Who Courts the Asian American Vote?

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September 12, 2016; The Atlantic

In an election where minority groups—African Americans, Latino Americans, and the LGBTQ community—are alternately being targeted and courted by both presidential candidates, Asian Americans don’t seem to be among them. Both Trump and Clinton might want to consider paying attention to the demographic changes in the Asian American community that have taken place in the last two decades.

Asian Americans make up just 5.6 percent of the American population. But from 2000 to 2010, they were the fasting growing group of eligible voters in the country, growing four times faster than any other demographic group. During this period, Asian American populations in the swing states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Nevada grew by 70, 85, and 100 percent respectively, and their votes may be crucial in these states come November.

However, only 55 percent of Asian American citizens of voting age are registered to vote—the lowest rate amongst all communities of color in the U.S. Given the enormous growth of the Asian American electorate and so many unregistered voters in this group to engage, Alex Wagner of The Atlantic asks, “Why don’t Asian Americans count more, in the landscape of American politics?”

First is the ever-present “model minority myth,” which the CEO of Define American Jose Antonio Vargas said has left Asian Americans out of the equation, both economically and socially. Yes, 49 percent of Asian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent for the general population. Yes, Asian Americans have the highest median household income than anyone else in the United States. But few politicians and experts understand “the very real fault lines among Asian [American] sub-groups: Some [Asian Americans] have done very well for themselves. A lot of them have not.” For instance, the highest rate of uninsured in the country is among Korean Americans and high school dropout rates are led by Southeast Asians, namely Hmong Americans and Vietnamese Americans. Without disaggregated data on this incredibly diverse group of people called “Asian Americans”—18 million people—it is impossible to “reveal the true picture of Asian Americans in the U.S.”

Thankfully, Asian Americans and a growing number of advocacy groups understand that the “model minority” is indeed a myth that can trick us all into thinking that Asian Americans do not encounter discrimination, institutional racism, hate crimes, and disenfranchisement like other oppressed groups in this country do.

Wagner points to a second reason that Asian Americans might be an ignored voting bloc: Cultural barriers that may keep Asian American populations from seeking out government resources they might need. In other words, for certain Asian American groups, there might be shame in admitting the need for outside help.

NPQ published a recent article addressing the issue of why Asian Americans do not occupy many executive positions in Silicon Valley. It noted that “the Asian ideal is to work very hard, be humble and deferential, and blend in with the group. Expressing opinions or proposing changes is often seen [in Asia] as disrespectful.” While such traits might lead to academic success and professional security, are they incongruous with the qualities needed for successful political activism and attaining high leadership roles in business or government?

But with this argument about cultural barriers to executive power and political organizing, we are faced again with the problem of lumping all Asian Americans into one group. Do all Asian American sub-groups (which would include Burmese, Laotian, Indian, and Japanese, to name just a handful) define and experience things like shame, humility, and collective identity equally? Of course not.

Which leads us to the third reason Asian Americans as a group might be invisible as an electorate. Asian America encompasses a complex array of histories, cultures, religions, and languages. By comparison, Latino Americans also comprise multiple sub-groups, but in large part (Brazil would be a key exception) they share a unifying language, a shared religion, and a common history of colonialism. If individual Asian American groups do not think of themselves as part of a larger collective with a Pan-Asian identity and voice, then what?

Asian Americans might want to consider that “collective marginalization on its own can be a unifying force.” And, of course, there is strength in numbers, and those numbers can influence presidential elections.—Vanessa Wu