Asian Americans' Expanding Influence in U.S. Politics

A special town hall event hosted by Asia Society Northern California discusses the numerous issues that affect Asian Pacific Americans from across the political spectrum. (1 hr., 9 min.)

Asian Americans have traditionally had lower political participation and lower voter turnout compared to other minority groups, but today their political influence is rapidly growing.

The overall Asian American population is growing faster than any other ethnic group, increasing by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. China and India have both surpassed Mexico as the top senders of new immigrants to the United States, and in this year’s election, Asian American voters are projected to make up 4 percent of the electorate — double their proportion in 2000. These growing numbers have led to more Asian American representation in elected office.

“We have now an opportunity to make a difference,” said Frank Wu, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law who frequently writes about Asian Americans and American politics. “It's no longer astonishing to believe that someone Asian American could aspire to the highest offices in the land.”

Wu, who was speaking with Asian American elected California officials at Asia Society in San Francisco, noted that as a child growing up in the Midwest in the 1970s, the idea that he could run for political office was never something his parents told him was possible. “I think that's a common experience for Asian Americans — the descendants of those who were strangers from a different shore,” he said. “We were always portrayed as apathetic, as more concerned about ‘homeland politics’ than domestic [American] civil rights.”

Phil Ting, a California State Assembly member, said that lumping Asian Americans in with the politics of their supposed homelands has long added an element of toxicity to their participation in the political process. And it remains an issue.

Ting invoked the late Matt Fong, a Chinese-American who was elected California’s state treasurer in 1994. During his unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Fong, who was born in the United States and had served in the U.S. Air Force, was asked by a reporter which country he would support if there was a conflict between China and the U.S. “Can you imagine someone who’s served in our military and was our sitting state treasurer getting asked that question?” Ting said. “Those barriers are real, and these homeland politics can bleed in at different times.”

Aarti Kohli, interim executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, said that Asian Americans seeking participation in the political process have always faced the image of being “perpetual foreigners.” To some extent, she said, the current political environment is making the situation worse. “We do a lot of work with vulnerable communities and we have been hearing about bullying really ramping up, particularly of Sikh kids wearing turbans and Muslim kids."

In addition to growing political participation, Asian Americans are also increasingly voting Democrat. Al Gore received 55 percent of the Asian American vote in 2000 and John Kerry got 56 percent in 2004. Four years later, Barack Obama was elected with 62 percent Asian American support, a number that rose to 73 percent in his re-election in 2012. But this trend obscures a more complex picture. Political preferences among Asian Americans remain diverse, especially at the local level. And in the race for the country's highest office, Hillary Clinton, while still maintaining commanding support among Asian Americans, appears to be short of the same levels that Obama enjoyed. She leads Donald Trump 55 percent to 14 percent among Asian-American registered voters.

“One perspective is 'we've arrived,’” said California State Assemblymember David Chiu. “We have a large enough community of folks who are engaged who have a difference of opinions that they end up supporting different candidates based on their appeal … We are incredibly diverse. We are not monolithic; you cannot stereotype based on where we come from.”

One striking example was Indian-born Sikh American panelist Harmeet Dhillon — a Republican National Committeewoman from California who in July opened one evening of the Republican National Convention by singing the invocation in Punjabi. She expressed that, in California especially, there’s a lot of pandering to voters based on their race — something she finds offensive.

“Perhaps with the specifics of this election cycle, because people are disgusted with a lot of the rhetoric and the negativity, people are voting on issues,” she said. “And that's going to require both major parties to really compete on those issues.”

Watch the complete program in the above video

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.