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Shattering the Model Minority Myth: Mass Incarceration and Asian and Pacific Islanders

The "model minority" myth concerning Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) doesn't represent the reality of AAPIs' lives, a panel of activists told an audience at AFL-CIO headquarters on Wednesday. In fact, this myth harms AAPIs by preventing creation of services and infrastructure to help alleviate the problems faced by the community that contribute to mass incarceration.

The discussion was led by Gregory Cendana, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), and included Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center; Suman Murthy, communications strategist of Californians for Safety and Justice; Robert Rooks, organizing director of Californians for Safety and Justice; and Eddy Zheng, project director at the Community Youth Center of San Francisco.

Dinh said that issues of mass incarceration in the AAPI community have been ignored. The problem isn't broken individuals, she said; it's about broken communities.

"These are symptoms of broken policies," she said. "Where we are today is a result of policies in the past."

She highlighted the rise in deportations of people of Asian nationalities, with 13,000 deportation orders served since 1998 against residents from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Many of those people migrated to the U.S. as refugees during the Vietnam era, she said. They were given little support, and few opportunities were available to them. AAPIs from these countries, and others, faced a host of problems, from weaker schools and support services, particularly in dealing with language barriers, high levels of poverty, and widespread struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Zheng told how he spent more than two decades in prison for an armed robbery committed when he was 16. Many young AAPIs, particularly those who immigrate to the U.S., face significant barriers to participating in American society, such as language and cultural differences, he said, and without support systems in place, many youths turn to crime and drugs, and end up in the judicial system. Exacerbating these problems, he said, the "mainstream media is not talking about it, but our own community doesn't really acknowledge that it's a problem."

In the prison system in California, AAPIs are listed as "other" in tracking data, so there is no detailed information available about AAPIs in prison.

"If we don't talk about it, we're never going to get the resources we need to stop some of the problems in the Asian and Pacific Islander community," he said.

In Zheng's case, he said the education he received in prison saved his life and allowed him to invest in himself.

Murthy presented data from a recent survey that asked AAPIs how they feel about the criminal justice system in California. Respondents were generally frustrated with the state's priorities and felt it invests in the wrong things. A majority favored reforms such as limiting prison spending to 7% of the state budget, investing instead in education and other priorities; creating a public safety commission; and eliminating incarceration for less serious, nonviolent crimes.

Rooks discussed his organization's support for the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which would retroactively convert certain felonies to misdemeanors, saving hundreds of millions of dollars annually to be invested in education, mental health services and drug rehabilitation programs. The legislation, he said, would change priorities in California and beyond, and would go a long way to reducing the mass incarceration problems the state faces.

"I believe the State of California has set people up to fail," Rooks said, adding that the solution is to invest in people, not prisons.

Watch the full discussion.

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