Crouching Voter, Hidden Direction

Newsweek; by Megan Shank; August 7, 2008

A young activist in Queens
Youth Action Team volunteer John Yoon 

On a clear-skied Sunday in New York City’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a dozen Asian American teenagers scarf down hot dogs, fly kites and do their bit for the U.S. presidential race. Over the din of a crowd cheering rowers at the annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, the students, part of city council member John Liu’s Youth Action Team, call out to passersby in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, “Have you registered to vote?”

For Asian Americans across the nation, it’s an important question. Their numbers might be small compared to other ethnic groups—only 5 percent of the total population—but they’ve been growing nine to 10 times faster than the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. That could swing the ballot in key states, according to “Awakening the Sleeping Giants?,” a recent report by researchers at UCLA.

The broader significance of Asian American voters was evident in 2006, when U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb garnered 76 percent of Virginia’s Asian American and Pacific Islander votes, a factor in helping him to secure a narrow victory (less than 0.5 percent) over Republican incumbent George Allen and tipping control of the Senate to Democrats.

Asian Americans also played a significant role in helping Hillary Clinton win the California Democratic primary earlier this year. Comprising an estimated 12 percent of the state’s electorate, an overwhelming majority of Asian Americans—some 71 percent, according to a CNN exit poll—voted for Clinton. Other politically powerful states with large Asian American populations include New York and Texas, and, in a tight race, Asian American voters could swing Florida, says the UCLA report.

Although both Webb and Clinton are Democrats, Asian Americans don’t possess deep party loyalties, because as immigrants they don’t inherit familial ties to one political persuasion, says Paul Ong, a co-author of the UCLA report and a professor at the university. Beyond being “Asian,” voting preferences also depend upon a citizen’s age and country of origin. Vietnamese Americans who escaped from the Communists, for example, have served as a reliable Republican bloc, but their children tend to vote along more fluid lines.

Nationwide, aside from Obama’s childhood turf of Hawaii, Asian Americans nearly unequivocally supported Clinton’s bid; her loss of the nomination left Asian American voters divided over which candidate to support in November.

Clinton likely resonated with Asian American voters in part because she worked within cultural norms, giving “face,” or respect, to their communities and working through what Chinese refer to as “guanxi,” or connections. “We felt loyal to Hillary and guilty when she lost,” says John Liu, New York’s first Asian American city councilman.

Chris Wang, director of the Queens Nan-shan Senior Center, which operates under the auspices of the Chinese-American Planning Council, says the center’s 4,000 naturalized citizen members don’t vote based on a candidate’s platform as much as on whether “that candidate has spoken directly to them and recognized their validity as citizens.”

And as with many Americans, citizenship does not automatically ensure active political engagement. Both naturalized and U.S.-born Asian Americans have lower rates of voter registration than do non-Asians. Language barriers and a lack of understanding about the parties prevent competent participation. “’Democrat’ sounds like ‘democracy,’ which is great—it’s what people signed up for when they came here—but the word for ‘Republican’ in Chinese sounds a little too close to the word for ‘Communist party,’” says Peter Koo, a naturalized American citizen running as a Republican candidate for New York State Senate in 2009.

There are efforts to eliminate these problems: Under the Voting Rights Act, non-English ballots may be provided to voters. In addition, Asian-language media have given extensive political coverage and Asian immigrant support centers throughout the country offer classes on voter registration. But there are more insidious psychological obstacles. Coming from nations where democratic engagement has been actively discouraged or eliminated, where politics has wrecked fortunes and ruined families, many Asian American voters remain reluctant to get involved.

Zhou Ling, a naturalized American citizen from Taiwan who wears an Obama pin with the Chinese characters for “hope,” says Asian American citizens must abandon fear and cultivate courage and civic duty. For her, both were inspired by the Obama campaign, for which she now volunteers. The challenge in rallying Asian Americans for Obama has been that, among certain voter blocs, “there’s uneasiness in the image of a black president, particularly among naturalized citizens who have grown up in monocultures,” says Zhou.

The Obama campaign clearly recognizes the need to reach out to the Asian American community. Last month, California Rep. Mike Honda addressed an Obama fundraiser sponsored by a coalition of Asian American political groups. Obama’s part Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has also contributed as a spokeswoman. Their efforts may bear fruit. According to “New Voters, Old Fears,” by News 21, a journalism initiative of the Carnegie and Knight Foundations, Asian Americans increasingly lean toward Democratic candidates.

McCain, for his part, has long courted Vietnamese Americans, despite once using a racial slur to describe his Northern Vietnamese captors. During the 2000 run for president, he promised Asian American journalists that if he won, he would name an Asian American to his cabinet. Van Thai Tran, Republican member of the California State Assembly and the first American of Vietnamese descent to serve there, has endorsed him; on a more personal note, McCain has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. McCain’s Web site, however, lists no Asian American coalition.

Ong, the UCLA researcher, says another report due out in October will show that “young Asian Americans have become dramatically more involved in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama can take a lot of credit for that.”  But even the candidate who has made change a central part of his campaign cannot uproot long-standing social values, such as deference to elders and respect for experience. One example: Wen (he declined to provide his first name), an “80-something-year-old” naturalized citizen and resident of New York says he will vote for McCain. “I like a tough guy who can get the job done,” says Wen in Mandarin. As a veteran who fought in the Korean War with Chinese troops in 1952, Wen relates to McCain’s political experience in Vietnam and says, “America has scarier enemies now.”

Perhaps so, but from the looks of the group gathered in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, America also has a muscular new political vigor.



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