When it comes to politics, Asian-Americans continue to confound conventional wisdom.
That wisdom says when groups become more economically successful in the United States, their political participation and activism grow along with their bank accounts. So what’s the deal with Asian-Americans, who have the highest income and education level of any ethnic group in the U.S.?
While they have used their entrepreneurial drive to find considerable economic success — Asians have the highest percentage of self-employment of any minority group in the U.S. — why are they are so conspicuously absent at the ballot box, showing lower voting rates than other groups?
A vicious cycle
For answers, I went to Janelle Wong, director of the Asian-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland and co-author of the book, “Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and Their Political Identities.”
Wong says Asian Americans vote less because they are trapped in a vicious cycle created by the antiquated thinking of the nation’s political campaign apparatuses.
“What matters is not so much their economic integration but the degree to which institutions in American society are mobilizing them and engaging them in politics,” Wong says. “That’s a big part of it for every group. Surveys of the general American population show that if you are asked or contacted to participate, then you will participate at a higher rate. Asian-Americans are not in a position right now to be asked to participate.”
Wong points out that 43 percent of the national Asian-American population lives in West Coast states (including Alaska and Hawaii) that consistently vote Democratic in national elections. That means neither of the major parties has motivation to pursue the constituency.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle: You need to be mobilized to be engaged, but if the [Asian] population is less engaged then nobody tries to mobilize them — so then they don’t become engaged,” she says. “But on public opinion polls, when you ask people whether they are interested in politics, Asian-Americans don’t look that different than the general population.”
Ignored and overlooked
In other words, if you ask them, they will come. But nobody has asked.
While some may wonder why the group with the highest income and education level should care about political participation, Asian-American activists and academics know that in the American political system it is easy for elected officials to overlook or ignore Asians when it’s time to hand out the political spoils of victory — jobs, community improvements, neighborhood construction projects — if they feel they have no obligation to reward Asians for their political support. The goodies will go to the groups who flock to the polls.
The analysis of Asian-American political participation is especially relevant in Seattle and Washington, which have histories of electing Asian-Americans. Washington, whose Asian-American population of 9 percent is third in the country behind California and Hawaii, in 1996 elected Gary Locke, the son of Chinese immigrants, as the first Asian-American governor in U.S. mainland history.
Seattle was the first city to elect a Chinese-American to the city council, way back in 1962, and has had other Asian-American council members, including Martha Choe, the city’s first Korean-American council member, who served from 1992 to 1999.
The extensive survey of the Asian-American community that led to Wong’s book, which she co-wrote with fellow political science professors S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee and Jane Junn, surprisingly revealed that even the presence of an Asian-American elected official doesn’t seem to lead to higher levels of Asian-American political participation in that community. But while Asian politicians can’t necessarily count on swarms of excited Asian voters, they can rely on something else that grows out of the community’s economic success: money.
In Washington state, Gary Locke benefitted from a substantial influx of Asian dollars when he ran for governor — even from Asians who didn’t live in Washington, Wong says. The former executive director of Seattle University’s Institute of Public Service says this is typical.
“Most elected officials get funds from constituents inside their district, but Asian-American elected officials mostly get their funds from other Asian-Americans outside their district,” Wong says. “In fact, most Asian-American politicians will get most of their campaign funds from other Asian-Americans, particularly ones who share their same ethnic background.”
An uneasy coalition
Many Asian-Americans and observers outside the community have wondered why the community hasn’t seen the emergence of a single galvanizing political leader on the national stage. But Wong says it’s difficult for one Asian-American to galvanize the entire group because it is an uneasy coalition of immigrant groups from different nations that don’t have many things in common. A Vietnamese-American won’t necessarily be drawn to the same issues or the same type of leader as an Indian-American or a Chinese-American.
“The community is kind of a fragile coalition that is not necessarily on the same page in terms of most issues,” she says.
But Wong believes that this is changing as second- and third-generation Asian-Americans gravitate toward an identifiable Asian-American identity, rather than one gleaned primarily from their ancestors’ country of origin.
However, in order for the community to participate in politics more, politicians from the major parties need to court them, appeal to them and let the community know that they are concerned about issues of interest to Asian-Americans.
“Right now it’s a community that comes together under certain circumstances,” Wong says. “If someone is going to galvanize them, they need to figure out what those circumstances are and make a concerted, conscious effort.”
After all, over the next 50 years Asians are expected to grow from their current 5 percent of the U.S. population to more than 10 percent. Those sound like numbers worth fighting for.