NYC Asian Activists Seek to Turn Surging Population Into Electoral Power
New Census numbers showing a 43% increase of Asian New Yorkers in Brooklyn and a 29% jump in Queens fuel demands for more representation as the process for redrawing elected officials’ district lines heats up.
New Census numbers out Thursday show a robust 7.7% population increase for New York City since 2010 — and even bigger surges for Asian New Yorkers at a time when Asian candidates and community groups are moving to build out political power.
In Queens, the Asian population grew 29%, to nearly 706,000 out of 2.4 million residents — far outpacing the borough’s overall 7.8% population growth.
In Brooklyn, the number of Asian residents counted by the Census swelled to nearly 420,000, a nearly 43% increase from 2010, compared with a 9.2% hike in the borough’s population overall.
With strength in numbers, New York City’s diverse Asian communities are organizing to build political power that reflects them and their needs, as a state commission readies to redraw congressional and state legislative district lines.
“In the past, they would divide a neighborhood or a community who they felt were not politically engaged or were not visible,” said Elizabeth OuYang, who is coordinating a redistricting task force composed of 20 Asian community groups across the city. ”We are going to make sure that we are very visible in this redistricting round.”
The new coalition is already at work to break down what members call artificial borders dividing communities and leaving them shortchanged on elected leadership and public services.
Case in point: Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. These Queens neighborhoods have more Asian residents — including many of Guyanese, Trinidadian or Punjabi heritage — than Black or white ones, past population surveys have shown.
Yet these hubs of Asian life in Queens are currently sliced into seven different Assembly districts — making it difficult for the communities to coalesce around a representative focused on their priorities or receive services tailored to their language, dietary or other needs, activists say.
“For us, redistricting is not an academic exercise, nor simply a mathematical equation. It means power, accountability, and equal access to services that we are entitled to for the next 10 years,” OuYang said.
Every decade, following the U.S. Census, lawmakers redraw district lines to reflect population changes, with the goal of achieving equal representation. By law, and backed by litigation, so-called communities of interest, such as racial groups, are not supposed to be divided in a way to weaken their political power.
This year, for the first time in New York, the process for seats in Congress and the state Senate and Assembly is being overseen by an independent commission.
Its 10 members are largely appointed by the party leaders of the state Legislature, and working under updated rules that explicitly require equal apportionment and compact districts, while forbidding racial discrimination.
Queens and Brooklyn residents packed online hearings last month to voice concerns about what they described as divisive lines thwarting their chances of electing representation.
For much of the July 22 Queens hearing’s five hours, the focus was on Richmond Hill and surrounding neighborhoods. During the July 29 Brooklyn hearing, speakers pointed out that despite continued Asian population growth in southern Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay, Asian residents are outnumbered in every single Assembly and Senate district as currently drawn.
Brooklyn has no Asian representatives in the state Senate or Assembly, Congress or City Council.
District Divided by Water
Richard David, a Guyanese-American district leader who ran for an Assembly seat last year spanning South Ozone Park and part of the Rockaways, said that area’s political divisions have created dire outcomes for the community, including a lack of funding for social services.
There are no city or state-funded senior centers in Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, or South Ozone Park that primarily serve South Asians and Indo-Caribbean people, he told THE CITY. When constituents seek to reach elected officials, they either don’t know whom to call or are overwhelmed by the long list of people to contact, David added.
He cited his District 31, which encompasses parts of South and Southeast Queens, along with the Rockaways, as a “textbook example of gerrymandering.”
The eight neighborhoods within the district, especially those in the Rockaways, each have a very distinct cultural identity, he noted, making it challenging for one candidate to build a broad coalition of support.
“Public transportation does not connect these three parts, so in addition to a car, it would be faster to go by boat to the different parts of the district,” said David, who lives in South Ozone Park.
More than 42% of the district’s population is foreign born, nearly double the rate in New York State. Closer looks within the district’s lines more clearly illuminate significant racial disparities.
The borough’s Community District 14, which encompasses most of the Rockaway peninsula, is about 36% Black, about 34% white, and roughly 4% Asian. Community District 10, including Ozone Park and South Ozone Park, is 23.7% Asian, 21% white, and 14% Black.
In the June 2020 Democratic primary, David won the district’s northern half in Ozone Park and south Ozone Park resoundingly, but fell short in its southern region. He ultimately lost by about 800 votes to Khaleel Anderson, a 25-year-old Black progressive candidate who then won the November general election. The overall Assembly district is now 45% Black and 12% Asian, the new Census numbers show.
