EAS SAC Speakers Series Report: Demystifying the Political Participation of Asian Americans

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Professor Pei-te Lien is currently teaching at UC Santa Barbara under the Political Science department, specializing on topics of political participation and representation of Asian and other nonwhite Americans. She is a prolific and highly acclaimed writer, having published dozens of book chapters and other publications under the auspices of multiple grants, including the esteemed Fulbright. Professor Huei-ying Kuo, interim director of the East Asian Studies department, and Professor Ho-Fung Hung of the Sociology department, among others were in attendance.

At the heart of Professor Lien’s presentation was a desire to break stereotypes of Asian American participation in the political sphere. To do so, she first succinctly defined the Asian American demographic. Asian Americans are a “people of Asian descent who reside in the US on a long-term basis, citizen or not”, and originate from 6 major regions: China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and India. The US Census holds a quite expansive and comprehensive coverage of the demographic, including a staggering 26 categories to broadly encompass Asian Americans. She further divided the Asian American modes of political participation into 4 categories: electoral domestic, electoral non-domestic, non-electoral domestic, and non-electoral non-domestic. Examples of such participation include voting, campaigning in homeland elections, labor organizing, and sending remittances, respectively.

Several stereotypes and myths prevail in relation to the Asian American participation in politics. On one side, Asians are seen as politically hyperactive, overly nationalistic, and dangerously loyal to their homelands. At the other end, they are viewed as politically apathetic, self-interested, and uninterested in public affairs. Under the myth of the “model minority”, Asians are regarded as socially and politically conservative, concerned merely about broader economic incorporation. This runs in opposition with another perspective which views Asians as progressive and willing to “rock the boat” for the betterment of society and communities.

Asian Americans have suffered from an extensive history of political exclusion. Previous rulings as the 1790 Nationality Act and 1875 Page Act limited political participation to free white males and excluded Asians from active political participation. Political engagement, manifested in forms of petitions and protests, emerged from the 1960s onwards, moving in tandem with social movements by other minority groups. With the passage of the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the Asian American population drastically grew and so did political activism. The formation of ethnic-based umbrella organizations among the foreign-born (Chinese Six Companies and the Japanese Association) and the US-Born (CACA, JACL) contributed to increasing capabilities of litigation, protests, petitions, and political donations in the 20th century.

In the world of politics, Asian American elective offices are found in big metropolitan areas, ethic enclaves, and “ethnoburbs”, small to medium-sized cities located in suburbs whose population and economies have been transformed by transpacific capital and immigration. While small as a group, Asian Americans voters can swing the outcome of an election if three conditions are met: first, if they all turned out to vote, second if they voted together as a bloc, and third, if elections are tight and results can be decided by a small number of votes. Professor Lien stated that such conditions seem unlikely, but are in reality quite frequent in occurrence.

Among voting-age Asians, just two-thirds (~68%) are citizens and only two-fifths (~39%) are registered to vote. Such statistics seem to suggest that Asians do not vote as much compared to other demographics. While only a third of the adult Asian American bloc voted in 2012, over 8 in 10 of those who were registered turned out to vote. Voting among those who were registered was higher than those of Latinos. Moreover, Asian Americans are seen as the fastest growing constituency of registered voters. This suggests that Asian Americans are not politically inactive – rather, the reason why such a small portion of the demographic votes may be within eligibility requirements, which ultimately dictates who gets to vote and who doesn’t.

Contrary to the popular belief that attributes Asians as a solid Democratic bloc, surveys conducted in the past election evidence that a majority has stated that they belong to neither, being effectively non-partisan in inclination. Independent partisanship is also rising in popularity, which is providing a neutral ground of argument. Asian Americans have also traditionally voted on a per-issue basis. The speaker further elaborated that all surveys evidencing a strong Democratic hold within the Asian American populace were from exit polls – data that includes only those who are registered to vote.

We are entering a new wave of Asian American activism. Issues surrounding Peter Liang’s controversial case have shown a vocal field of discourse between a Chinese immigrant community mobilized through social media, and members of 18 millionsrising.org, who have advocated against the defendant. Organizations like APIA Vote have provided support in aiding Asians register as voters. The 1882 Project is another nonpartisan, grassroots effort focused on educating lawmakers and the public about the Chinese Exclusion Laws and its impact on such legislation on modern history. The topic of Asian American political participation has grown in recent times, and is quickly increasing in its dynamism and multipolarity.

This report is written by Daniel K Kim, a junior undergraduate serving as the Chair for the EAS SAC Speakers Committee. This report is based on the lecture of Professor Pei-te Lien of UC Santa Barbara, on September 13, 2016.