Politics, Asian American
Politics, Asian American
Americans of Asian heritage have been one of the fastest growing population groups in the United States over the last several decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were fewer than one million U.S. residents in 1960 who identified themselves as Asian, or less than 0.5 percent of the total population (“Asian” here refers to Americans with a Far Eastern, Southeast Asian, or subcontinent Indian background). By July 2004, this number grew to 14 million, or roughly 5 percent of the total U.S. population (based on individuals who identify as “Asian alone or in combination” with other racial groups, according to the current census classification system). This trend is expected to continue, with current census projections of 33.4 million Asians in America by midcentury. This population, moreover, is highly concentrated in particular states and cities in America. For example, Asian Americans make up 58 percent of Hawaii’s population and 12 percent of California’s population. Asian Americans also make up 68 percent of Honolulu’s population, 33 percent of San Francisco’s population, and, in the two largest “gateway” cities, 11 percent of the population of both New York and Los Angeles.
Many observers of this demographic growth predict that Asian Americans will soon be a rising political force in the United States. Several Asian Americans have already ascended to prominent elected and appointed offices, including former Democratic governor of Washington Gary Locke, Democratic senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye (both from Hawaii), members of Congress Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Mike Honda (D-CA), Doris Matsui (D-CA), and David Wu (D-OR), and Bush Administration appointees Elaine Chao (U.S. Secretary of Labor) and Norman Mineta (U.S. Secretary of Transportation). At the same time, Asian Americans in elected and appointed office are conspicuously underrepresented relative to their numbers in the general population.
More importantly, a group’s political fortunes often depend critically on the number of its members who vote and the number of those votes that can be delivered to a particular political party. In this instance, the power of Asian American electorate is far less clear. Based on 2004 data from the Current Population Survey, only 69 percent of Asian Americans are eligible to vote (as citizens), 36 percent are registered to vote, and only 31 percent report having voted in the last election. The proportions in the general population, by comparison, are 91 percent citizens, 66 percent registered to vote, and 58 percent reported voting. Much attention has thus turned to the question of why Asian Americans “underparticipate.” The most commonly mentioned answer is that Asian Americans are simply less interested in politics and less invested in their long-term future in the United States. This view, while perhaps true in isolated instances, gives an incomplete portrayal that almost certainly evokes insidious stereotypes of Asian Americans as inscrutable, insular, and perpetually foreigners.
Roughly two of every three Asians in the United States are foreign born. As such, factors specific to the immigrant experiences and institutional inclusion of Asian Americans better explain their (under) participation. For one thing, Asian American political participation generally rises with one’s immigrant generation and length of stay in the United States. Furthermore, contrary to the perceived wisdom, the availability of dual nationality does not divide the loyalties of Asian Americans or diminish their political engagement; if anything, Asians in the United States who come from countries allowing for dual nationality are more likely to be U.S. citizens and to vote than their counterparts from countries that make no such allowances. A third important factor is language. In particular, the availability of language assistance or multilingual ballots is key to the participation of many Asians in the United States.
As for mediating institutions, the mobilization of voters by political parties has been and still remains a decisive factor. Whereas parties in the era of urban “political machines” played a central role in the political mobilization of immigrants from European shores, parties in the mid-2000s were strong as national organizations but much weaker as local institutions that bring new Americans into their partisan fold. In their place, civic associations such as places of worship, unions, ethnic organizations, and community-based organizations were increasingly central as institutional forces that mobilize Asian American communities.
The relative absence of political parties as mobilizing institutions is also often reinforced by the prevailing belief that Asian Americans do not cast their collective political fates behind a political party. This belief is true in the sense that a plurality of Asian Americans, when given a choice, opt to affiliate with neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party. But it is untrue (and increasingly emphatically so) that Asian Americans have no preferences between the Democratic and Republican parties. In the 2004 presidential election, an exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found 74 percent of its Asian American respondents who reported voting for John Kerry; 57 percent of poll respondents identified themselves as Democrats, compared to only 15 percent who identified as Republicans and 26 percent who did not affiliate with a party.
A final important consideration is that the political interests and identities of Asian Americans remain relatively ambiguous and amorphous by comparison, say, to that of African Americans. Only a small proportion of Asians express a strong sense of panethnic solidarity as “Asian Americans,” exhibiting instead far stronger ties to ethnicity or national origin (i.e., as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Taiwanese, and so on). This is the result in part of Census Bureau classifications that bring together a dizzying phenotypic, national, linguistic, religious, and ideological, inter alia, diversity of peoples under the common rubric of “Asian American.” It is also the result in part of the mythical status of Asian Americans as “model minorities”—hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented, education-revering people who embody the virtues of the American Dream. This model minority myth essentializes and homogenizes the diversity of Asian American experiences. It functions ideologically to reproduce racial hierarchy in the United States by exaggerating the prosperity of Asian Americans while continuing to cast them as “perpetual foreigners” and exploiting the hard-earned gains of Asian Americans as a foil to denigrate the lesser fortunes of African Americans and Latinos.
At the same time, there have been moments of successful panethnic collective action. In the Vincent Chin case in 1982, two white autoworkers in Detroit who clubbed the Chinese American to death while calling him a “Jap” were acquitted of any crime. In the Wen Ho Lee case in 1999, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan was wrongfully accused of sharing nuclear secrets with the mainland Chinese government. These were two notable instances of “reactive identity formation” that drew a national outcry of protest from Asian Americans. Perhaps the most sustained case here was the decades-long legal challenge and political campaign for “redress and reparations” for the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps during World War II. These efforts contributed to the passage into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which provided $20,000 to each surviving internee and led to the issuance of a formal apology from President George H. W. Bush. It is important, then, to remember that panethnic categories such as “Asian American” are political and social constructions that respond to a collective memory and contemporary experiences of exclusion and racialization—from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan to the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the post–9/11 debates over restric-tionist immigration policies.
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