Link to recording of Ms. Huang’s talk on 11/6/2020:
JEAN BEE CHAN
Thank you for being here today. It is now my pleasure to introduce our main speaker Margaret Huang.
Ms. Huang is an internationally renowned advocate for human rights and racial Justice, and she is now the new president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its Action Fund. She’s a native of Tennessee and received a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia and a BS degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown.
Prior to Southern Poverty Law Center, Ms. Huang served as the executive director of Amnesty International USA where she was in charge of leading campaigns to protect the human rights of migrants, refugees, torture survivors, gun violence victims, as well as activists and protesters across the globe. Please welcome Margaret Huang!
Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s such a great pleasure to join all of you this evening, and I love taking part in Asian American community activities. So, thank you very much for inviting me to be part of your event this evening.
I wanted to share a little bit about me before I get into the substance of my remarks, because people often ask how I landed at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’m the daughter of a Chinese immigrant to the United States and a white woman whose family has been in this country for many generations. I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee, which is pretty unusual. And it is because of my parents’ commitment to connect me to my Chinese family, in Taiwan and in China later, that I was able to travel several times to Asia and then eventually to other parts of the world.
These experiences opened my eyes to oppression and injustice in many places, but perhaps the most important experience was when I recognized those problems here in my own country. Today I have the privilege to speak to you as the leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country.
The SPLC will celebrate our 50th Anniversary next year, five decades of confronting white supremacy and demanding justice for those whose rights have been violated. I’m very grateful to be in this role at this particular moment and to be helping to shape social justice work that recognizes diversity in our country as one of our greatest strengths. We need this diverse movement for social justice more than ever because we’re at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. In the last several years, we’ve witnessed injustices against black and brown men and women who have been harassed, beaten and tortured and killed by the police.
We have been shocked and horrified when white nationalists became mass murderers shooting African Americans, Jews, Muslims and Latinx communities. We’ve watched elected officials deny the humanity of communities of color by trying to eliminate access to health care during a global pandemic. We’re seeing the growing demand for food and shelter from an increasingly vulnerable population of poor people suffering as COVID continues its strain on our communities.
We can no longer ignore the long-standing discrimination, the institutional and structural racism against black indigenous and communities of color. Today, as the Asian American community, we have to join our brothers and sisters across racial identities to demand that every person in this country be able to exercise their human rights.
I want to express my appreciation to the board of directors of the Asian American Alliance of Marin for adopting a solidarity statement and a call to action in September. Statements like these are critical for building our intersectional movement for social justice, and I thank you.
Now we have a new moment for action. I believe in the incoming Biden administration. And yes, I am accepting it even though nobody else is, for some reason. The Biden administration is going to offer us the opportunities to demand new policies and to stop harmful practices. I thought I would share with you tonight some of the most urgent actions that we need this new administration to take for our Asian American community and also for all other communities of color, and indigenous communities, black communities in this country. The first urgent action that we need is an end to the ever-increasing use of detention, both for criminal actions as well as for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
You all are in California. So you are likely familiar with many of the policies that the Trump administration has adopted to harass, detain and deport immigrants many of whom have credible claims to legal status in this country. These policies have been used particularly to target the Latinx community which often receives the most attention from both the media and immigration enforcement agencies. But it’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of the Asian American Pacific Islander community are immigrants or children of immigrants. We have the highest proportion of immigrants of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Approximately two-thirds of Asian Americans were born outside of the US and more immigrants enter the US from Asia than any other region of the world.
Because President Trump has focused his policies on enforcement and detention, they have greatly impacted many in our community. From 2017 to 2018 alone, the Cambodian American Refugee community suffered a 279 percent increase in deportations. The number of migrants from India apprehended at the southern border tripled from 2017 to 2018 to nearly 9,000 people. Arrests of immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia alone constituted nearly 3,000 arrests, about 20% of the total number of Asian immigrants who were arrested during that two-year period. These arrests have led to thousands of our community living in fear of deportation.
