by Cindy Von Quednow, intern for Scripps Howard Foundation Wire. Days after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama lit a diya at the White House in celebration of Diwali, a light festival practiced by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Indian Buddhists. The diya was lit after the president signed an executive order restoring a commission that will actually talk about issues that affect the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will seek to eliminate disparities felt by the AAPI community. The commission was created by President Bill Clinton, but later slashed by President George W. Bush. During his remarks at the White House today in front of leaders and members of the AAPI community, Obama noted that oftentimes this population is faced with challenges in health, education and language. Here is an excerpt of his comments.
Our AAPI communities have roots that span the globe, but they embody a rich diversity, and a story of striving and success that are uniquely American. But focusing on all of these achievements doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s part of why we’re here. It’s tempting, given the strengths of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, for us to buy into the myth of the "model minority," and to overlook the very real challenges that certain Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are facing: from health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B; to educational disparities that still exist in some communities — high dropout rates, low college enrollment rates; to economic disparities — higher rates of poverty in some communities, and barriers to employment and workplace advancement in others. Some Asian American and Pacific Islanders, particularly new Americans and refugees, still face language barriers. Others have been victims of unthinkable hate crimes, particularly in the months after September 11th — crimes driven by ignorance and prejudice that are an affront to everything that this nation stands for. And then there are the disparities that we don’t even know about because our data collection methods still aren’t up to par. Too often, Asian American and Pacific Islanders are all lumped into one category, so we don’t have accurate numbers reflecting the challenges of each individual community. Smaller communities in particular can get lost, their needs and concerns buried in a spreadsheet.
And that’s why I’m signing this executive order today, reestablishing the advisory commission and White House initiative created by President Clinton 10 years ago. Because when any of our citizens are unable to fulfill their potential due to factors that have nothing to do with their talent, character, or work ethic, then I believe there’s a role for our government to play. Not to guarantee anybody’s success or to solve everybody’s problems, but to ensure that we’re living up to our nation’s ideals; to ensure that we can each pursue our own version of happiness, and that we continue to be a nation where all things are still possible for all people. That’s the impact that our government can have.
But like many things in this town, the signing of the order, while exciting and hopeful, was quite vague. Nothing was said about what the administration’s efforts are, or how the commission will attempt to overcome their challenges, and if regular people will even be included in the handling of this issue. However, as the first African American president, who also has Asian and Pacific Islander roots and influences, Obama is perfectly equipped to live up to the expectations of this community. Hopefully, the light the President lit in the White House today will bring about real positive change within the Asian and Pacific Islander community in the U.S.