When more than a dozen Chinese community leaders in Sunset Park gathered at a meeting at the end of July, they knew there was opposition in the community to their own strong support for the creation of Brooklyn’s first City Council district with a majority Asian population.
They thought objections to the proposed 43rd District drafted by the city’s Districting Commission would come only from a couple of current Council members whose existing districts would be chopped up, making it harder for both to get reelected.
“Councilmembers Alexa Aviles and Justin Brannan oppose the map for their personal interests,” Ling Fei, a Chinese-language blogger and member of the executive committee of the newly founded political club Asian Wave Alliance, said at the meeting. He said that “everyone who cares about the Chinese community should stand up” to protect the new boundaries.
But they soon realized that the loudest opposition was from within their own community.
Asian organizations of long standing have drawn up two new proposed maps so far in response to the commission’s draft. The groups include the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), an established civil rights advocacy group, and others that see urgency in keeping a coalition that encompasses not only Asians but also Latinos and other voting minorities underrepresented in the political process.
Neither of those groups’ maps includes an Asian majority district in Brooklyn, and both leave Aviles’ current Sunset Park district, where Asian and Latino communities both reside, intact.
“I was really surprised and sad to see their maps. They want to push Chinese voters in Sunset Park back to the same district with Latino voters when we should unite to fight for Asians’ interests,” said Fei, whose real name is Xuhui Ni but prefers to be identified by his better known pen name.
While Asians on different sides of the argument all say they are merely trying to maximize Asian interests, they clearly don’t agree on how to achieve that. But the fissures stretch beyond the maps. They reflect a topic of soul-searching in a community that has become increasingly vocal in civic protests in recent years: are the interests of Asians still in line with those of other minorities, or do Asians need to pursue a more independent path to avoid being overshadowed?
What’s In a District?
The commission’s map carves out the eastern, uphill side of Sunset Park — where residents are mainly Chinese — from the current District 38, and combines it with areas with large Asian populations in Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights. Asians make up 57% in the district proposed, sparking hopes that it will lead to the election of the first Asian Council member in Brooklyn. But the map also divides Latino voters by taking Red Hook out of Aviles’ District 38, which currently covers the entire areas of both Sunset Park and Red Hook.
The proposed maps will be the subject of public hearings this week into early next in each of the five boroughs, with Brooklyn’s to take place on Sunday at Medgar Evers College.
In a joint statement, Aviles and Brannan, who represents the current District 43, noted that District 38 was created in 1991 to empower Latino voters, and the new map would disrupt that. “It is perplexing that the creation of an AAPI-majority seat would lead to the dissolution and division of Red Hook, Sunset Park — in addition to Dyker Heights,” they said.
But in Sunset Park, the voices are clear.
“Yes, Latinos deserve to keep their district whole. But what about Asians?” asked John Chan, chairman of the Asian American Community Empowerment (BRACE) group. “Why don’t we deserve to keep our community whole?”
But Brannan argues that the map that creates a majority-Asian seat also generates unnecessary conflict.
“What the initial map is doing is basically pitting immigrant communities against each other,” said Brannan. “Now you make it’s like it’s got to be either or. It’s not necessary and it’s not true.”
Breaking a coalition that has existed for many years among minority groups is one of the biggest concerns weighing on advocates from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), an established civil rights advocacy group.
They have filed to the commission an alternative Unity Map, a joint proposal the organization has worked out together with Black and Latino advocacy groups. The map keeps all of Sunset Park in one district, and puts nearby Bensonhurst, which currently is divided into four districts, in another.
Jerry Vattamala, Democracy Program Director at AALDEF, sees similarities in the issues facing Asians and Latinos living in Sunset Park, arguing they are both low-income immigrant communities that want services like language accessibility, housing and health care. Bensonhurst, he says, would be better off made whole, too.
He explains that the organization is not against having an Asian-majority district, but not at the cost of weakening other concentrated Asian districts or severing the existing ties between Asians and other minorities. Longtime advocates in minority communities have learned this lesson the hard way, he says. “We tried doing it without a Unity Map. What we realized was when we do that, all of us fail. None of us would get what we want,” Vattamala said.
The Unity Map is backed by a group of Asian organizations in Bensonhurst. The group came up with similar proposals for Sunset Park and Bensonhurst to remain whole, but in their own districts.
Don Lee, chair of Bensonhurst-based Homecrest Community Services (HCS), says under the current district layout, service organizations in Bensonhurst have had to apply for funding from four different Council member offices, and face competition from different neighborhoods in each one. The division means the attention and care to Bensonhurst are diluted, he said.
Lee noted both the two alternative maps have Sunset Park and Bensonhurst in districts where Asians are the largest racial group. If Asians can pump up their voter registration and turnout rates, it is possible these maps would be able to produce two Asian Council members in Brooklyn.