It’s also worth noting that the Southeast Asian American community has been particularly targeted by immigration and customs enforcement operations. Many young people in this community, who might have made a mistake in their youth and received a minor conviction, are now facing exile from the only country they’ve ever known. Many in the Southeast Asian community arrived as refugees and they have struggled facing economic insecurity and over-policing in their communities. Southeast Asian immigrants are three to four times more likely to be deported for old criminal convictions compared to any other immigrant group.
But the experience of Asian Americans is just one part of a larger immigrant detention system in the US. In 2019 more than 500,000 people were held in immigrant detention, averaging more than 50,000 on any given day. That is an extraordinary number. But now consider how many people were incarcerated in prisons in the United States in the same year. In 2019, 1.435 million people were held in jails and prisons. That means that nearly one and a half million people were being detained in the United States in 2019, most of whom were black and brown.
What is the urgent change we are seeking? We have to reject the use of incarceration and detention as answers to bad immigration policies or two problems like drug abuse and economic despair. We as a society have to find a better response to these challenges. Until then our communities of color will be disproportionately affected and imprisoned.
A second policy issue that must be addressed urgently is poverty. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world controlling almost 30% of the entire world’s wealth. The resources of this country are astonishing. But we also have the highest rates of poverty amongst all of the industrialized countries. In 2019 more than ten percent of Americans were living in poverty. And if we look at the year 2018 the rates were higher for women than for men. Of those in poverty, women were nearly 13 percent of all women, and men were more than 10% of all men, and even higher for children at more than 16% of the child population in the country. When you break it down by race, the poverty rate for indigenous communities in the US was more than 25 percent and more than 20 percent for African Americans.
The data on Asian Americans is unusual because the Asian American population is so diverse. A recent Pew study determined that income inequality in the United States is greatest amongst Asians, even more than whites. While there are many successful and wealthy Asians, Asian communities vary significantly in economic status, tenure in the United States and of course education levels, which results in this wide disparity in income levels. In 2018, 12.3% of Asian Americans were below the federal poverty line and this ranged from nearly seven percent of Filipino Americans to nearly 40 percent of Burmese Americans.
It’s a tragedy to find so much poverty in such a wealthy country. Poverty, as I’m sure you all know, is linked to so many social ills in our communities: substandard housing and homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare and the resurgence of preventable diseases and other health problems, unsafe neighborhoods and under-resourced schools. The impact of these realities is substantial, ranging from affecting unemployment rates to abuse and neglect in the home, to behavioral and mental health challenges, to drug and alcohol addictions, and of course to violence. One would expect the United States to prioritize responding to this crisis. After all, child poverty costs more than a trillion dollars a year in lost economic productivity and increased health costs.
We have to demand that the Biden administration prioritize a response to poverty that uplifts economic justice for all people. And this demand is even more important in light of the COVID pandemic. The pandemic, as of the latest statistics this week, has infected more than 9.5 million Americans and the deaths now number more than 235,000. The signs from this last week are even more discouraging. We’ve had two days where more than a hundred thousand new infections were documented this week each day. Because we’re so early in the life of COVID-19, there is a lack of accurate disaggregated data on the infections of Asian Americans. Typically, the aggregate death rate for Asian Americans from COVID is similar to that of white Americans, but what’s noteworthy is that there are significant disparities at the subgroup level. So for example, Pacific Islanders are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with the virus than whites. In San Francisco, Asian Americans account for 13.7 percent of the cases, but 52 percent of the deaths. And in Nevada, Asian Americans are dying at more than twice the rate of white Americans.
