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2021 has been a record year for incidents of AAPI hate. Photo: HHS.Gov

Xavier Becerra to lead new White House AAPI pandemic initiative

The new initiative will address the impact of COVID-19 on the AAPI community and their subsequent recovery.

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On Thursday, Dec. 9, the White House announced a new initiative led by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. It is intended to address the issues that grassroots activists have long been pushing for, such as a more diverse array of language options in federal programs and disaggregation of data under the ‘Asian’ umbrella.

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) also seeks to address the impacts of COVID-19 on Asian American livelihoods, including businesses that disproportionately struggled throughout the pandemic.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to tackling a wide scope of challenges impacting communities that have been historically overlooked and underserved,” Becerra said in a statement

Asian-American civil rights organizations praised the decision and hope the initiative will be used as a way to support lower-income, underrepresented AAPI communities. 

“Today’s official launch of White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders marks a significant boost to our nation’s response to COVID-19 and the shared effort of creating a more equitable society. TAAF applauds HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Ambassador Katherine Tai, who we believe will do an excellent job of leading this initiative and driving necessary investments in our communities,” Norman Chen, CEO of The Asian American Foundation, said in a statement. 

Community leaders said they hope the initiative will foster inclusion and education of the general public on historic and present-day issues impacting these communities. Tracking hate incidents, providing career opportunities and focusing on the unique need of LGBTQ Asian-Americans are also high priorities. 

New crime statistics in New York City show a significant increase in anti-Asian hate crimes this past year. Incidents targeting Asians rose by 361%, from 28 last year to 129 in 2021. 

Russel Jeung, co-founder of the hate incident reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate, told NBC News that many of the hate crimes, especially in NYC, have occurred in low-income areas and enclaves that have already suffered from the effects of the pandemic. 

Jeung said his group is advocating the implementation of more ethnic studies programs in public schools, where young people experienced higher rates of discrimination compared to those in private institutions, to help reduce bias.

“We appreciate the Administration’s recognition of the difficulties that are unique to Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders,” Marielle A. Reataza, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse, said in a statement.  

“Community-building and rebuilding are truly necessities during this time, and we look forward to the progress needed to serve and heal our communities,” Reataza said. 

Data disaggregation has also been an ongoing conversation among scholars of Asian-American issues. The Department of Education currently requires schools to aggregate data across 48 ethnicities under the label ‘Asian,’ according to AAPI Data

But this reporting guideline masks the educational inequalities that exist for AAPI groups, especially those from Southeast Asian backgrounds. It also feeds into the myth that Asians are generally successful and in less need of federal support. 

Data disaggregation can also make it more difficult for Asians to access pandemic resources, due to lack of advertising in their neighborhoods. This is a particular problem for groups such as Hmong-Americans, Indo-Caribbeans and Native Hawaiians. Experts say these communities can easily be erased without looking deeper into Asian data. 

Tung Nguyen, a professor of medicine at the University of California, told NBC News that this is the “gaslighting of the Asian American population,” and a clear example of anti-Asian systemic racism. 

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