“Why do we shortchange ourselves by just grabbing one (Asian majority district), meanwhile splitting two communities when the opportunity exists for us to grow two?” Lee asked.
That rosy picture, in the eyes of some Sunset Park activists, is far from reality. Council members elected in District 38 have almost all been Latinos over the years. It was still the case in 2021, even as by then Asians exceeded Latinos to become the largest voting-age group. And Chinese residents feel their needs have largely been neglected.
“Ask any Chinese on Eighth Avenue who is their Council member and what he or she has done to help them, no one would be able to give you an answer,” said Fei. “The fact is that Chinese and Latinos living in Sunset Park are very different. We support police and are against specialized high school reform and the legalization of marijuana, they don’t. A Council member cannot possibly take care of both.”
Asian Rep in Congress?
Meanwhile, the potential for a stronger Asian district also has been unfolding in the current election for Congress.
Asians in Sunset Park have been put together with their peers in the Manhattan Chinatown for the first time to create new Congressional District 10 in redistricting earlier this year, and three Chinese Americans are running in the Aug. 23 contest, with early voting going on now.
Now the proposal for the 43rd City Council district in the preliminary map has already led at least two Chinese Americans to declare their interest in running.
“The Council members representing Sunset Park don’t really understand the needs of Chinese residents here. I haven’t seen them visiting the Chinese community very often,” said Jimmy Li, a candidate for Congressional District 10 who plans to run in the council district next year if he loses the current race.
An activist in Sunset Park for more than 10 years, Li says he has been disappointed with the record of the local Council members. They were absent from some of the anti-Asian hate prevention rallies he organized, he said, and he doesn’t think they have fought hard enough to get funding to support causes Chinese care about. “This new District 43 would be a historical opportunity for us to make a change,” Li said.
Yu Lin, who came in second out of six candidates in the Democratic primary that elected Aviles last year, says he is very likely to run again next year — pointing to quality-of-life issues centered on the main business strip in the Chinese community. “The sanitary problems on Eighth Avenue, the public safety issues, how many problems in our community have been getting worse through the years because of neglect?” said Lin, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years.
Aviles says Chinese and Latino voters have been co-existing well for decades in Sunset Park. And she has been trying her best to meet the needs of all her constituency, including having office hours on Eighth Avenue twice a month, and helping the dozen or so Chinese families affected by a fire that engulfed their building in the summer. “We can always do more, and we can do better,” Aviles said.
The New Guard
Community activists highlighting the needs of Chinese residents seems a natural sequel to the rights protests the community increasingly has mounted in recent years. These include fierce fights against proposed specialized high school admissions changes aiming to diversify heavily Asian schools such as Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn Technical High School, and against affirmative action in college admission. These policies, in the views of many Chinese immigrant parents, would sacrifice the opportunities of their own children for the benefits of other minorities.
“Chinese are emboldened in these protests, and also awoken,” said Chan of BRACE. “Under the so-called diversity programs, they have never given us what we want, but only take from us. We have to elect our own representatives.”
This belief, echoed by many new immigrant activists, is in stark contrast to the traditional stance of older generation Asian activists who see solidarity among minorities as the path to pursue.
For example, Liz Ouyang, a veteran Chinese American activist, notes that in the early 1990s when a section of the Voting Rights Act came up for reauthorization, it was Latino and Black organizations, including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund — now called LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and an organization involved in the Unity Map — that helped Asian groups to amend the law to make Chinese language translation on ballots possible. And Asians still need to work with these communities to protect the law in future reauthorizations and beyond, she argued.
“If we are going to become a minority majority country in 2045, it is critical that Asian Americans work in coalition with all different groups. Otherwise we will not be able to advance,” said Ouyang, a coordinator of the redistricting task force of the organization Asian Pacific Americans Voting and Organizing to Increase Civic Engagement (APA VOICE). The group supported the Unity Map in congressional and state legislature redistricting, but hasn’t made a decision on the city council maps yet.
Activists from both sides are moving beyond words. Fei, the blogger, has set up a table on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park to collect signatures to support the commission’s map. His goal is to file 10,000 signed letters at the redistricting hearing the commission will host in Brooklyn on Aug. 21. Lee from HCS has sent out youth volunteers to the same neighborhood to register voters.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Hate Crimes Prevention Art Exhibit, a project Ouyang founded 16 years ago to promote interracial understanding among young people via the arts, has unveiled its latest exhibition. Among the works from teenagers around the city, there is a poem by 16-year-old Alexander Calafiura from the East Side Community High School called “You Against Me.”
It reads, “Never trust what you see. When the goal is to pit you against me.”