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Asian Americans To Form New Association for Civil Rights

By Connie Kang
Los Angeles Times

For the first time in their 150-year history in the United States, Asian Americans are forming a national civil rights organization that they hope will provide them with a unified voice and the meaningful political participation that has eluded people of Asian heritage.

The movement is designed to provide the United States' fastest growing group with political clout like that of well-established associations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which guards the rights of blacks, and the Anti-Defamation League, which is vigilant in defense of American Jews.

Formation of the National Asian Pacific American Network Council has been spurred by the campaign fund-raising controversy which has occupied center stage in national politics and the front pages of major newspapers since last fall.

"This crisis has given us huge momentum," Francey Lim Youngberg, executive director of the Washington-D.C.-based Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute, told community leaders in Los Angeles last week. "This is the year to do it."

In the past year, the relentless news coverage and political battling over the fund-raising scandal focused attention not only on central figures such as John Huang but also on the Asian community's longstanding frustration with its inability to secure political access and power.

"Asian Americans are starved for political representation, legitimate influence and empowerment," said Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. "We have long wanted to have a voice in how public policies are decided.

Oftentimes, such important issues as immigration, education and welfare changes are being decided without Asian American participation."

This spring, during the height of the fund-raising controversy, prominent Asian American community leaders held a summit meeting in Washington, D.C., to plan the formation of a national council next May.

A task force, representing seven Washington, D.C.-based organizations, recently has been traversing the country, building grass-roots support.

To others, Asian Americans may appear to be a monolithic group. In reality, they are 10 million people tracing roots to dozens of ethnicities with many languages.

"Some of us are bi-national, some of us are third and fourth generation and some of us are immigrants," said Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Wakabayashi, a third generation Japanese American, laments that the complicated picture too often has been replaced by stereotypes.

Particularly offensive to Asian Americans was a National Review magazine cover featuring a coolie-hatted buck-toothed President Clinton with first lady Hillary Clinton in a Maoist uniform and Vice President Al Gore in a Buddhist monk's robe, holding a donation cup. Asian American groups condemned it as racist and sought an apology, but the magazine's management said the complaint had no merit.

And community outcry also was prompted by a comment by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., which referred to Huang's pay arrangement with the DNC, "No raise money, no get bonus."

Fallout from the fund-raising controversy has engendered deep soul-searching and much debate in the community.

"There is a lack of moral courage and leadership in the Asian American community," said Los Angeles attorney Anthony Ching, board member of the Chinese Americans United for Self-Empowerment.

Ching was one of the Asian American contributors who became angry when Democratic National Committee auditors questioned him about his citizenship and the source of his $5,000 contribution to the DNC.

Even though Asian American donors were scrutinized because of their surnames, he said that Asians Americans inside and outside the Clinton administration largely have been silent.

Asian Americans have been giving to both political parties for decades. The difference last year was that their money was bundled and given through Huang, then DNC vice chairman for finance, in hopes of winning better access and more appointments in Clinton's second term.

In what seemed like a winning partnership, American-born activists began working with immigrants with access to money and international business people.