, no longer felt that the commission was the best way for her to advocate on behalf of AAPIs.

In the past, the commission was able to push the federal government to provide more language resources and translation services, and to disaggregate data about the various AAPI subgroups. This data disaggregation project, which started under President Obama's tenure and was a joint venture with the Department of Education's White House AAPI initiative, helped chip away at the "model minority" myth by showing how specific AAPI ethnic groups fared when it came to areas including education, health, employment and immigration. (While this data project no longer appears on, part of it is still accessible on the Department of Education's site.) This data was intended to help policymakers decide where to spend federal money. For example, according to the DoE's website, disaggregated education data helped show which colleges had large numbers of low-income AAPI students and students living below the poverty line, indicating which schools might need more funding.

But with a dwindling board, a non-communicative White House and a president trying to implement policies that they said went against their values, both Kwok and Phan said they felt their role on the advisory commission was pointless.

When Phan was invited to join President Obama's commission in 2014, she was wary of joining a panel that might not have legitimate power. "There are commissions, especially with federal commissions, they can be staffed by big donors or folks who aren't willing to roll up their sleeves but enjoy the title."

"You can join a task force or a commission and just have your name on something, and not do real work," Phan said. Her concern foreshadowed what was to come as the commission sat through the White House transition, watching Trump's immigration policies and refugee bans unfurl. That ability to do "real work" depends largely on how a commission is designed, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor and associate dean of public policy at the University of California, Riverside.

Well-staffed commissions, with appointees with differing backgrounds in the corporate, nonprofit and academic worlds have "the potential to reflect the community's issues that no other can do," Ramakrishnan said, and hosting public hearings to hear from actual people in the community is also crucial. For example, Ramakrishnan serves on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs and has worked with the White House Initiative for AAPIs. He says that when California implemented a program that would issue special driver's licenses regardless of a person's immigration status, the state commission heard from residents that AAPI folks were struggling to produce the necessary documents. The commission reached out to the DMV and governor's office, and discovered that certain program documents were only in Spanish and English, not in any Asian language. The commission recommended these documents be translated, and now there are instructions in Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Korean, Punjabi, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

But Ramakrishnan also cautioned that it's easy for politicians to use racial commissions "as a way to deflect criticism that may be lodged against them." In other words: the political version of "I have Asian friends and ..."

"This is always the dilemma for minorities," said Pei-te Lien, a University of California, Santa Barbara political science professor. Recognition as a community — especially for a relatively small one — is crucial, but not at the cost of co-signing detrimental policies, she said. "It's about the politics here. As a minority, we would like to be able to be included, but we definitely also know there's a risk of being marginalized, just like symbols."

Still, Lien wrote in an email, it's important not to inadvertently devalue "the politics of symbolism, which can be highly valuable to a small, extremely diverse, and majority-immigrant community such as the AAPI."

President Trump has the option to issue an executive order to reauthorize the AAPI initiative later this year and appoint new members. There are no other equivalent race-based presidential advisory commissions, though there are White House Initiatives run by the U.S. Department of Education that include a program on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and on the "educational excellence" for Hispanics. In Congress, there are the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which play important advisory roles for the legislative and executive branches of government.

"I think these commissioners, by taking collective action, made a powerful statement," Ramakrishnan said. AAPI voices haven't been able to get much political or media attention, he said, so this mass resignation gives an alternative face to the AAPI pushback of Trump's policies. Ramakrishnan points to what he calls the prevailing mainstream image of the AAPI resistance against Trump: An unidentified Asian-American woman at an inauguration march. She's raising her two middle fingers.

The exit of three-fourths of the AAPI presidential commissioners is its own form of protest, Ramakrishnan said. "We haven't seen that many powerful AAPI voices band together and get noticed."

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Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.
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