But frankly what’s been most concerning about COVID is that Asian Americans have become the target of a unique rise in racist rhetoric and discrimination since the beginning of the outbreak. Researchers have documented at least 1900 hate incidents across 46 states and a third of Americans report witnessing other individuals blaming Asians for the pandemic. This blame contributes to the existing stresses of coping with the virus and many people have raised concerns about the growing mental health problems in the Asian-American community. There is a non-profit group called Crisis Text Line which provides free mental health support by text message, and they reported seeing a nearly 40% increase in texts from the Asian-American community in just the first quarter of 2020. It’s important to see that the inaccurate stigmatization of Asian communities might even discourage some of our community members from seeking care when they’re sick because they don’t want to feed the narrative that they’re part of the problem.
Of course, the COVID pandemic has also revealed terrible disparities for black and indigenous communities. We’ve seen that in terms of access to healthcare, in health outcomes for those infected and in food and job security. There have been multiple studies showing that people of color are experiencing a much greater disproportionate number of cases and deaths. We have to figure out how do we respond to this global pandemic in ways that bring our communities together and ensure that no community is left behind or being treated unfairly.
One last issue I’d like to raise with all of you is the issue of voting rights, which has certainly been at the forefront of all of our minds this past week. While Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders started arriving in this hemisphere back in the 16th century, we are now seeing millions more come in today as new immigrants. The Pew Center reported that Asian Americans are the only racial ethnic group where naturalized citizens, rather than those born in the United States, are the majority of eligible voters, but we have a lot of barriers to our civic participation: a lack of civic education, a lack of access to in-language materials, and of course increasing efforts to suppress the electoral participation of voters of color, sadly Asian-American voter turnout has been historically low. We have seen gains since 2014 when the Asian-American voter turnout was only 28 percent nationwide. By 2018 this turnout had grown significantly to 42 percent which is a fantastic increase but still we’re significantly lower than the turnout rates for whites and blacks both of which are over 50%.
And the barriers to electoral participation are growing. In 2013 the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County versus Holder that removes the protections from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prevented voter suppression laws from being enacted. Since that decision in 2013, we have seen many state governments adopt voter suppression laws that do things like require photo ID to vote, deny language access at the polls, require an exact match of your photo ID to your ballot signature in order to count the vote, poll closures in communities of color, gerrymandering of districts. And of course my favorite, the purging of voter lists.
Let me share just a couple of these in greater detail. In 2016, three years after the Shelby versus Holder decision, there were 868 fewer polling places across the country. 868 polling places were closed, the majority of which were in minority and poor neighborhoods in the south. We also know that people who are young poor students and minorities may not vote in every election. So some Secretaries of State have required that voters have to vote in every election to stay on the voter rolls. It’s called the use-it-or-lose-it privilege: if voters don’t participate in a local election or an off-year ballot, they can be purged off the rolls. And to give you a sense of how powerful this tool has been, between the years 2014 and 2016 close to 16 million Americans were purged from voting rolls across the country. To give you an idea of how significant these actions were in a state context, in my neighboring state Georgia, the current Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, was the Acting Secretary of State for the last election in 2018. He purged approximately 340,000 voters from the state’s registration rolls while he was the Acting Secretary of State. That is close to 11 percent of all the voters in the voting rolls of Georgia. He won his election to the governorship by just over 50,000 votes. If Asian Americans want to have a voice in our democracy, we have to fight for the rights of all Americans to vote and to count every vote if we want to stop the suppression of our democratic processes.
As we start to prepare now for the new administration to take office, there are going to be many urgent proposals that will need attention and consideration by both the White House and Congress and of course by our state governments. I hope that all of you will take the time to contact your members of Congress and your state legislators and urge them that these challenges be addressed. The detention of immigrants, refugees and so many others must stop. We have to tackle poverty and food insecurity, particularly now with the COVID pandemic in place. We have to work across racial and ethnic lines to ensure that all communities are protected during this pandemic.
And we must preserve our democracy. These have to be the top priorities of our elected officials moving forward. I am so very proud to be part of our Asian-American community and very grateful to all of you for inviting me tonight. Thank you for the invitation and I’m looking forward to your questions.
