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Participating in Politics

Contrary to what many may assume, Asian Americans are not reluctant to participate in politics. Yen Le Espiritu points out that next to Jews, Asian Americans contribute more money per person to political parties and candidates than any other racial/ethnic or religious group. But as past and recent history shows, that doesn't mean that Asian Americans are always welcomed in the political arena.

Getting Into the Arena Early

Even back in the late 1800s, Asians mobilized their resources to lobby for equal rights and access to economic, land, and occupational opportunities that they were being denied. Up through the 1920s, over 1,000 lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts by Asian Americans seeking to receive their proper legal rights. During this time, Asian Americans also organized boycotts, circulated petitions, conducted letter-writing campaigns, published newspapers and magazines promoting their cause, and formed coalitions with several non-Asian organizations.

Many were quick to associate being Buddhist with being a foreigner © Craig Aurness/Corbis

These activities demonstrate that Asian Americans are not always quiet, modest, and reluctant to "cause trouble." The Asian American community has a clear sense of justice, as illustrated by their collective mobilization to fight for justice regarding Vincent Chin's murder. To that end, many Asian Americans have tried to participate in the political arena, in one form or another.

One of the easiest way to participate is to donate money to candidates or political parties. Such was the case back in 1996 when the Democratic Party was raising funds for President Clinton's reelection. As the nation soon learned, the Democrats were accused of illegally accepting money from foreigners. The media and soon Congressional Republicans identified these foreigners as Asian and accused them of trying to influence U.S. policy to the benefit of their Asian countries and businesses. They were accused of trying to "buy" influence with the President.

Thereafter, the Democrats were forced to return a substantial portion of those campaign contributions. Any donor who had an Asian name or who was suspected of having connections to Asian businesses overseas most likely had their contributions returned. Soon after that, Congressional committees began a series of high-profile and public investigations, centering on the now-famous "fundraising" event at a southern California Buddhist temple attended by Al Gore. Ultimately, several Asian Americans entered plea bargains or were convicted of channeling foreign contributions to the Democratic Party.

Stereotypes and Hypocrisy Go Hand in Hand

First we should realize that it is legal for permanent residents who are not yet U.S. citizens to donate money. Second, it is legal for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations to donate money if they only donate funds that were earned in the U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao © Time Magazine Further, anyone can donate if the money goes to a political party rather than an individual politician. Finally, it's interesting why nobody ever accuses Canadian and European corporations of trying to buy influence with the U.S. government, even though their contributions are several times that from Asian companies.

But the most disturbing part of this episode was once again, the entire Asian American community was singled out and publicly vilified for the wrongdoings of just a handful of people. Many politicians and other social commentators were screaming that Asian foreigners were trying to "buy the White House." Asian Americans were again accused of being deceitful, un-American, and secretly loyal to only Asian countries and businesses.

It is one thing to punish individuals who have actually broken laws. But it is another to then generalize suspicions and stereotypes to an entire group of people. All Asian Americans are affected by this prejudice and racial profiling -- Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened to Asian American in this episode. Sad to say, it will probably not be the last.

The Leaders and Trailblazers

Nonetheless, several Asian Americans past and present have defied these cultural and institutional barriers (including perceptions that Asians aren't capable of being leaders) and have successfully represented not just the Asian American community but their entire multi-racial constituency. The first national Asian American political leaders came from Hawai'i and were able to parlay their broad base of supporters to win seats in the U.S. House of Representative and Senate in the 1950s.

The first mainland Asian American to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives was Dalip Singh Saund, a South Asian farmer (with a Ph.D. degree) from central California. The fist mainland Senator was the ultra-conservative S.I. Hayakawa from California, former President of San Francisco State University. More recently, the most prominent Asian American politicians include:

  • Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawai'i
  • Former U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lann Lee
  • Governor of the state of Washington Gary Locke, the first Asian American governor outside of Hawai'i
  • Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao
  • Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta

Secretary Mineta is the only Democrat serving in President Bush's cabinet and was the first Asian American cabinet Secretary, appointed by former President Clinton to lead the Department of Commerce in 2000. In fact, President Bush has named the more Asian Americans to top federal positions than any other President.

However, Elaine Chao symbolizes a constant dilemma for the Asian American community. On the one hand, most of us are very proud that she is the first Asian American woman to be a cabinet Secretary. She hopefully represents the growing political power of the Asian American community and a sign that perhaps both political parties will not take us for granted any longer. On the other hand, she's a Republican whereas about two-thirds of all Asian Americans who are registered to vote are Democrats.

A future Asian American politician? © Leonard McCombe

Therefore, many of us have to weigh the costs and benefits of supporting her as an Asian American versus our dislike for Republican policies and ideology. In the end, as Martin Luther King so eloquently stated, individuals must be judged on the content of their character and what they do -- not on the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

Having said that however, as I have been pointing out throughout this website, we must recognize and appreciate the diversity within the Asian American community. This includes differences in terms of ethnicity, age, educational attainment, income, languages and English proficiency, and in this case, political views. In this sense, Secretary Chao, along with Secretary Mineta and all other Asian American politicians serving our country at all levels, deserve our thanks and support.

The Future is Now

These days, as the size of the Asian American population continues to grow, so do the number of Asian Americans entering the political arena and public service. The latest people such as California Democrat Mike Honda and Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal, who recently lost a close race to be Governor of Louisiana. We are also witnessing many Asian Americans entering politics at the local level, especially in areas where Asian Americans constitute an increasingly large portion of the population. These include many suburban areas in southern and northern California.

On the national level, several Asian American organizations have recently formed a coalition to develop a comprehensive policy platform. Their goal is to encourage political leaders in general and presidential candiates in particular to treat Asian Americans with the same level of attention and respect that they do other racial/ethnic constituents, such as Blacks, Latinos, and Jews. As part of this effort, political action committees such as the 80-20 Initiative are trying to mobilize a powerful Asian American bloc vote by casting 80% of Asian American ballots for the candiate that they will endorse later in the year.

Interestingly, as Asian Americans become more common among civic and political leaders (similar to what's happening with many predominantly Latino/Hispanic areas around the country), they still face subtle charges that they are somehow "taking over," implying that they have some sinister or evil master plan for world domination. Ironically, many long-time White residents in these localities where Asian Americans are increasingly prominent now feel that they're being excluded from full civic participation and are made to feel like outsiders.

Many observers point out that these complaints are only inevitable and temporary frictions that occur when the balance of power begins to shift from one group to another. It will nonetheless be interesting to see how the landscape of political power at different levels in the U.S. evolves as our society continues to become increasing multicultural and racially/ethnically diverse.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Participating in Politics" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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