With a crowd of 500 standing behind him, William Lex Ham made his way to the 62nd police precinct in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on a Saturday morning in August. With a megaphone in hand, Ham led the chant, “No more silence, we must fight.”
The crowd was marching, because a month earlier an 89-year-old Asian woman was assaulted and lit on fire in the same neighborhood. She survived, but the New York Police Department still has not classified the assault as a hate crime. The march was part of a series of rallies organized by Ham, which took his message beyond his home in Queens, to Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities that have also seen a surge in anti-Asian discrimination.
Since early January, as the pandemic made its way to the United States, Asian American activists have organized to rally their communities on issues surrounding anti-Asian racism, political engagement and social justice. Now heading into 2021 after the presidential election, Ham hopes to build on his activism to help the Asian American community unify itself as a powerful and renewed political demographic.
For Ham, social justice work is a continuation of a life guided by his passions. Following the Great Recession, he made a professional pivot, shifting from a career as a mortgage lender and marketer to pursue his dream of acting. As an Asian American, Ham inevitably faced issues related to the underrepresentation of Asians in media, specifically the scarcity of roles often typecast for Asian men.
“I cannot escape what I look like,” said Ham. “So I started trying to work to change the image of Asian people in media”
With the backdrop of the coronavirus, Ham began organizing around issues of race. Following two weeks of protests after the killing of George Floyd, Ham wanted Asian Americans to vocalize their support for Black Lives Matter. He worried that the Asian American community had been too quiet on issues of racial justice. He also worried that Asian Americans would be labeled as pro-police, a sort of continuation of the model minority myth, a racial wedge that separates Asians from other communities of color, lauding the former’s achievements academically and financially while denigrating the latter. Oftentimes the model minority myth is a way to downplay the effects of racism, said Ham, adding that Asians have been soft-spoken for too long. It was time to “control our narrative,” he said.
The coronavirus affected Asian American communities prior to the national shutdown in March. The Flushing Chinese Business Association estimated that business was down 40% in early February. And between February and April, the NYC Commission on Human Rights recorded 105 reports of anti-Asian harassment or discrimination compared to five reports in the same period a year ago. In August, the NYPD created the Asian Hate Crime Task Force in response.
Ham partnered with Black Lives Matter activists in July and organized a march from Washington Square Park to Foley Square that he called “Asians for Black Lives,” which grew to 2,000 people of which were about 70% Asian, said Ham. It was at this rally that he met China Mac, a Chinese American rapper from Chinatown.
The two would team up to create a new movement called “They Can’t Burn Us All” named in honor of the grandmother who was attacked in Brooklyn. The movement consisted of several rallies and events, including fundraisers for Chinatown businesses and building street dining structures for restaurants in the neighborhood. In addition to having a presence in the streets, the organization also encouraged Asian Americans to make their voices heard at the ballot box.
In the 2020 presidential election, the Asian and Pacific Islander early voter turnout increased 310% compared to 2016, according to Jennifer Baik, a communications and policy associate at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a nonpartisan organization for civic engagement.
APIA Vote credits the increase in voter turnout to targeted grassroots outreach and education to the many diverse communities within the Asian Pacific Islander moniker.
“The way that you would be doing outreach to a community of Vietnamese Americans would look very different than the way you would be reaching out to a community of Korean Americans or a community of Indian Americans,” said Baik. Political parties and candidates also improved outreach to Asian Pacific Islander communities, but there is still room for improvement, she said. “A lot of Asian American voters are still reporting that they are receiving little to no contact from either presidential party,” she said.
If unified, Ham thinks more Asian Americans will speak out on issues that affect their communities. “It’s because we’re not outspoken enough that we remain invisible and ignored in our country,” he said.
Karlin Chan, an activist who’s lived in Chinatown for 60 years, said the coronavirus-related racism against Asian Americans inflamed by President Trump’s rhetoric motivated more people to speak out about anti-Asian bigotry, which has always existed in the United States.
“Kung flu was pretty freaking racist,” said Chan. “That really pissed people off.” But Chan is unsure what the future holds for Asian participation and activism. “Energy is hard to maintain,” he said. “A lot of times, you have a flashpoint that gets everybody out there.”
Chan also cautioned that it’s difficult to organize Asian Americans because they are a diverse group of communities. Sorting Asians as a Democratic demographic like other communities of color gets further complicated by the fact that many Asian Americans own small businesses, leading many to prefer Republican agendas with lower taxes and deregulation. Asian Americans are also immigrants from 48 countries that vary from China, India to Afghanistan, plus several different ethnicities within each country.
Unifying as a Pan-Asian community may be necessary politically, said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation. Individual ethnicities can be ignored because their numbers are small, whereas a Pan-Asian community with a collective agenda has political power, she said.
Ham is optimistic that the energy surrounding his movement will continue, while understanding the difficulties that lay ahead. Unifying Asian Americans by emphasizing that Asians have a common struggle in America is his priority, he said, adding that Asians should rejoice in each other’s successes and accomplishments regardless of whether the gains originate in communities from East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, or more.
“Let’s appreciate each other, let’s recognize that we’re all alike as Asian people,” said Ham. “We don’t have time for all these differences that have kept us separated for so long.”
(Photo provided by William Lex Ham)