Asian Americans make up a small percentage of the United States population, but these numbers are steadily increasing. Though small, they are a remarkably diverse population – representing a collection of different national origins, religions, and languages. This in turn, does make it much more difficult to analyze the political position of Asian Americans as a whole. In accordance to the model minority myth, many Asian Americans in the U.S. do in fact, tend to enjoy higher levels of education and economic success compared to other racial groups. If socioeconomic status tends to be a reliable predictor of political participation, why has this fast-growing, economically thriving American population been so little engaged in the U.S. politics? Years of racial antipathy, fear, and overall historic trauma have kept generations of Asian Americans silent for far too long.
The innate passive behavior common in Asian culture not only impedes Asian American voters on their path to practicing their political privileges but causes them to steer free of any form of public discrepancy. These activities include but are not limited to: community organizations, political protests, political donations, and voting. According to a survey published on October 9, 2018 by the Asian American and Pacific Islander American Vote, “only 28 percent of Asian Americans reported that they were “enthusiastic” about voting in the year 2014. The number has risen to 47 percent in the year 2018 yet is still disappointingly far below average compared to 66 percent for black voters and 64 percent for non-Hispanic white voters.” As lawmakers tend to favor the interests of groups who actively engage in the political system, groups who do not participate have no choice but to suffer the consequences in the future. Therefore, it is important to understand the existing conditions that lead to low Asian American political participation in order to successfully overcome these impediments.
So why is it that such a small number of Asian Americans exercise their civic duty? One factor that heavily accounts for these disappointing numbers is the underlying feeling of having no place in American politics. This feeling resonates with many Asian Americans today, thus stimulating a cycle of non-participation. Historically, Asian immigrants have suffered tremendous resentment from nearly the entire nation, forcing them to withstand years of political oppression. In a constant battle with the government, Asian immigrants were forced to sacrifice their rights to live in a nation that was equally their own as a result of the boundaries set by the those in power.
Insisting on conserving the nation’s white supremacy over all non-white residents, through the years, the government had made several attempts at maintaining “political whiteness.” The sentiment towards Asian Americans began when the wave of Chinese laborers immigrated to the United States in the early 1800s. In turn, United States laborers had blamed all Asian Americans of stealing their jobs and sparking the nation’s severe economic downfall. As a result, came the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which had prohibited the entrance of all Chinese laborers into the United States. Unlike the Page Act of 1875 which had only banned Chinese women from immigrating, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law that withheld all members of a national group from entering United States territory. Even non-laborers who sought entry were required to present a certificate directly from the Chinese government in order to prove that they were qualified for immigration.
Although the Chinese Exclusion Act had expired in 1892, this did not end the political oppression of Asian Americans in the years that followed. How can a population, such as that of Asian Americans, feel welcomed in a nation that has spent decades trying to keep them out? To this day, whiteness as a privilege is an ever-present issue in American politics; just look at the majority of government officials in power. Rarely do these politicians make an effort to target the needs of Asian Americans. Consequently, less outreach not only alienates Asian American voters, but reduces their motive to take the time to vote. Likewise, this stimulates an ongoing cycle of politicians choosing to allocate their resources towards groups that are more likely to be politically active, and Asian Americans choosing to withhold from politics altogether.
The second factor that restricts many Asian Americans from practicing their voting right are the obstacles at hand when it comes time to vote. According to the text, “Making Visible: Political Participation of Asian Americans,” “Political participation is the result of at least three factors: having the means, being properly motivated, and being mobilized to act. As one set of scholars puts it, “individuals may choose not to participate because they can’t, because they don’t want to, or because nobody asked”” (Wong 7).
This illustrates that the means of participation can range from a variety of individual resources including time, civic skills, laws, political knowledge, eligibility requirements, and most commonly, language barriers. As most Asian Americans do not prioritize voting, they find no need to dedicate time out of their day to practice their right at the polls. Aside from this, many first- and second-generation Asian Americans in the United States show no interest in political involvement after being raised in a family where their elders have never been granted the right to vote elsewhere. Personally, the subject of politics has rarely been brought to the table during my family’s discussions.
