Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the US population, and are represented by roughly 3 percent of the 541 members in the 117th Congress. While that seems mostly proportional, these victories were unlikely carried by their notoriously uninvolved Asian American constituents. The Pew Research Center states that while “Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters,” increasing by 139% from 2000 to 2020, their electoral participation has not risen.
Naturalized immigrants make up for most of this rapid growth, representing two-thirds of eligible Asian American voters, and concentrated in three states: California (3.6 million), New York (920,000), and Texas (698,000). Also notable is that eligible Asian voters have an annual median household income of $105,000, the highest of any racial or ethnic group - a major determining factor of civic engagement for other racial groups.
So why has a growing, well-resourced community been sitting on the sidelines?
Andrew Yang, Democratic presidential candidate is the most recent high profile politician to bring light to the issue of low Asian American civic engagement. Considered the most surprising candidate of the election cycle, Yang is the third Asian American to run for president, and the first to run as a Democrat.
His candidacy has inspired participation of many previously unengaged Asian Americans. Notably, Yang received $1.4 million in Asian American contributions, more than any other Democratic candidate.
This is in great part because of the excitement over a representative candidate. Studies in other industries have shown the extreme importance in representation in increasing engagement and a sense of belonging. And if that’s the case, Asian Americans have been left behind on many fronts - film, corporate leadership, and children’s literature.
Blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and lionization of leaders like Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, demonstrate the demand for more representation in the spotlight. –And based on the response to his campaign, Yang has become a similar symbol.
However, as a volunteer during the 2020 election cycle, and an organizer for environmental issues during college, I was often the only Asian in the room.
Being alone in civic life as an Asian American has been common in history: “it was alright for me to be a pacifist [during WWII] because as a Japanese national and a ‘girl’ it didn’t make any difference to anyone,” Mitsuye Yamada reflects on her sense of invisibility as a politically active student. Her reflections include acquaintances dying in WWII to demonstrate “how American [they] really were,” and the feeling that “[the US government] knew that the West Coast Japanese Americans would go [to concentration camps] without too much protest.” She also shares her experiences of being the only Asian American when engaging in protests.
A University of Texas study showed that Asian Americans who experience “group connectedness, and hybrid identity” are more likely to participate in civic life: “those who are more residentially stable and sense shared Asian culture are more likely to vote, while the Asian-born are less likely to vote.” –With a growing majority of the Asian American population represented by Asian-born immigrants, there’s a need to cultivate a shared identity and sense of community to overcome the isolation and lack of engagement in politics.
It wasn’t until I volunteered with Tech for Campaigns, a non-profit which leverages tech talent in support of less covered state races, that I began to see more familiar faces. Asians make up more than 50 percent of the technical workforce, so finding the minority of politically active Asian Americans there was not a huge surprise.
In this way Andrew Yang is representative of the politically active Asian American population: as the child of Taiwanese immigrants, he cites his experiences as a tech entrepreneur and founder of Venture for America as the inspiration for his presidential campaign. His experiences rooted in Asian American culture and in creating a shared American identity make him more likely to feel a sense of belonging in the political system.
Unfortunately, his presidential and mayoral campaigns seem to miss the ongoing and painful history of racism towards Asian Americans. His fixation on an economic answer to sociopolitical issues, and his “good minority” stance on racism at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic reflects the historical trend for conservative bias in Asian American engagement, and demonstrates a decided aversion to straying too far from the status quo.
Not shy in sharing his experiences of being bullied with racial slurs as a child, he repeatedly demonstrates a lack of understanding of systems of power. Even in his promotion of Universal Basic Income, he regularly includes pardons of growth of white supremacist attitudes, especially the myth of the white male victimhood.
From his play on Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan (“Make America Think Harder”), and his self-deprecating jokes based on racial stereotypes, it’s hard to feel that Andrew Yang is a true ally to Asian Americans, despite breaking through the “bamboo ceiling” to become a legitimate contender in the 2020 election.
As he continues his political career in a bid for the position of New York City Mayor, his economic-only platform remains the same. For the first time, Asian Americans in New York would have a mayor who uniquely represents them; however, his singular focus falls short in lending itself to their unique struggles. His out of touch comments about the difficulties of living in the city during the pandemic, and record of never voting for the position he’s campaigning add to the sense of alienation from the common voter.
So how can Asian Americans find representation and greater civic engagement?
To create a greater sense of shared identity, ongoing racism and bias against Asian Americans needs to be brought to the forefront. This would include acknowledging the painful history of the invisibility of Asians in business and culture, and defining a new relationship to the ongoing conversation about race in America.
While Asian Americans can thank Andrew Yang for bringing Asian culture into the national conversation, it’ll take more than representation to address the growing gap in civic life.
By finding a voice and the courage to tell our unique stories, Asian Americans can find solidarity and take ownership of their rightful role in civic life. Let this be the start.