Environmental Issues and Activism – A student team from the Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute’s 2023 Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) came together this summer.
To engage the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in environmental activism and issues.
The students have interviewed SVYCA members and other experienced leaders, accumulated several weeks’ worth of research, attended the SVYCA Youth Leadership Summit and participated in the Fridays for Future Climate Vigil based in Palo Alto. They examine the effects of the model minority myth on Asian Americans and how it connects to environmental issues that have alluded to the AAPI community.
Using examples from local and out-of-state levels, the students shed light on the different environmental issues that have transpired in predominantly AAPI-populated areas and discuss the importance of environmental activism and how to get involved.
HOW ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES CONNECT TO RACIAL IDENTITY
The term model minority, as defined by the USC Pacific Asia Museum, refers to the stereotyping of Asians “as studious, successful, smart — a model minority who excel in education and accomplish the ‘American Dream.’” This term praises Asian Americans for their perceived success while ignoring the oppression that Asian Americans face, creating a misleading narrative that paints the average Asian Americans as being affluent and well educated while ignoring those who do not fit that mold.
Esther Duong, a member of the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action (SVYCA), explains, “It’s mostly the East Asian communities in America that tend to be more affluent, and often time the East Asian community is the what you think the model minority myth…the myth neglects everyone else, like South Asian, South East Asian people”.
This myth is especially problematic when studying environmental issues in disadvantaged communities, as low income Asian American communities are often overlooked by research teams and humanitarian efforts that address extreme pollution. Duong explains, “because of the model minority myth, often [Asians] are neglected in terms of policy and research, just because the idea that every Asian is affluent and is up there in terms of socioeconomic side.”
As shown in Andrew Aoki’s work in his novel, Asian American Politics, Asian Americans as a whole appear to perform well in education and economics due to Asian Indian and Pakistani average education levels, while other minority groups such as Cambodians and Laotians clash with this hegemonic narrative. Chinatowns, Japantowns, Koreatowns and other large Asian American communities are mainly situated in large urban centers, where there are large amounts of pollution.
According to a study by the University of Texas, this has exposed Korean and Chinese Americans to the highest levels of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants in the United States.
While it is true that socioeconomic status plays a significant role in finding affordable housing further away from toxic sites, race is undeniably a factor as well. In a 1987 Commission for Racial Justice national report on waste sites, then Executive Director Dr. Benjamin F. Davis asserts that not only did race (measured by the minority percentage of the population) still prove to be more significant than socioeconomic status, but also that race was the most significant factor that correlated to the location of toxic waste facilities.
That same report highlights “half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites” and a statistical analysis revealed that this data has “a probability of less than I in 10,000 that [it] occurred by chance.” Environmental justice should never have to be a matter of race in the first place, but the unfortunate reality is that healthy low-income housing has been discounted for the pursuit of newer industry, hence the proximity of current cheap residential areas to toxic industrial sites.
The income inequality has sharply risen within the Asian community over time. A 2018 Pew Research Center article notes that Asians have the highest income inequality (measured by the factor of income the top 10% of the ethnic group earns compared to the bottom 10%). While Asians do earn the highest average income of all ethnic groups, the aforementioned statistic provides key context that gets overlooked when simply talking about an average income.
For a myriad of Chinese, Pilipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, and Laotian workers, they have to seek pay while working in dangerous conditions. As explained by Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) co-founder and Chinese Progressive Alliance board director Pam Tau Lee, some of these more dangerous jobs Asian workers are forced into include garment sweatshops that are “inadequately ventilated, poorly lit, and overcrowded…causing high rates of byssinosis and respiratory illness”, farms “exposed to pesticides” and dry cleaning which exposes workers to tetrachloroethylene, which the EPA categorizes as a likely carcinogen.
Environmental Issues and Activism
Not only are Asian workers exposed to toxic chemicals, but their children, who often go with their parents, are also placed at heavier risks in such an environment which is heartbreaking. But, the conditions are not much better within their homes.
Due to their socioeconomic status, low-income Asian workers are systematically at a stark disadvantage as they are forced into the cheapest living conditions available in overcrowded, cheap city housing built many decades ago and being exposed to toxic lead paint, according to Lee. As mentioned previously, minorities live in closer proximity to waste sites in the first place, so regardless of staying at home or work, the low-income workers are being poisoned.
Anonymous source (personal communication, July 14, 2023)
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Environmental Issues and Activism is important in our crazy world of politics and climate change. It’s all about being Kind to Mother earth too!