Reflections on Asian-American Heritage Month

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(Photo by Jerry Kelleher, MassDOT) 

by Nam Pham

As we celebrate Asian American Heritage month, it is fitting that we praise our high achievers and take satisfaction in their success. That sense of pride is something all of us share – Black, White, Asian, and Latino – about who we are and where we came from.
But for me, these celebrations serve a greater purpose: they allow us to reflect upon our communities, to look beyond how far we have come, and focus on how far we still have to go.

Those of us who have worked in the trenches, fighting for health care, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and decent jobs, know how much work remains to be done before we can seriously talk about equality and inclusion in our society.

The fact of the matter is that Massachusetts is a state of two economies: one economy for those doing exceedingly well, and the other economy for those who struggle to make ends meet. In national studies on the Income Inequality Gap, Massachusetts ranks 42nd, near the bottom among all US states.

From 2009-2011 the top 1% of workers in Massachusetts saw their incomes increase by 26.5%, while the remaining 99% of us saw a decline of 3.1%. Middle and lower income groups experienced a 5.3% decline in income.

The Boston Globe reported in March that Boston “has the third highest rate of income inequality among the 50 largest US cities in 2013.” The top five percent of households earned 15 times more than the bottom 20% of households in the state.

This disparity affects all of us, but in particular minorities, women and immigrants. These are the groups at the bottom of the income scale. These are the people who work in small businesses and traditional industries like manufacturing. These are the people falling behind because of housing costs, energy costs and transportation costs.

And while we are certainly happy that certain parts of our economy are thriving in Massachusetts, we’re just as equally concerned that the majority of the state is not thriving as well.

Like Massachusetts’ economy, the Asian American community also has two distinct groups: one is very successful, and one is still struggling to adapt, to adjust and to make ends meet. On one end of the spectrum, we have fully contributing and prosperous US citizens like Japanese-Americans, Indian-Americans, or Taiwanese-Americans. On the other hand, thousands of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese-Americans as a group are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As a Vietnamese immigrant, I am very aware of the challenges faced by many Asian-Americans, especially the immigrant and refugee populations, who are often isolated because of language and cultural differences. It’s not that immigrants don’t want to fit in; they just need help learning how to do so. State and local government can help make that assimilation go smoothly.

For example, today there are over 27,000 Asian small businesses in Massachusetts, and yet only about 200 of them have registered on the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Program, which connects small businesses with government procurement. We need to do a better job connecting all of our citizens with these kinds of opportunities.

Another example: despite being the fastest growing immigrant population in the state, Asian-American participation in local elections remains relatively low. Bilingual ballots are an important tool for involving immigrant groups, but we need to do a better job getting newcomers to understand and take seriously their civic responsibilities and the rewards of having a voice in politics.

One misconception about Asian-American is that they are all super-achievers, so called ‘model minorities’ who don’t need help because they have it all. They’re thought of as wealthy students, or business travelers shopping at luxury stores and eating in fancy restaurants. But as UMass/Boston Professor Paul Watanabe has pointed out, “Not all Asians are driving BMWs and have higher education.”

So I believe that as a society we need to reassess our own biases and prejudices and get beyond them. If you look closely at immigrant communities in Lowell, Springfield, Boston and Quincy, or in any of the Gateway Cities, you can easily see the challenges these communities face.

Despite these challenges, which every group faces at one time or another, we continue to march forward, through hard work, determination, and faith that our efforts will be rewarded. If you compare today’s Vietnamese-American community in Dorchester’s Fields Corner to what it was 25 years ago, you can see the marked progress. If you look around Chinatown, formerly known as the Combat Zone, you see progress. But you can also see the work that still needs to be done before we can call our Commonwealth truly equal and inclusive.

So when I think of Asian American Heritage Month, I take enormous pride in being a naturalized American citizen and a resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And I take equal pride in my Vietnamese heritage and in being part of the Asian American community.

But alongside that pride, I am aware of the continuous work still required on behalf of all of the citizens of this Commonwealth. We may be rich in culture, history and heritage, but poor when it comes to ensuring that everyone in our Commonwealth gets the same opportunities to prosper. As a society, we need to do better. The US is the only place on earth that becomes a country not because of an ancient claim of a piece of land or a royal blood line; we came together because of an idea, the idea of all men are created equal to pursue happiness and justice for all.

That is our duty as citizens, as business leaders and as government officials, to make sure that all of us have the same chance to pursue our dreams.

(Excerpts from Nam Pham’s keynote lecture entitled ‘Many Cultures, One Voice: Promote Equality and Inclusion,’ delivered to the MBTA’s Partners in Transportation Diversity Committee.)