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Biden's 'AAPI Liaison' should be more than 'window dressing,' lawmakers, critics say

Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers have expressed frustration with the lack of representation in Biden's Cabinet.
Rep. Judy Chu
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, hopes the position will allow both AAPI leaders and legislators to better communicate with the administration and ensure that more Asian American representation at the Cabinet level doesn't go overlooked.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Lawmakers and advocates are hoping that a newly announced White House position of Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison will strengthen President Joe Biden’s commitment to the AAPI community, rather than just be a symbolic gesture.

The White House confirmed the creation of the position to NBC Asian America on Wednesday, saying it would ensure that "the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”

The announcement follows the declaration Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Tammie Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii that they would block Biden’s Cabinet nominees because of the lack of AAPI representation in his Cabinet. They dropped their objections after the administration announced the creation of the liaison position.

“The president has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country," the White House said in a statement. "That has always been, and remains our goal,”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing Wednesday that the liaison would have input “on a variety of topics,” but did not provide details on whether the role would entail simple outreach to the Asian American community or deal with policy.

Psaki said the liaison would make the AAPI community's voice heard "not just around crises, not just around an increase in violence, but in general, playing an important role with a seat at the table."

While details on the duties and responsibilities of the liaison have not yet been laid out, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, called the creation of the position “significant.” But she said she hopes it will allow both AAPI leaders and legislators to better communicate with the administration and ensure that more Asian American representation at the Cabinet level isn’t overlooked.

“Ever since the November election, and even before that, we have submitted names of people that we thought would be excellent candidates for these positions, but one by one, so many of them have been not successful, thus leading to no AAPIs in the Cabinet,” Chu said. “What we need is the intel. What would make them successful? What type of candidate is it that they want? It's actually a very, very mysterious process.”

Only if the liaison has direct access to key decision makers in the administration and has a staff to ensure coverage of vital issues to the AAPI community, including education, civil rights, the economy, housing and other policy concerns, can the role be considered effective, said Paul Ong, a UCLA professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, a research group.

“Appointing an AAPI liaison could be one of the much needed solutions to ensure fair and adequate AAPI participation in the administration, but it is critical that the role is impactful and not window dressing,” he said.

Asian American lawmakers have long expressed frustrations with the possibility that the Biden administration would fail to include a single AAPI among its 15 Cabinet-level positions. Since Norman Mineta became the first Asian American Cabinet member in 2000 when President Bill Clinton nominated him as commerce secretary, at least one AAPI official has served in the Cabinet. Duckworth, who is a Thai American, told reporters that the gap in representation under the Biden administration is “not acceptable.”

While White House officials reportedly responded to Duckworth’s criticisms by pointing out that Kamala Harris, the vice president, is of South Asian descent, Duckworth said the claim that the Asian American community doesn’t "need anybody else is insulting" and that "that is not something you would say to the Black caucus.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of the demographic data and policy research nonprofit AAPI Data, also noted that there’s a limited role that the vice president can play in terms of advocating on behalf of any community.

“I mean, she's the vice president of the United States. She's not the vice president of Asian America or Black America,” he said.

Chu said that she and many of her AAPI colleagues called for such a liaison position early on when Biden was first elected, but were initially denied. Their subsequent push for Asian American Cabinet appointments were “stymied in so many ways.” Citing Biden’s nomination of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as labor secretary, Chu said that the president has a tendency to appoint people from certain well-known political circles.

Julie Su, nominated as deputy labor secretary, was favored for the secretary position by activists and Asian American lawmakers alike, given her experience advocating for workers and her background as the daughter of working-class immigrants. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., wrote a letter, signed by over a dozen legislators.

Chu said that the liaison should help the administration familiarize itself with the top leaders of the AAPI community. Currently, she said many experienced community leaders “may not be in the circle, which means that it takes more work for us to get that person appointed.”

Such issues of representation are even more glaring when assessing the roster of Biden’s existing Cabinet appointments, Ramakrishnan said. Some, like Walsh, reflect people Biden is familiar with, while others were chosen because of their experience with particular agencies and are expected to “fix all the problems that the Trump administration left behind,” Ramakrishnan said.

“But at the same time, you also have appointees that are purely political appointees, like Pete Buttigieg in transportation. That's not his prior background,” he said.

Many community leaders noted that much of the position's effectiveness and impact on the Asian American community will depend on where in the White House the liaison will be placed and what the reporting structure will be. Ramakrishnan emphasized that the post is still not synonymous with a Cabinet secretary position in regards to agenda setting and access to resources.

“That is going to be a big, probably the biggest question — how much resources will this position control? And what does influence look like?” Ramakrishnan said.

In the past, there have been Asian American liaisons under the Office of Public Engagement, including the actor Kal Penn. The White House Initiative on AAPIs, which was established in an effort to increase AAPI participation in federal programs, has moved around under different government agencies, depending on the administration, Ramakrishnan pointed out.

“Under the Obama administration, that initiative was not invested with the kinds of resources, both in terms of staffing and budget, that was needed to effectively make progress on various issues, including data disaggregation,” he said.