The celebratory month began as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week,” signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. In 1992, the observance expanded into a full month.
May was chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant on May 7, 1843. It also marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which was built largely by Chinese laborers, on May 10, 1869.
Every May, federal and local governments, educational institutions and community organizations celebrate the contributions of the AAPI community, the fastest growing population in the country. And there’s a lot to celebrate.
More than half of Asian-Americans nationally ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education. As a whole, Asian-Americans as a group also have a higher annual household income than the median U.S. household.
Asian-Americans have also made significant strides in fields like business, technology and even entertainment. Stars and celebrities like NBA player Jeremy Lin, actress Mindy Kaling and designer Vera Wang are all household names.
But often ignored are the disparities and hurdles that exist within this diverse community. Despite educational and economic success as a whole, individual ethnic groups like Bangladeshi, Hmong, Nepalese and Burmese families have among the highest poverty rates in the country.
Asians also make up 13 percent of the total undocumented immigration population in the United States, leaving them vulnerable to deportation, lack of services and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
South Asian communities face increasingly hostile Islamophobia, bullying and hate crimes in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Pacific Islanders are often left out completely from the conversation.
Asian-Americans face challenges with physical and mental health, such as chronic Hepatitis B, a lack of political representation, and discrimination in employment, housing and education.
As May comes to a close, every celebration of Asian-American heritage and achievement should come with a robust, critical conversation about these challenges.
By highlighting these barriers and bringing them to the forefront, Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders can address them head on to create a more just and equitable society.