QUESTION AND ANSWER PERIOD
Q1. That was a beautiful speech. I really liked the way you presented the facts and the data. That’s really important.
A1. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Q2. (Barry) What would be your explanation for why voter turnout is so low in the Asian Community compared to other groups?
A2. It’s a great question, Barry. Thank you for asking it. I think for many in our community, because so many of us are immigrants or are children of immigrants, we may not necessarily have the tradition of voting, depending on where we come from. It just may not have been part of our experience. And so the question of thinking of voting as not only a privilege or a right, but a responsibility and something that is important for our community at the larger level, I think that’s something that Asian Americans are now stepping into, but haven’t been doing in the past, and you saw that huge growth in Asian American voter turnout in just those four years. I expect you’re going to see another significant bump this year. I think you’ll see some sizable growth again in the number of Asian Americans voting but one of our biggest challenges is language access. If we’re not able to access information about candidates, about how to vote, about where to vote, that can be a tremendous challenge. And outside of California, and maybe New York, I’m not sure how much effective outreach in languages that are spoken by our community is available.
Q3. (Josie Pelletier) Thank you. Thank you for your presentation. I’m Asian; I’m from the Philippines. And I’m actually very surprised what you said about the poverty level for Asian Americans or immigrants and all the problems that you have mentioned about Asian Americans. I listen to the news and try to keep myself abreast of everything that’s going on and I am still very surprised about that. I think part of me is saying we’re not being represented enough by the news community for people like myself who keep abreast about what’s going on inside the United States or outside of this country for me to be surprised about that. Am I making myself clear?
A3. I think there’s both advantages and clearly a huge disadvantage of our current media system. The mainstream media is very much trying to respond to what they think people are most interested in, and that’s frequently not in-depth understanding of how different communities are affected by problems. And the advantage we have is that there are so many avenues for learning the news, but then you have to be very careful about learning what is real news, what is true news and what is not. So it does create challenges about how you search for information about our community or any other, because you might be finding resources that are not as carefully researched and analyzed as others.
But the information is out there and it’s one of our responsibilities to be an informed electorate, that we learn about how these different problems are affecting us. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about the Asian American experience in each of those problems, because we are very much affected by each of those problems.
Q4. (Jean Bee Chan) I have been very worried that Trump called the COVID virus a Chinese virus, but also Trump’s attitude toward trade and negotiations with China. And I think Biden also has an anti-China attitude. I wonder if you are concerned about that. If the U.S. is anti-China, then Asian Americans usually suffer in this country. I would like your opinion on this. And what we can do.
A4. Thank you. I think that’s a great question. I certainly don’t think that Biden is as bad as Trump has been on publicly rejecting China and making these really irresponsible claims about the Chinese virus. I also don’t know that Joe Biden has ever been particularly good on US-China relations. So I have questions. I think what’s going to matter the most is who he appoints to key positions in his cabinet, so we have to be paying attention to who he appoints as Secretary of State and who he appoints Secretary of Defense as well as the people he puts in charge of national security at the White House. And this is a place where you as voters can weigh in when you find out who he has proposed to those positions. You should call your elected representatives in Congress and tell them:first whether you support the person and second that they need to be asking questions about the US-China relationship in the confirmation hearings. That’s a great way to get them on the record talking about what they would do to improve the relationship and how they would make amends for some of the damage that’s been done over the last few years.
Sue Yee explained how some of these issues have been addressed in the San Francisco area. No question was asked.
Q5. (K or Kay) I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is why I wanted to come tonight. I’m wondering if, with you as the new leader, the mission is still to track hate groups in America.
A5. It is absolutely still one of our major focus areas in the organization. You probably know, because you’ve been a supporter for so long, that the Southern Poverty Law Center does litigation on a number of issues including several of the ones I talked about tonight. But there’s no question that monitoring hate groups, tracking hate groups is still a major focus for us.
