March on Washington: A History of Asian Pacific Americans' Growing Political Power in the Nation's Capital

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2010, more than a million people are expected to descend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the achievements of the Asian Pacific American (APA) community at the federal government's 44th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Among the celebrants will be APAs who have lived in the D.C. metro area for generations, APAs who have arrived since the 1960s to work in the federal bureaucracy, APAs who work in the national offices of Asian Pacific American organizations, and APA scholars who represent the full flowering of APA studies that started in San Francisco forty years ago.

This large, D.C. metro APA community, which includes southern Maryland and northern Virginia and currently numbers at least 350,000, is the fourth-largest in the United States after San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. The D.C. community is extremely diverse as APAs from all fifty states and all territories have sent representatives and staff delegations to Washington, resulting in every APA subgroup being represented in the D.C. area.

Quantitative growth of the APA community in Washington, D.C., over the last three decades has run parallel to an increase in that community's political sophistication and power, which, in turn, has helped APAs nationwide to move closer to political and social parity with Whites.

This article looks at APA political power in Washington, D.C., before and after the 1980s and concludes with thoughts about the direction the APA community needs to follow to complete its march to social and political parity with other communities in the nation's capital.

APAS IN PRE-1980S D.C.

Each of the distinct groups that makes up the APA community has its own history in Washington, D.C. This section provides an overview of those ethnic sectors up until the 1980s.

The history of the APA community goes back to the 1800s. In fact, the New York Times on 18 January 1888 noted that "Secretary of State Bayard to-day [sic] formally presented to the President the newly-accredited Envoy from Corea [sic], Mr. Pak Chung Yang" (New York Times 1888). (1)

While Asian and Pacific Islander nations were sending formal delegations such as this one to Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1800s, the first record of an ethnic enclave in the city dates from 1851. As with many large cities in the United States, Washington's first Asian section was a Chinatown, but it never reached the size of Chinese enclaves in other major cities such as New York or San Francisco.

Those seeking the history of old Chinatown might have to venture to the Wah Luck House at 6th and H streets in Northwest Washington, which was built in 1982 to accommodate the elderly, low-income Chinese Americans displaced by the demolition that accompanied the construction of the nearby convention center. Otherwise, by early 2010, only a few restaurant and street signs in Chinese characters near 7th and H streets remain, reminding us of the 1970s urban renewal that drove many Chinatown residents to new APA population centers springing up in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. This APA suburban growth also was aided by the influx of Vietnam War-era refugees, immigrants benefiting from the easing of immigration law restrictions in 1965, and the increased need for federal employees up until 1980 (Rucker 2009).

Washington's Chinatown still functions as a mecca for Chinese Americans in the tristate region on the Chinese New Year, when thousands come to the Friendship Arch at 7th and H streets to see traditional dragon dances and parades. Its remaining restaurants also pack in lunch-time, evening, and weekend diners all year long with fare that ranges in origin from Guangdong to Hong Kong, and from Vietnam to Burma (Myanmar). Therefore, while there are only a few Chinese Americans who actually still live in Washington's Chinatown, it continues to function as a cultural center for the local Chinese and APA community. …