Why Are Asian Americans Politically Invisible?

Asian Americans are the fastest growing voting block in the country—but we rarely see politicians actively courting their support.

Don Emmert / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

My grandmother, Mya Mya Thant Gyi, was born in 1917 in Pakkoku, Burma (also known as Myanmar). She came of age as the country was emerging from the shadow of the British Empire to reclaim its national identity, but when she immigrated to the United States in 1965, my grandmother adopted not just American citizenship—she adopted American politics. She was still interested and active in the Burmese pro-democracy movement, (no exile could not be, given the historic bloodshed and violent oppression), but the political battle she was most keenly interested in was America’s, not Burma’s. She read every newspaper, listened to every newscast, held an opinion about every major player on the stage, from Karl Rove to Julian Castro. When she passed away last summer, the very last thing she spoke to me about in the hospital was the prospect of a Trump nomination (she didn’t believe it would happen) and a Biden candidacy (she badly wanted it to happen).

And yet, as enthusiastic as Mya Mya Thant Gyi was about her adopted country’s politicians, as invested as she was in the American horserace, she very rarely expected of its contestants anything more than the spectacle itself. No one she admired spoke to her, an Asian immigrant, with any specificity. There were no policies articulated on the stump that might be targeted towards people like her. In fact, there was very little acknowledgment that she—and others like her—even existed at all.

That remains a tradition today: Asians in America, a diverse, polyglot bunch, and a growing share of the electorate, remain mostly invisible in the American political debate. Like nearly every other electoral subgroup in U.S. polling, “Asian” is a label that masks the diversity among its peoples—perhaps even more than “Hispanic” belies the significant variances between the cultures designated as such. Asians also combat American laissez faire: They are widely (if falsely) viewed as independent, non-ideological and economically successful. They may be voters, but they aren’t understood to be broadly influencing party platforms, the handful of prominent Asian-American elected leaders notwithstanding.

For a long time, minority voices have been the least voluble in the room, (if they were in the room at all), but this election has seen a sharp focus on traditionally marginalized communities, whether Latino, Black, or LGBTQ. On Saturday, Donald Trump visited Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, a black church, in a bid to ease tensions with the African-American community after a series of questionable remarks, as well as to signal to critical white swing voters that he is not, in fact, a racist.

Hillary Clinton has made careful note of Trump’s issues with minority voters, and has gone to great lengths to court the Hispanic vote across the map. Last month, her campaign revealed that Clinton would be reaching out to Latino voters in unlikely states including Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, with the aim of using that support—however marginal—to turn purple and red states blue.

“You don’t take for granted the Latino community in these states that aren’t traditional battleground states, because when you’re deciding states by one, two or four percentage points, you have to lean on them,” said Lorella Praeli, the Clinton campaign’s director of Latino voter outreach. “You have to be communicating to them bilingually; you need to be sophisticated enough to talk about the issues they care about in the state.”

Amid this targeting of minority voters, why don’t Asian Americans count more, in the landscape of American politics? On its face, the answer is a simple matter of mathematics: Asians make up a much smaller slice of the electorate (An estimated 4 percent in 2016, according to Pew) compared to Blacks (12 percent) or Hispanics (12 percent). But that’s changing: Pew also concludes that the largest growth in the voting public is among Asians, who grew four times faster than any demographic group from 2000 to 2010.

Clinton’s campaign is focused on the Hispanic vote to carry her to victory, but Asians, too, will cast crucial and potentially tie-breaking votes in swing states like North Carolina, where the number of Asian Americans registered to vote statewide increased 130 percent between 2006 and 2014, and in Virginia, where they make up 7 percent of the population and wielded considerable power in the 2014 midterms.

In Nevada, census data from 2015 puts Asian, Alaskan and Pacific Islanders at 10.9 percent of the state, which is noteworthy, given the fact that Nevada’s Hispanic population is 28.1 percent and African Americans are 9.3 percent. (Unsurprisingly, Asian voters already played a significant role in Senator Harry Reid’s re-election there in 2010.)

To be sure: some of the perceived Asian invisibility is precisely due to the fact that Asian demographic power is a relatively new thing. Between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina’s Asian-American population grew by 85 percent. Nevada’s Asian population experienced the biggest swell from 2000 to 2010, more than doubling in size, and Virginia’s increased by 70 percent in the same time frame. This power of the Asian voting bloc is only lately being realized, unlike America’s Hispanic and African-American votes.

But it’s deeper than that.

In February of this year, the comedian Chris Rock was hosting the Academy awards. During the show, Rock called three Asian children onto the stage to make a joke about their math and accounting skills—and the audience laughed. They kept laughing when Rock added: “If anyone is upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phones, also made by these kids.”

Prominent Asian-American entertainers wrote a letter calling the skit “offensive and tasteless,” and the Academy issued a tepid response offering its “regrets that any part of the Oscar telecast was offensive.” But it was hard to imagine an ethnic joke about any another minority landing as well as Rock’s Asian bit did in that room that night, filled with Hollywood’s elite.

