ATLANTA — For Asian Americans, 2020 was a year of political success and newfound influence. But it was also a time of vulnerability to racist assaults.
That painful dichotomy will be on display Friday when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office, visit Atlanta just days after a white gunman killed eight people, most of them Asian American women, in three metro-area massage parlors. The killings come after a spike of anti-Asian violence nationally.
The presidential trip was planned before the shooting, as part of a victory lap aimed at selling the benefits of pandemic relief legislation. But Biden and Harris will instead spend their visit consoling a community whose growing voting power helped secure their victory in Georgia and beyond.
As the fastest-growing racial demographic in the U.S. electorate, Asian Americans' political influence was felt across the country. In California, two Korean American Republican women made history with their congressional victories. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, typically dominated by Democrats, has its largest roster ever, including Asian American and Pacific Islander members and others who represent significant numbers of Asian Americans.
"We're becoming increasingly more visible and active in the political ecosystem," said Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents part of the growing, diversifying suburbs north of the city. Yet, Au said, "What I've heard personally, and what I have felt, is that people sometimes don't tend to listen to us."
Au said a White House spotlight, especially amid tragedy, is welcomed by a community whose influence — and struggles — are often overshadowed in national conversations about diversity. She notes President Donald Trump and other Republicans merely brushed off charges of racism when they dubbed coronavirus the "China virus" because of its origins.
Activists say they saw a rise of racist attacks. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups, since March 2020.
In his first primetime address to the nation as president, Biden last Thursday — five days before the Atlanta killings — called attacks on Asian Americans "un-American."
"To have them talk about it in this way, so publicly, and to say AAPI, or to note that our communities are going through difficult times, is huge," Au said.
The White House said Biden and Harris will meet Friday with Asian American state legislators and other community leaders about racist rhetoric and actions against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Biden also will visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's main campus in Atlanta.
The originally planned political event to tout the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill has been scrapped. The White House confirmed that the president also will meet with Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Democrats' likely 2022 candidate for governor, as Republicans in the state legislature push several proposals to make it harder to vote in the state.
The number of Black and Latino voters far outnumber Asian American voters nationally and in Georgia, but the AAPI population is growing at a faster rate. Out of Georgia's 7.3 million-plus registered voters, more than 300,000 identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander, according to data from the Asian American Advocacy Fund.
Democrats' coordinated 2020 campaign in Georgia — the joint effort of Biden's campaign and state Democrats — tailored a turnout effort specifically to Asian American and Pacific Islanders. The Advocacy Fund analysis concluded that more than 185,000 voted in 2020, a 63% increase from four years prior. Biden ultimately won the state by fewer than 13,000 votes out of almost 5 million cast. Democrats also forced two Senate runoffs that they ultimately won, giving the party control of the chamber.
Now, Georgia Democratic Party staffers have started offering their Asian American outreach program as a model to other state parties.
"We certainly aren't taking the community for granted," said Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.
The freshman congresswoman lost in the suburban Atlanta 7th District by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2018. In November, she won by 10,000 votes, flipping what was once a Republican stronghold. She said her campaign's data shows the share of Asian American voters increased in the district from 7% in 2016 to 11% in 2020 — enough that she considers the community decisive in her political fortunes.
That influence doesn't only benefit Democrats. In California, where the AAPI community has long been a political force, freshman Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steele, both Republicans, became the first Korean American women elected to Congress while giving the GOP two big pickups.
Asian Americans are particularly important as Democrats target suburban voters across the Sun Belt, including the growing communities around Charlotte, Houston and Phoenix, said Guy Cecil, head of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.
For example, Priorities' review of the November election results found that Asian Americans increased their share of the suburban vote in Georgia by 2.5 percentage points compared to 2016. They also made up a notable share of new voters in Arizona and Wisconsin— places where new voters favored Biden and helped drive his victories, the group found.
"We must mobilize these same people in 2022. This is going to be critical for Democrats to maintain our majorities (in Congress) and win governor's races," Cecil said.
Au, the Georgia state senator, and Bourdeaux said it's also important for elected officials and others to understand the breadth of the AAPI community and not treat it simply as a bloc to be tapped for votes.
Although the Atlanta-area Asian population is overwhelmingly suburban, drawn in part to high-performing public schools, Au said politicians must acknowledge its diversity and economic challenges. "I get it, right, I'm a doctor too," she said. "So everyone's like all Asians are doctors and lawyers and they're doing great … but that eclipses a huge portion of the AAPI population."
Bourdeaux praised a "diverse community that is South Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, a host of different religions, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, non-religious, and so on, just an extraordinarily diverse group of people."
But that very diversity means some Americans see those differences as a threat.
"We have faced systemic racism, exclusion and violence before," said Georgia state Rep. Sam Park on Thursday, standing beside his AAPI legislative colleagues. "In spite of it all, we have thrived."