I’ll share with you. We’re planning some changes in our annual hate count. One of the criticisms that we’ve received about the hate count is that we count the number of total groups across the country who have embraced an extremist ideology, but we haven’t made distinctions for how they then promulgate that ideology. So one of the things we want to do in this year’s report is actually talk about the hate groups that promote policies that are hateful toward different groups versus the hate groups who are going into the street and trying to foment violence. They’re all hate groups and we’re not taking them off of our hate counts. But we do want to make a distinction, so that people can then start to think about the ways they respond to different groups. For some groups, you have to counter their policies and you have to call out what they’re trying to do with legislatures and that sort of thing. Other groups, you’re probably calling the FBI and the police because you’re worried about the violence that they could create, so we want to try to do that so that we can then make more active recommendations to policymakers and to communities on how to respond.
K or Kay. I agree, I think that’s important. I think it’s also important in this changing atmosphere that we’ve had a look at this in relation to police departments and policing.
A5 again. There’s no question about. Thank you.
Q6. (Henry Kaku) I’m concerned about getting Southeast Asians, especially Cambodians and Vietnamese and other groups, involved with us.
A6. Well now, I’ll just note South Asians are another entire community that often doesn’t join in the same Asian American groups that I have been part of. So you’re absolutely right, Southeast Asians, East Asians, South Asians, they’re all very diverse. And then of course within those groups, there are often long-time historical enmities between the different nationalities. So it does make it tough. What I’ll tell you, though, is that the work that the Asian American community is doing to unify across these language differences is very much a model for how the broader social justice movement has to do the same.
Just as it can be difficult for Vietnamese Americans and Japanese Americans and Indian Americans to find ways to work together and unify, these are the same challenges we have with the Central Americans, the folks from Mexico, from the Middle East and from Africa. All of us need to find ways to work together. And then, of course, there are the indigenous people of this country who were here before any of us arrived. So there’s no easy answers. It takes trust building. It takes support for one another’s agendas. We can’t ask people to support us if we’re not willing to turn out and support them. We have to find ways to do this work together. And this work will take a long time. This is not, “you come to our protest and we’ll come to yours, and now we’re good friends.” This will take years. We join together, we share food and we do the work that needs to be done together to make the policy changes that we need.
Q7. (VinhLuu) Henry’s question comes up frequently at conferences like this. I am first generation from Vietnam and have been here 45 years. Most of the time, we first generation people were fighting to survive, raise a family, and adjust to our new society and life style. We had little time to work on political issues or with other Asian groups. But the second generation is amazing and very much involved. Some have even been elected to public office.
A7. Thank you. I appreciate that. Let me say this about Kamala Harris! She’s ours. We have to claim her. All of you should be thinking about how we lift up her voice, how we support her efforts in the administration. She’s ours. I’m thrilled that she represents us as well as many others, and I think that gives us a great opportunity to really build the presence of the Asian American community in the White House and beyond.
As for thoughts on affirmative action, that’s like a whole other talk. So maybe we can put that on the agenda for the next one, but I would just say I believe in affirmative action. I believe frankly in going further than affirmative action. I think we have to make reparations for our history. And I think that’s more than just giving people opportunity. It’s recognizing that we’ve created an unfair playing field for so many. Until we address that structural problem of disadvantage and discrimination, we’re not going to be able to see affirmative action achieve what it ultimately is trying to do.
In terms of what your organization and collective work can do, there’s so much that you all can do and I’m just so thrilled to see how active you are and the voice that you’ve taken collectively on the importance of racial Justice at this moment. I think it’s going to be really important that organizations like yours reach out to other groups like Black Lives Matter, like the Latino organizations, like the indigenous communities, and ask what you can do to support their agendas, because you’re going to find you have very similar and shared agendas. The way that we all win is when we work together to make those happen. So, please keep up your activism. Keep up your great spirits. Thank you all so much for inviting me this evening, and I wish you all the best in your next steps.