On Police Treatment, Asian-Americans Show Ethnic, Generational Splits

Protesters attend a rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2016, in support of former NYPD Officer Peter Liang, who was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct for the shooting death of Akai Gurley in a housing development stairwell.

Craig Ruttle/AP

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Craig Ruttle/AP

Last November, exit pollsters asked almost 14,000 Asian-American voters for the first time, “Do you think that police departments treat racial and ethnic groups equally?”

It was one of four questions the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund was tracking among voters in the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. Other topics included gun control, LGBT discrimination and immigration, but the issue of police accountability resulted in the most divisive answers.

Overall, half of the Asian-American voters who participated said they did not think that racial and ethnic groups are treated equally, according to poll results. That sentiment was strongest among majorities of multi-ethnic Asian-Americans and those of Korean or Indo-Caribbean descent.

At 32 percent, Cambodian-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans, however, showed the highest levels of responses saying that police treatment is equal. These groups also had the highest share of voters who said they “don’t know.”

The divisions continued between generations. A strong majority of the youngest Asian-American voters, ages 18 to 29, cited unequal treatment by police, while that view dropped to 32 percent among Asian-Americans age 70 and older.

Jerry Vattamala, who manages AALDEF’s exit polling, says the generational divide may reflect differences in how police encounters are depicted on ethnic media outlets.

“Things sometimes may be covered differently depending on who’s involved – whether it’s somebody from the community, whether it’s the police officer or the person who had the interaction with the police officer,” he says.

Before 2016, AALDEF had not asked questions about policing in its exit polls, which started in 1988.

But Vattamala says the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and high-profile cases involving Asians and policing – such as the cases of former NYPD Officer Peter Liang and Sureshbhai Patel, a grandfather from India who was injured by a Alabama police officer — made the topic especially relevant last November.

The relationship between Asian-Americans and law enforcement most recently came to the forefront when cell phone video surfaced of security officers dragging David Dao, a Vietnamese-American doctor, off a United Airlines flight in Chicago.

“Asian-Americans, as they become a growing part of this country, they will inevitably become involved in these interactions,” says Vattamala, who adds that AALDEF plans to ask more questions about policing in exit polls of Asian-American voters this November.

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Warren tells All Things Considered that she sees Trump’s rise as part of a larger narrative of economic inequality in this country. She argues that the government’s lack of investment in the middle class created the conditions “where Donald Trump could deliver the knock-out blow.”

“Are we just going to let Donald Trump and these Republicans in Washington just totally turn our government over to those with money and power?” Warren asks. “The rich and the powerful have been running our government for about 35 years now, and they have really made it work great for those at the top — for everyone else, not so much so. What I argue in this book is it is time for the rest of us to fight back, all of us, and that we can do it, and we can make our voices heard.”

As for criticism that the Democratic Party has not always held up its end of the deal for American workers, Warren says “there’s truth in that.”

“Look, let’s be blunt. Democrats have not always been on the right side of these arguments,” she says, “and frankly Democrats have not indicated always a willingness to wade in and actually to fight for the people who need it.”

Interview Highlights

On the decline of the middle class

I see this as a problem that is framed in a much longer arc, and it’s the story I try to tell in my book, This Fight Is Our Fight. It’s about how GDP has gone up in this country from 1935 to the present day. But there was a time in America when we were investing, using that money to invest in America’s middle class. And from 1935 to about 1980, that’s what it was. We built a solid middle class.

And then starting in 1980 forward, what happened was that we started taking the legs out from underneath it. Ronald Reagan comes in, it’s trickle-down economics, it’s tax cuts for those at the top, it’s less money to invest in education and infrastructure and basic research, it’s turn the banks loose to do whatever they want, it’s deregulate the giant corporations in this country. And what happened was that America’s middle class began to shake, began to crumble, and now we’re in a place where Donald Trump could deliver the knock-out blow.

On the women’s march and ongoing activism

Everybody’s got to get out there and find the piece that they can do. To me, that’s … what the women’s march signaled. You know, watching all these folks who said, “Wait a minute. Democracy is not something I can hand over to someone else. Democracy is something I’ve got to do.” …

I tell the story in the book about — I did the women’s march in Massachusetts in Boston, and as we’re turning the corner to go to the Common, you see all these people who are walking. You know, women in their pink pussyhats and men pushing strollers, kids running and people on bicycles. And I saw this little girl, and she was riding on her daddy’s shoulders, and she’s holding up this sign, and the sign said, “I fight like a girl.” And I thought, “Me too, sweetie!” You know, she’s in the fight. And this is where our army’s gonna come from. Some people will run for office, some people will help those who are running for office, some people will be the one who makes the phone call, show up at the rallies. But it’s gonna take all of us in this fight.

On whether she would run for president in 2020

I don’t have any plan to do that. I’m running for the Senate in 2018 for Massachusetts. But I gotta say this one more time: This is not about what happens every four years, or what happens four years from now. We have to be in this fight right this minute. This is what has changed in democracy in America. It’s not the case that we can simply put this off, you know, and every four years we’ll all kind of get interested in one big race and pay attention to it — or maybe every two years for congressional races or Senate race. No. No longer can we do this. We have to be engaged, and we have to be engaged right now. I mean, between now and the end of the day. It’s what Donald Trump is doing today and tomorrow and this week and next week. We gotta begin this fight now. That’s why I wrote this book.

All Things Considered producer Becky Sullivan contributed to this report.

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