What the March on Washington Means for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

For some, being South Asian American and an advocate for racial social and economic justice is puzzling. I have to remind my co-laborers in the struggle that “...yes, Asian Americans face social, political, and economic challenges too.”

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King reinforced that true economic progress is measured by eliminating racial disparities within all communities of color. One of the biggest gains for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community -- achieved through the March on Washington -- was the Fair Housing Act -- a law that protected immigrants from housing discrimination. But, this legislation was only a step in addressing the growing economic challenges AAPI's experienced often times unrecognized and in silence.

The lack of understanding around the AAPI community’s nuanced economic experiences can be traced to the "model minority” narrative.  Around 1966, at the heart of the civil rights movement, Asian Americans transitioned from being coined outsiders to model communities that through hard work and education overcame social and economic challenges. This narrative divided Asians from other communities of color -- both by API folks internalizing these concepts and also by effectively negating obstacles Asians face -- and created tension in efforts around social and economic justice.

But we actually share more similarities than one may think.

Native born AAPI folks have one of the fastest growing poverty rates in the country increasing 38% (at a faster rate than the national average) from about 1.4 million in 2007 to almost two million in 2011. Hmong, Bangladeshi, Tongan, Cambodian, Chinese, Asian Indian, and Vietnamese populations comprise a significant portion of the AAPI poor.

And while there has been a significant increase in highly skilled and highly educated Asian immigrants, the AAPI community also has a growing number of undocumented and undereducated immigrants. One in four Koreans and one in six Filipinos are undocumented, and the undocumented Asian Indian population grew 40% from 2000 to 2009.

Yuri Kochiyama, a human rights and Asian American rights activist who worked closely with Malcolm X, spoke to the importance of the Asian American community building coalitions with other communities around shared visions for equal opportunity. “I hope that the movement becomes more intertwined in working with other people of color and progressive whites,” she states.  “I also hope that the Asian American movements, with its many mutual objectives, become more international and supports liberation struggles around the world.”

50 years later, after the historic March on Washington, I hope more folks recognize that we Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are allies in the fight for justice not competition.  And as we reaffirm the demands of the March on Washington – some of the boldest demands ever proposed – I look forward to working collectively in advancing an economic agenda that reflects the vast experiences and diverse voices of all who hope to one day live in a country that is equitable and fair for all.  This is how we build true solidarity.  This is how we achieve the dream Dr. King so bravely envisioned 50 years ago.

Anisha Ahuja is an intern for the NAACP Economic Department and rising junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.