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A Leftist Future for Asian American Politics

Asian American identity remains deeply fragmented, but politics—and the movement for economic justice—is a growing unifier.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

About 10 years ago, I worked for a small arts nonprofit for Asian American writers that embraced a delightfully expansive definition of its target demographic. There, “Asian American” included not just people of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent—groups that tend to go missing from most Americans’ conception of who counts as “Asian”—but also extended to people of West Asian or Middle Eastern descent, like Iranians, Syrians, and Yemenis. (Once, while rummaging in a drawer at the office, I found some old internal correspondence debating whether Russia, technically part of the continent of Asia, should be included, too.) The result of that deliberately capacious identity was a vibrant series of readings and other events where Palestinian experimental poetry existed alongside Korean noir novels, Taiwanese New Wave cinema, photo exhibits documenting the gentrification of Chinatowns across America, and investigative reports on the state surveillance of Muslims after 9/11. The organization’s broad conception of “Asian American” was simultaneously a gesture of unity and, at least to me, a real-time demonstration of how identity was malleable and perpetually in flux.

The term “Asian American” was first coined in 1968 by student activists inspired by the Black Power and Third World Liberation movements; the Asian American Movement that grew out of it sought to bridge people of Asian descent across ethnic lines and promote solidarity with Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Though I think those of us who choose to call ourselves “Asian American” today still find that notion compelling, we’re also unfortunately a small group. Some 40 years after the label first emerged, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that only one out of five people of Asian descent in the United States said they “most often” described themselves as “Asian American” or “Asian.” The vast majority instead chose to identify by their ethnic background.

It’s not entirely a surprise. “Asian American” is now the demographic umbrella term for more than 20 million people from 45 Asian-origin groups speaking over a hundred languages. Two-thirds of Asians in the U.S.—and four out of five adults—are first-generation immigrants. Since 1970, that staggering ethnic and linguistic diversity has also been underscored by profound socioeconomic stratification: Today, wealth and income inequality among Asians in this country is greater than it is among any other racial or ethnic group. In 2016, a rich Asian household was about 168 times wealthier than a poor Asian household. In other words, there’s almost no material reality to the designation “Asian American,” which makes it all the more difficult to conceive of it as the potent political identity that its creators hoped it would become.

There is, though, a curious and recent phenomenon that illuminates a slightly different path toward the political mobilization of Asians in the U.S. While the Asian American Movement assumed that the most straightforward way for people of Asian descent to form a political bloc was to claim a shared identity, Asians have grown more politically similar to each other, even as that notion of a collective identity remains elusive, particularly over the last decade. As Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, and the founder of AAPI Data, told me, Asians in the U.S. of all backgrounds tend to express similar preferences on a number of key political issues regardless of how they personally identify. “It turns out that politics—public policy and public opinion—is actually a relative unifier among Asian Americans,” Ramakrishnan said.

According to Ramakrishnan, majorities of every major ethnic group within the Asian American electorate—including those that once leaned Republican, such as Vietnamese Americans—have consistently backed Democratic presidential candidates since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Survey data also shows the majority of Asian ethnic groups favor bigger government, in the form of increased spending on public programs, higher taxes on the rich, universal health care, stricter gun control, and environmental protections. And while there are some divisions on social issues along religious lines—Catholic Filipino and Vietnamese Americans express lower levels of support for abortion and gay rights, for example—Ramakrishnan noted that those opinions didn’t factor much into their behavior at the ballot box. “The top issues in the last few years for Asian American voters have been the economy, health care, and education,” he said.

What that suggests is that even as “Asian American” as a demographic category has, in so many ways, frayed further with each new wave of immigration since the 1960s, there are also signs that working people of Asian descent—long overlooked by both of the major political parties and often presumed to have little interest in civic participation—may be prime candidates for inclusion in a political project that’s gained new attention since the Great Recession. Spiking economic inequality and the subsequent rise of left-wing politicians like Bernie Sanders have revived interest in a mass movement for economic justice and the expansion of public goods nationwide. And while Asian Americans have historically voted at lower rates than other groups, the number of Asians eligible to vote in the U.S. more than doubled over the last two decades. This wildly fragmented group, then, is an untapped but potentially significant force that not only stands to benefit collectively from a working-class politics but also has a chance to forge a new kind of political identity in an age of immense inequality.

“Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant,” American Enterprise Institute fellow and The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray wrote in 2012. “If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’”

But even in the minds of right-wing ideologues, racial stereotypes aren’t exactly a reliable basis for determining political behavior. As Murray himself admitted, Asian American voters have been steadily migrating away from Republicans for the last few decades. Research from the National Asian American Survey and other surveys further indicate that Asian groups are now, on the whole, more left-leaning than the American population at large. “Asian Americans appear most distinct from other Americans when it comes to attitudes toward universal health care, gun control, taxing the rich, and the environment,” said Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and a researcher with the NAAS. “On all of these policy fronts, Asian Americans are more progressive overall than the U.S. population more generally, and the divides between Democrats and Republicans are much more narrow.”

Yet, at the same time, nearly 40 percent of Asians in the U.S. around the time of the 2018 midterms didn’t identify as either Democrat or Republican. Part of that lack of identification, said Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at Columbia University, is that the high proportion of first-generation immigrants among Asian Americans means that most are new to the American political system. But it’s also a failure of outreach. “Asian Americans are the group that is least likely to be contacted by either political party,” Lee said. In 2016, for instance, nearly 70 percent of Asian Americans said they had received no contact from either party that election year. “I see it as an enormous missed opportunity, not only on the part of Republicans—who often think of Asian Americans as prime conservative voters—but also by Democrats, whose programs really align more closely with Asian Americans’ attitudes,” Lee told me.

In recent years, the specter of a strain of Chinese American conservatism has further complicated the absence of an established political home for Asian Americans. Chinese conservatives have waged a new brand of culture war primarily through battles over race-based admissions to a handful of elite schools. The most prominent of those was a lawsuit filed against Harvard University in 2014 by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions on behalf of Asian parents and students, who alleged that the university had effectively discriminated against them in its race-conscious admissions process. Though the suit was dismissed last year, the group is now appealing the decision and hopes to see it go to the Supreme Court, which could determine the future of affirmative action in the country.

Around the same time of the Harvard lawsuit, a similar scenario unfolded in New York City when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to jettison the standardized test that had served as the sole criterion for admissions to eight specialized public high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, widely considered the top public school in the city and currently more than 70 percent Asian. The change, de Blasio argued, was a pro-diversity effort meant to increase the number of Black and Latinx students at those elite schools. But the overhaul also would have meant a sharp reduction in the number of Asian students admitted, and de Blasio’s administration had neglected to discuss the plan with Asian American community leaders before the announcement. To many Asian families and lawmakers, that oversight was symbolic of the city’s ongoing disregard for its Asian residents. “This cliché of, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’ really felt like it rang true,” Grace Meng, a Congress member from Queens, told The New York Times.

The quarrel brought to the fore the complicated racial, economic, and political dynamics long at play in the city. In an op-ed praising de Blasio’s plan to revamp New York’s elite high schools, Pratt Institute professor Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote, “Too many Asians have chosen to preserve the status quo by buying into racism against blacks and the white supremacist system built on it.” Yet the outcry from Asian families, as frustratingly accommodating of a flawed system as it seemed at times, also struck me as another missed opportunity, as Lee put it, for the left to engage a group that’s often powerless in America’s political matrix but looks, by most available measures, amenable to policies that expand public resources for all. It was a political moment to reject scarcity and build a coalition to overhaul a public system that fails most of its students. What was clear in the dispute was that many Asian families in New York rightly recognized that the specialized schools represented a chance to secure some kind of social mobility at a time of entrenched inequality and worsening economic precarity. In New York, Asian immigrants have the highest poverty rates of any racial group, and some community leaders have described their antagonistic role in the school admissions dispute as a type of economic anxiety, as the saying goes.