My parents neither discouraged nor encouraged me from practicing my right to vote. Consequently, I never drew any interest in learning about the happenings in today’s politics. As mentioned earlier, a lack of political knowledge does impede the motivation for an individual like myself to make the effort to vote. In other instances, the underlying fear attached to their racial identity has become inherent in their nature and causes Asian Americans to remain fairly low-key by abstaining from political participation. In the devastating case of Vincent Chin, his race alone had robbed him of his life. In 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Chinese American, Vincent Chin, was killed in a case of mistaken identity by two white autoworkers in Detroit. Angry about the recent layoffs that were commonly blamed on Japanese immigrants, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz had a violent encounter when they had mistaken Chin for a Japanese.
Tragic historical cases such as that of Vincent Chin have been engraved in the minds of Asian Americans generating a fear of all government-related activities. Furthermore, the extensive language barrier and limited English proficiency of numerous Asian Americans poses a substantial problem not only when it comes time to vote but when voicing their concerns in general. Despite Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act which requires that translated materials be available at the polls, this policy is rarely implemented. Evidently, my own parents run a small Filipino restaurant in my hometown of Antioch, California and one of our regular customers, an elderly Filipino woman, reported that she had voted for the first time during the recent 2018 midterm elections after immigrating to the United States. As she explained her experience to me in Tagalog, she mentioned that she had slight difficulty understanding some sections of the ballot but did not want to bother anyone by asking for translated materials; exemplifying typical passive Asian behavior.
Many Asian Americans who are not fluent in English tend to rely on translators to translate materials into their native language and because this is not allowed at voting polls, this discourages a large population of Asian Americans from showing up at poll booths in order to avoid the hassle of navigating the voting process. Therefore, in order to attract larger numbers of Asian Americans, polling booths must ensure that translated materials be readily available in a greater array of languages that are representative of all Asian American ethnicities.
The third factor that acts to further discourage Asian American political participation is the model minority myth. This myth dates back to the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement when Asian Americans were believed to be the most outstanding of the minority groups because they were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve the American Dream. By generalizing that all Asian Americans are one large successful population in the United States, it blinds the members of this group to the reality that exists outside of their circle.
The model minority myth leads Asian Americans as well as the United States as a whole, to ignore the present economic and social obstacles that exist in their community. This then reduces the sense of urgency to the ongoing affairs that would supposedly lead them to vote, and likewise causes politicians to overlook matters that affect Asian Americans. In contrast to the nerdy, studious, stereotypical image of Asian Americans portrayed in mass media, it is often forgotten that Asian Americans do in fact fall victim to incarceration and unfair prison sentences as we learned from Danny, one of the class guest speakers. Danny presented his point of view and first-hand experience of being directly affected by the American justice system and provided information about the incarceration process for Asian Americans like himself. He explained the high racial tensions he faced in the prisons and how he managed to overcome these obstacles and be granted suitable for parole.
Danny’s story heavily relates to the concept of plenary power because in the interest of national security, the U.S. government sanctioned Laos and commanded that they take deportees who are arrested or have previous criminal convictions. Therefore, despite being brought to America as a child, after being released on parole from prison, Danny was sent directly to United States immigration customs to be processed and deported back to Laos, a land that was completely unfamiliar to him. Danny’s story is not one that is often communicated in society which leads many to believe that Asian Americans are never victims of oppression and therefore do not require much government attention. Clearly, even Asian Americans themselves are led to believe the misconceptions rooted in the model minority myth which not only prompts them to believe that there is no urgency to vote, but also distracts politicians from the issues at hand in Asian American communities.
It is important that today’s generation of Asian Americans break this cycle of non-participation in American politics because representation matters. As mentioned in several class discussions, if you refuse to tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. The decisions made by the politicians and representatives that we elect impact our daily lives; therefore, it is crucial that Asian Americans exercise their right to vote. Despite being a rapidly-growing population, it must be evident that the individuals that contribute to these numbers are actually participating in the political system in order to effectively influence American politics. It is unacceptable for a population of United States residents to suffer in silence in the so-called “land of the free and home of the brave.” Often, Asian American needs and priorities are often not reflected in politics as a result of low political participation. Thus, it is important that the younger group of AAPI educate themselves and elect candidates who are representative of their views. The future of the Asian American community is in the hands of none other than today’s Asian Americans themselves.