A Dialogue with Congresswoman Judy Chu
My grandfather came to this country with nothing, but through hard work and determination, he was able to make a life for himself and his family. He opened a small Chinese restaurant in Watts, California – working tirelessly, day in and day out. Growing up, I came to realize the discrimination and restrictions my grandfather and others faced – hostile laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Asian Americans from voting, being hired by large corporations and even from owning land. Throughout my nearly 40 years in elected office, his story and the struggles he overcame have inspired and guided my work.
What was the reason/decision to run for the elected official position?
Being able to make a difference in my local community is what inspired me to run for office. In the city of Monterey Park where I was living at the time, change was occurring because immigrants were moving in and an anti-immigrant backlash occurred. There was a loud group of longtime residents that resented the new immigrants; they wanted English-only signs in the city, and only English books in the library. The last straw was when there was a resolution passed by the city council, saying that only English should be spoken in the city.
Well, when the English Only resolution passed, people said enough was enough. I joined a multiethnic coalition to fight this resolution. Together, we gathered thousands of signatures on petitions. The pressure was enough to get the resolution overturned. It became apparent that the make-up of the city council did not reflect the people who lived in it.
So, I ran for the council to be a new voice, a voice that would work to bring the community together. I won that election and spent the next 13 years on the council working to build a more inclusive city, including serving as Mayor three times. I went on to then serve for eight years in the State Assembly.
Then, 20 years after I first ran for City Council, an unexpected thing happened. President Obama made the lightning bolt of an announcement that he was selecting Hilda Solis as his Secretary of Labor, which opened up her Congressional seat. I knew then that holding a higher office was one of the most effective ways I could continue to serve my community. There were so few AAPIs in politics for me to look up to and I wanted to change that for the next generation. I ran for the Congressional seat and on July 14, 2009, I won. I will never forget the next day when President Obama called me from the White House to congratulate me on becoming the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress in history!
Speaker Nancy Pelosi swearing Rep. Judy Chu into Congress
Being the female and minority person, what was the biggest challenge of your service experience?
After 13 years of serving on the Monterey Park City Council and as Mayor, a vacancy occurred for the State Assembly seat in my district. But when I decided to run, I was quickly blocked by the “Old Boys Network.” The establishment chose their male candidate. Because of their powerful backing, the Speaker of the Assembly at that time did not support me either. Things looked bleak.
Then, there was a turning point in my campaign--the moment when a mentor, then-Congresswoman Hilda Solis, decided to support me. When Hilda ran for Congress, it was against an entrenched, long-time male incumbent, and she faced many naysayers in her campaign. But she persevered, and in one of the most memorable campaigns in Los Angeles history, she won!
She never forgot what it took to win – and with her support, things turned around, and I won the State Assembly seat.
I urge all the AAPI women out there to find a mentor –somebody who believes in you and will help you. I found one with Hilda Solis and it made all the difference in the world.
What was the proudest experience of your service as congresswoman?
While our work is far from done, being the Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, particularly as we’ve responded to the most recent rise in anti-Asian hate, has been an immense privilege.
Back in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to hear from Asian American businesses owners that they were experiencing increased discrimination and even outright acts of hate and violence. There were stories of businesses that saw sales plunge as misinformation about the then-mysterious coronavirus began to circulate. There were several stories involving slurs, directly blaming Asian Americans for the pandemic, and our communities were experiencing a surge in racism, vandalism, and violence.
CAPAC’s Members were very alarmed, so we issued guidance to our fellow Members of Congress on how to support Asian communities in their districts and ensure they are avoiding rhetoric that would fuel anti-Asian hate. We received reports of AAPI communities across the nation being blamed for the pandemic and the subsequent economic recession, as well as reporters of derogatory language toward China and Asian Americans.
Unfortunately, as the pandemic continued, anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents continued to increase. So, CAPAC Members began to organize and speak out. We called out instances of anti-Asian hate and anti-Asian rhetoric, highlighted the stories of victims, issued statements, and held press conferences – all while working closely with our community partners to address hate incidents and hate crimes reporting. I was so proud to see organizations, like Stop AAPI Hate, come together quickly to create a central hate incident reporting system, and to witness many of our community partners shifting their priorities to respond to anti-Asian hate.