Less an indictment of Tinseltown, this joke about the pint-sized math whizzes is relevant in trying to understand Asian marginalization: Asians may be “celebrated” for being at the head of the class, but, as activist and CEO of Define American Jose Antonio Vargas said, “How the mainstream media has contextualized Asians as the ‘model minority’ has left a lot of people out, economically and socially.”

Few politicians and analysts understand the very real fault lines among Asian sub-groups: Some Asians have done very well for themselves. A lot of them have not. Take, for example, Asians in the state of Arizona:

Thai Americans have one of the lowest per capita incomes ($18,774).

Large proportions of Japanese (31 percent) and Vietnamese American (29 percent) renter households are severely housing cost burdened, spending 50 percent or more of their incomes on housing costs. These rates are higher than all other racial groups.

 Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of Vietnamese Americans and one in five Korean Americans (20 percent) lack health insurance.

Eunsook Lee, director of the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund, explained that the hurdle lies in disaggregating data around Asian communities: “The highest rate of uninsured in this country is among Korean-Americans. High school dropout rates are led by Southeast Asians, including the Hmong and the Vietnamese.”

Most Americans, she said, “don’t see that because we lump everyone together. We don’t see the pain and hardship.”

Micro polling to disaggregate data and reveal the true picture of Asians in the U.S. may not always be feasible, but Lee offered a further explanation as to the persistence of the model minority myth: some in power have a stake in keeping that stereotype alive. “It’s used by electeds who want to deny discrimination and point at Asians, and make it an argument,” as to why other minorities should be able to succeed.

The goal, she proposed, was for Asian Americans to understand these challenges and “have alignment with other communities of color.”

Vargas echoed this: “There are alliances happening between young Asians, Latinos and Blacks. They are testing what solidarity looks like, and what it means.”

Still, it’s a difficult proposition. On some of the key issues where Asians struggle alongside other minorities, as far as the media and the American public are concerned, Asians remain unseen.

Take the most prominent and controversial debate of this year’s election: immigration policy. Most Americans don’t understand that the fastest growing number of undocumented immigrants are Asian—not Hispanic—and there are 1.3 million of them in the United States.

Even more troubling, not only are Asians largely unseen at the front line of the immigration debate, they are not using the resources available to help them manage their undocumented status.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Asian applications to the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were a fraction of those from Latin and Central America. Youth from South Korea (20 percent), India (20 percent) and the Philippines (23 percent) applied in much lower numbers compared to their peers from El Salvador (91 percent), Mexico (82 percent) and Honduras (81 percent).

The explanation for this varies. When it comes to undocumented residents in the U.S., Latinos are still much larger in number—as of 2014, there were 5.6 million undocumented residents from Mexico alone— and are therefore more closely associated with the issue in the media, and therefore better organized around it. And then there is the fact of a common language—Spanish—shared by all forms, information and translators.

But there are cultural barriers constructed by Asians themselves that might be equally to blame. Vargas, who is undocumented, pointed to “shame—there is a lot of that. Swallow the bitter pill—there’s a Korean phrase for that. That’s relevant across all Asian culture.” In other words, Asians are not coming out of the shadows because they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re in the shadows to begin with.

Lee, meanwhile, said that “shame is over-presented. It’s overplayed. It allows us to be defeated.”

Instead she pointed to a lack of resources: “The difference is that in other communities, there are real efforts to ‘overcome’ the shame—via media, information, leadership. When we look at external factors, language is more of an issue, even more than in the Hispanic community.” Just as it concerns immigration policy, common tongue is a challenge: Finding Korean speakers is one thing, but what about Burmese or Laotian?

That complication underscores this reality: No voting bloc is monolithic. “White women,” for example, is an impossibly variant subpopulation in the United States, (made equally of wealthy, stay-at-home soccer moms and struggling single women), just as “Hispanic” refers equally to Cubans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans.

But “Asian”— perhaps more than most of these generic demographic labels — encompasses a vast array of cultures, languages, religions and histories. Tony Choi, the Social Media manager for Sons and Brothers, an initiative of the California Endowment, explained, “There are a lot of Korean Americans who don’t identify with Indian or Bangladeshi Americans. There’s a common language with Latino Americans, and a common history of colonialism, a shared religion. With Asians, you have Protestants, Catholics, Muslims. We are not as cohesive or monolithic as people think we are.”

This, more than shame, more than lack of resourcing, more than widely held stereotypes, may have more to do with Asian invisibility than anything else. Asians don’t necessarily think of themselves as “Asian,” and so the struggles of one subset of that group may not be particularly relevant at all—if they’re even on the radar. Collective marginalization on its own can be a unifying force, but it assumes identification in a collective to begin with. And that’s not necessarily the case as it concerns Koreans thinking about Bhutanese, or Indians thinking about Filipinos.

I thought back to my grandmother, who was loathe to think of herself as generically anything. She may have had much more in common with the Thais or the Vietnamese or the Cambodians—in terms of language or colonial history or political upheaval—but if you’d have asked her which other culture she was most aligned with, she wouldn’t have pointed to a place on the globe anywhere near her hot, dusty hometown of Pakkoku. She would have looked several thousand miles West—and placed her finger on America.