On December 9, 2021 the Biden-Harris Administration’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) was launched by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai was announced as co-Chair. WHIAANHPI was borne out of President Biden’s Executive Order (EO) 14031, Advancing Equity, Justice, and Opportunity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in May 2021.
The first White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was authorized by President Bill Clinton in 1999 through Executive Order 13125, and was organized in a similar way to increase participation in federal programs. Since then, the Bush administration, Obama administration, and Trump administration have all launched initiatives on Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
This is the first time the initiative has added “Native Hawaiian” to the acronym and this symbolic change is echoed in senior leadership The Executive Director of WHIAANHPI, Krystal Ka'ai, who was previously the Executive Director of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, is the first native Hawaiian to lead WHIAANHPI. Erika Moritsugu, who was appointed to serve as Deputy Assistant to the President and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison, is also a native of Hawai’i. This nomination was after the Biden administration faced pressure to increase AA and NHPI representation in White House senior ranks. Increasing AA and NHPI representation at the senior level of government is also a goal of WHIAANHPI.
The executive order authorized an advisory committee to provide advice to the White House on development and coordination of efforts to advance equity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. These efforts include policies to respond to Anti-Asian hate and xenophobia and fill gaps in language access, data disaggregation and federal funding. The WHIAANHPI will involve a 25-person Presidential Advisory Commission, a regional network which includes over 300 federal agency officials based in 10 federal regions, and a senior-level inter-agency working group.
One of the main motivations driving the initiative is that these communities are the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States. In 2020, nearly 20 million people in the United States identify as Asian American. From 2000-2010, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew by 9.7%, 3 times faster than the general population, according to US Census data. Even though these groups are growing, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront issues of xenophobia, economic disparities, and health inequalities experienced by AA and NHPI communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic anti-Asian hate crimes have risen by 73%. In 2019, 14.8% of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders lived in poverty, compared to 9.0% of non-Hispanic whites and are less likely to have healthcare insurance compared to non-Hispanic whites. Initiatives such as federal data disaggregation, language accessibility, and promoting workplaces free from harassment, are intended to help address these problems.
While it will take time, placing a high priority on addressing these disparities and involving AA and NHPI leaders from the onset is an important step to raising awareness and supporting these vital communities.
Abbigail Hull is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.