But we knew that we needed to do more at the federal level. So, CAPAC Members, myself included, began to identify legislative solutions to combat anti-Asian hate. After tireless advocacy from CAPAC, and so many community organizations, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law last May. This legislation, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng and Senator Mazie Hirono, directly addresses incidents of anti-Asian hate by creating an anti-Asian hate coordinator role at the Department of Justice. It also includes the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, which I led with Rep. Don Beyer to improve hate crime reporting. Since it was enacted last year, we are continuing to work with the Department of Justice to ensure it gets fully implemented.
Rep. Judy Chu with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference on gun control legislation
What is your advice to the Asian Americans under the Asian Hate Environment?
There have been more than 11,000 incidents of anti-Asian hate since March 2020 and hate crimes against Asian communities have increased 339% from 2020 to 2021 – and those are just the incidents that have been reported. Alarmingly, a recent survey found that between 2021 and 2022, Americans have become more – not less – likely to suspect Asian Americans are more loyal to the countries they or their families immigrated from than to the United States.
However, each one of us has the power to be combat anti-Asian hate and dispel the harmful stereotypes that fuel it by standing up, calling out anti-Asian hate and making our voices heard.
One simple and direct way to make your voice heard is by voting and encouraging others to do the same. By voting, you have the chance to choose elected officials who you trust to make policy decisions that are in your best interest and that align with your own values. That is an incredibly powerful choice and one we are so lucky to have as a nation. Particularly now, after so many years of being invisible, our voices are finally being heard — meaning we have the chance to address the problems that have been impacting our communities for years.
For example, last year, Members of Congress came together to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, with overwhelming bipartisan support. This was possible because Members had heard from their constituents, particularly their AAPI constituents, that combating anti-Asian hate was a priority for them. It was a moment when the voice and power of AAPI voters came in loud and clear.
I also strongly believe celebrating our heritage is not only a way to ground and care for ourselves, but also a way to push back on the continued rise in anti-Asian hate our communities face. Celebrating our history, our contributions, our culture, and ourselves, defies these stereotypes and helps us further mold a country with a better understanding of our community.
Rep. Judy Chu at the Signing of COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill at the White House with President Biden and Vice President Harris
What is your goal/plan to stand up and protect the Asian communities and stop the Asian hate crimes?
I am so proud of the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, but we also need to address anti-Asian hate at its root, by educating our country about the longstanding historical contributions of Asian Americans to the American story. Earlier this year, Rep. Doris Matsui’s Japanese American Confinement Education Act passed in the House, which provides grants to educate the public on the historical importance of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII. And just last week, Rep. Grace Meng’s AAPI Museum Study bill was signed into law by President Biden. This is an important step forward in creating a National Museum of AAPI History and Culture!
However, federal legislation is just the start. I’ve been so excited to see several states beginning to mandate AAPI history as a part of history curriculums in their states. I am also overjoyed that Speaker Pelosi just unveiled a portrait in the Capitol of Congresswoman Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman and woman of color to serve in Congress, which will be hung in the United States Capitol. These are all huge steps forward, and I look forward to continuing to push for ways to show that AAPI is American history.
What is your vision and advise of the upcoming younger Asian generation?
If you are interested in getting further involved in politics or running for office, I encourage you to trust your gut and act on that curiosity! We need more AANHPIs in politics and YOU could be the person who makes the difference you want to see.
When I arrived in Congress, there were nine AAPI Members serving. That is less than 2% of the entire Congress. For comparison, AANHPIs make up more than 7% of the U.S. population. Thankfully, our numbers in Congress have more than DOUBLED since I was first elected, but we’re still underrepresented. I was honored to be the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, but I know there is so much more we can do to help AANHPIs get elected and represent their communities through public service.
Additional comment that you would like to share with us.
Our AAPI communities are culturally rich, vibrant, and diverse – and it is so important we share our culture, especially now, as we continue to push back on the rising anti-Asian rhetoric and hate we’re seeing nationwide. By proudly celebrating our history and making the voices of our community heard, we show we are not “perpetual foreigners” or “others,” as we are so often wrongfully stereotyped – we are proud Americans who are also proud of our heritage. So, I encourage you all to celebrate your AAPI identities, not only during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month each May, but all year round!
President Obama signing proclamation declaring the San Gabriel Mountains a National Monument.
[Interviewed by CAF Foundation / Photos provided by Rep. Judy Chu]