One year into the Biden Administration, Deputy Assistant to the President and Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Senior Liaison Erika Moritsugu reflected on the efforts of the White House to better serve our communities.
Committed to Asian American communities
In April of 2021, Moritsugu was appointed as the first-ever Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Senior Liaison and Deputy Assistant to the President. The announcement of this position followed pressure from Asian American members of Congress, including Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who criticized the Biden Administration over a lack of AANHPI representation in his senior leadership.
None of Biden’s 15 cabinet secretaries is an AANHPI, marking the first time in 20 years that a president did not appoint a single AANHPI to their cabinet. The Biden Administration says AANHPIs represent 15% of their agency appointees, “far exceeding their 7 percent share of the Census population.”
In a conversation with NextShark, Moritsugu affirmed that AANHPI communities have always been at the forefront of the administration’s priorities, noting that Vice President Kamala Harris is the first Black person, Asian American and woman to serve in the nation’s second-highest office.
“It’s riding the tide of something that may have been long overdue, but not from the perspective of President Biden and Vice President Harris, who have demonstrated in their career their commitment to our communities and their understanding and value of our communities,” Moritsugu said.
Focus on inclusivity
As the first incumbent in the position, Moritsugu has been able to define the role and its priorities. Her focus has been on improving language access as well as relaying the needs of the diverse Asian American community to those in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been focused intentionally on inclusivity, to make sure that we’re reaching deeper into community and broader into the very, very diverse and growing AANHPI communities that may have not been traditionally top of mind or in the line of sight of Washington D.C. policymakers.”
Moritsugu says her background growing up in Hawaii has been instrumental in understanding the variety of needs of different communities who fall under the AANHPI label. One of the key aspects of this, Moritsugu says, has been including Native Hawaiians as a distinct part of the Asian American Pacific Islander community. The acronym the White House has adopted was developed to reflect this: AANHPI.
“Last May, when we changed the title – the president issued a proclamation for heritage month, and we intentionally included for the first time ever Native Hawaiians, to make clear that they are distinct racially from Asian Americans, with different needs, but also distinct not geographically or racially necessarily but historically in our country from Pacific Islanders.”
“Doing things like that, making these sort of things standard operating procedure, even though the acronyms start getting clumsy – but I actually don’t mind that… It’s really important to recognize the beauty of the diversity and the disparate experiences.”
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act
One of the early accomplishments of the Biden Administration, as well as one of the major firsts for Moritsugu in her role, was the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. The bipartisan bill was passed in May 2021 and has two focuses: training and resources for law enforcement to recognize hate crimes and helping reduce language and cultural barriers in reporting hate crimes.
Moritsugu lauded the passage of the Hate Crimes Act and was particularly proud of the symbolic way the bill brought people together.
“This beautiful ceremonial room was filled with members of Congress who were not just East Asian, but South Asian, and Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander, and African American and white.”
Moritsugu acknowledged one critique of the bill – its focus on law enforcement as a solution to hate crimes – but was insistent that the criminal justice aspect was only a part of the measures.
“There is a piece that is a criminal justice process through hate crimes – and the role of law enforcement deeper in communities and communities of color is not uncontroversial – and so the bill does invest in training and does command more outreach to build trust that doesn’t exist, or to rebuild trust if it was broken.”
In an effort to rebuild this trust, the Justice Department under the Biden Administration has also increased funding to community-based partners by awarding grants to organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Chinatown Business Improvement District in Los Angeles. In October, it was announced that more than $21 million would be allocated to state and local partners to prosecute hate crimes and assist victims, including those who are victims of not only anti-Asian hate but all types of hate incidents.
There is a cultural element to building trust, which Moritsugu believes has been overlooked in the past. In her role as a liaison, she perceives herself as being responsible for translating that historical shortcoming to lawmakers.
“I don’t know if any mainstream legislator would know this if nobody told them – some AANHPI are embarrassed to have been the victim of a hate crime or a hate incident, let alone know who to go to, who’s trusted, who’s gonna handle that information responsibly, and then pursue it through the court system.”
The future of the Asian American vote
A recent Economist/YouGov poll showed that Biden’s favorability appears to be slipping among Black and Hispanic voters, demographics that were key in securing his mandate in 2020. The poll, however, did not account for Asian American responses.
Although it is difficult to generalize due to how diverse the communities grouped under the label “Asian American” are, the votes of AANHPIs likely also contributed to securing the election for Biden. In Georgia, a state whose flip to blue helped ensure his electoral college victory, there was a 91% increase in AAPI voter turnout from 2016 to 2020, according to the AAPI Victory Fund. Other key states like Arizona and Texas saw increases in early voter turnout among AAPIs by 21% and 53% respectively.
That, however, is no guarantee for the future. A potential cause for concern among Democrats is that Asian voters – a demographic which historically has been largely ignored in campaign outreach efforts – may be shifting toward Republicans. The recent New York City mayoral election presented the case that the Asian electorate might be swayed rightward.
The diversity of those communities under the AANHPI umbrella can present challenges for lawmakers. But Moritsugu seemed optimistic that her liaison role was an important first step in appealing more directly to AANHPIs.
“It’s because our community is so diverse but misunderstood, because so many segments of our community are invisible, that’s what we want to uplift,” she said.
Acknowledging the governmental failures of the past to acknowledge and address AANHPI issues, she continued, “That’s something that we can, and should have, been doing differently but we can do different and better now. That’s one of my personal and professional charges and commitments to the President and Vice President and the way they want to do this.”