All of that leaves many downwardly mobile Asian immigrants in something of a political vacuum. What if, rather than taking up a last-minute scheme to diversify a handful of sought-after schools, de Blasio’s administration had at least tried to deliver on his campaign promise to improve the entirety of New York’s public education system from the very beginning? What if the Department of Education had approached immigrant enclaves with plans for opening good schools in those areas so students in Queens, for instance, wouldn’t have to travel two hours each day to attend Stuyvesant High in lower Manhattan? We can’t know beyond a doubt that such measures would have galvanized Asian families as part of a progressive bloc, but we do know that not trying has only served to entrench a dysfunctional system that fails everyone but a fortunate few.

In this year’s Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders—possibly now the best-known standard-bearer of a working-class movement in the U.S.—notched his biggest wins in California, where Asian Americans make up around 16 percent of the electorate, and Nevada, where the Asian population has doubled since 2010. There’s early evidence that significant numbers of Asian voters in both states backed Sanders: Exit polls in California, for instance, indicated that a plurality of Asians had voted in the primary for Sanders. Likewise, in Nevada’s Clark County, where 67 percent of Asians in the state reside, Sanders won twice as many votes as Joe Biden.

The point, though, isn’t so much that Asian Americans are guaranteed to turn out in droves for a Bernie-style platform as that they’re voters who are up for grabs, and the Sanders campaign seized that potential. “We know this is a gettable community,” Jane Kim, the campaign’s California political director, told The Wall Street Journal in February. In several early states, the campaign launched efforts to engage Asian voters, including printing campaign materials in six different Asian languages—more than any other campaign, by an ABC News count—and organizing volunteers fluent in those languages to canvass immigrant neighborhoods.

In an April conversation with Manny Yekutiel, the founder of a community events space in San Francisco, Kim further elaborated on the Sanders campaign’s operations in California. One driver of his victory in the state, she argued, was the campaign’s focus on districts with low rates of voter turnout, which had gone largely ignored by politicians in the past. “We prioritized neighborhoods and communities that weren’t used to seeing door-knockers,” Kim said. That included areas with high percentages of Latinx and Asian American residents, and the effort appeared to pay off. “We ended up winning 49 percent of the Latino vote, compared to Biden who won 19 percent. We also won Asian American voters 2 to 1,” she said. Expanding the electorate, rather than targeting only the most reliable voters, was a cornerstone of the Sanders strategy from the very beginning. Indeed, it’s the rare approach that works not only to bring new demographic groups into a political base, but holds the promise, over the long term, of building a movement that can transfer power to the majority of working people left behind in a lopsided political system dominated by economic elites.

But that kind of project generally takes more than one election cycle, and Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee in November’s general election. And though political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan thinks there are signs that the 2020 election will see record turnout from Asian Americans, whether either candidate will attempt to court these voters in any meaningful way remains uncertain. “We have survey data that shows that Asian Americans tend to vote against candidates that espouse anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that’s likely going to have an energizing effect on the Asian American electorate during this election cycle,” Ramakrishnan said. He, of course, meant Trump, but a recent Biden ad criticizing the president for being too soft on China in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak suggests that Democrats, too, may be more amenable to a strategy of xenophobic fearmongering than making real efforts to expand health care or lower the soaring costs of education.

If that’s the case, then Asian Americans could remain a diffuse and undermobilized segment of the electorate for yet another presidential race. And the bigger problem, at least for the Democrats, is that they almost certainly won’t be alone. When I first read reports on Asian Americans’ political attitudes, I was struck by how many of their stated preferences—support for unions; raising the minimum wage; and increased government spending on health care, public education, and the social safety net—were the same ones held by nonvoters of all races. In some ways, that’s a sign that a reckoning with the current political order is simmering. But the challenge ahead, as always, will be forging a movement that can carry it out.