Aminta Kilawan-Narine, founder of the South Queens Women’s March, contends that the lines reflect a “blatant disregard for the natural communities of interest that exist.” She contends that they also run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act’s requirement for compact and contiguous districts.
“The way in which the lines have been drawn divides and dilutes our ability to be a stronger voice,” Kilawin-Narine added. “When a naturally occurring community of interest like ours is so very divided, electeds don’t have the kind of vested interest in serving us — after all, we become but a fraction of their constituency.”
A Neighborhood Divided
Brooklyn’s Sunset Park was once defined by the docks where its largely white residents worked — only to change dramatically after the region’s ports mostly moved to New Jersey in 1958.
Today, in addition to a sizable Hispanic population, the area is home to a large number of Asian residents and businesses, part of a revival that is redefining commercial strips in several southern Brooklyn neighborhoods.
But walking north on the area’s bustling Eighth Avenue corridor, with scores of Asian-owned businesses, a short stroll from 46th street to 39th street takes a pedestrian through three different State Senate districts.
Those districts and two others in southern Brooklyn are home to more than 220,000 Asian residents. But because the population is splintered into three districts, activists argue they can’t effectively rally around a political candidate.
The lines were drawn a decade ago by Albany Republicans with the objective of diluting downstate Democrats’ power.
“It’s always said that we don’t vote in the right numbers, but no one ever talks about how our communities are gerrymandered that even if we all would come out to vote it would not make a difference,” said Don Lee, the chairperson of Homecrest Community Services, a nonprofit that provides meals, translation services and social events for Asian American immigrants and seniors.
Homecrest was started in 1997 after its founders saw Asian seniors riding the N train daily to Chinatown in Manhattan to receive social services in a language they could understand. Today, activists say that there are still many needs that aren’t being met for vulnerable Asian residents.
Many Asians in New York City were born outside of the U.S., and the need is pressing for services offered in languages other than English. As of 2018, 21.7% of Asian New Yorkers lived in poverty, according to an annual City Hall survey, higher than the city overall rate.
‘No Rhyme or Reason’
Yet, nonprofits and civic groups say it’s difficult to get the ear of elected officials to support these communities.
“The most active in Sunset Park is Senator [Zellnor] Myrie, but he definitely does spend more time in the Crown Heights neighborhood that he also represents because that is the majority of his district,” said Mon Yuck Yu, vice president and chief of staff of the Academy of Medical and Public Health Services, which focuses on helping immigrant New Yorkers.
“A lot of resources go there and Sunset Park is seeing less. In terms of the other senators that represent Sunset Park, we’ve hardly seen any active outreach or activity or funding levels coming into the neighborhood.”
Matt Baer, a spokesperson for Myrie, said that the senator’s office does a “particularly good job” at representing constituents in Sunset Park — and that there is no “rhyme or reason” as to how the lines were drawn for the district.
“I couldn’t find anybody to defend why Brownsville and Sunset Park are in the same district,” Baer said. “I don’t think any rational person could explain why the lines are drawn the way they are.”
State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), whose two-borough district juts into Sunset Park, agreed that the neighborhood was overly divided in the last redistricting cycle.
“This time there should be an effort to provide more complete representation. A Senate district is always going to be difficult,” said Savino. The redistricting commission, she said, “should examine whether this form of gerrymandering is fair to anyone.”
Not all of its reps see the division of Sunset Park as unfair.
State Sen. Simcha Felder, whose predominantly Borough Park and Midwood district includes small slice of Sunset Park, said that “since the beginning of creation, every part of the district complains that the other part is getting more attention.”
He said he’s allotted a “disproportionate amount” of attention and resources to Sunset Park.
A decade ago, the Republicans who controlled the state Senate created his Brooklyn district with the objective of electing an Orthodox Jewish state senator to help support GOP control — a possible precedent for creating an Asian-centered district now.
Drawing New Lines
Over the past 10 years, the number of Asian residents in Brooklyn increased by more than 110,000, to nearly 371,000, far outpacing any other racial group, the latest Census figures show.
Activists see an opportunity to unite Sunset Park, Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay — the three Asian population centers of Brooklyn — into a Senate district that could elect an Asian senator.
Dr. Wah Lee, a lifelong Bensonhurst resident who has a private medical practice in the neighborhood, said he hopes a unified district brings more focused attention to issues like the increase in assaults on Asian New Yorkers.
Lee said that he and his wife were both recently accosted — and that patients have been showing him items they’ve purchased for self-defense.
Said Lee: “If there were enough services the citizens wouldn’t have to do this on their own.”