Election 2016 and Beyond: Asian Americans' Policy Priorities and the Challenge of Voter Mobilization

A Conversation with Professor Janelle Wong. Guest Post by Nicole Chung.

Professor Janelle Wong is Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland and a Professor in the American Studies Department. She is the author of Democracy's Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions (2006) and a co-author of two other books on Asian American politics, including Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and their Political Identities (2011).

Dr. Wong, who received her PhD from the Department of Political Science at Yale University, is a Research Fellow with APIAVote and a Principal Investigator on the National Asian American Survey. She spoke with me about policy priorities for Asian American voters, past and current barriers to APIA mobilization and involvement, the political outreach and research still needed in our communities, and how our rapidly expanding population can help ensure more Asian Americans' voices are heard.

Nicole Chung: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. First, can you talk a bit about your work at University of Maryland and the focus of your own research?

Prof. Janelle Wong: I direct the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland; I'm also an American Studies professor. My research is on immigrants and American politics, with a focus on both Asian and Latino Americans' political incorporation. The course I teach most often is Asian American Politics, an upper-division course. I also teach an intro class on Asian American Studies that focuses on Asian American identity and representation, and I teach a variety of elective courses. The last one was on Asian American religions and spirituality, which was very interesting -- I'm not really religious, so I learned a lot from my students.

What do you think most surprises your students when you discuss issues of race and politics, with a focus on Asian America, in your classes?

A lot of my students don't know that there were small numbers of Asian American slaves; they don't know there were some lynchings of Chinese people in California in the mid-1800s. That helps them understand more about the history of integration and how their history is connected to the histories of other racially marginalized groups in the U.S. Those aren't stories we often hear as Asian Americans, especially those of us whose families might have come here more recently.

I've found a lot of students have kind of bought into the model minority myth, so they actually think there is something unique about the way Asian Americans value education and family. I show them empirical data to help them understand that all racial and cultural groups strongly value those things.

You conducted the first Asian American voter mobilization field experiment in 2004. What did it involve, exactly, and what did you learn?

I did that study with students at the University of Southern California and a local community organization, the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment. We had a randomized list of registered Asian American voters, and ran a phone bank on campus for ten days, contacting members of this group to deliver a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote message. After the election, we found that just the one call from a college student did improve turnout among this group of registered voters. It was critical at the time, because there was very little targeted mobilization of Asian Americans.

A lot of people may not know much about the history of our communities when it comes to voting rights. Our communities weren't always able to vote due to being barred from citizenship. What are some of the primary voting barriers for Asian Americans today?

The main barrier to voting were these bars to citizenship. Originally, too, in the Voting Rights Act, we didn't have the Section 203 provision, which provides for language accessibility. That's crucial for Asian American voter participation, because in every election we hear about bad translations and other similar issues.

One major barrier to getting out the vote has to do with the concentration of Asian Americans outside of the traditional Presidential swing states; we are only 3% of the nationwide electorate, and many of us just don't live in competitive battleground states. So right now outreach to Asian Americans is not a huge priority for the two major parties.

There's also the issue of how comfortable various APIA voters might feel within the political system. If you look at an immigrant who has been here twenty years or more, they do tend to vote at the same rate as Asian Americans who were born here -- sometimes even higher. As the length of residence increases, we see Asian Americans participate more -- this is something I call “civic confidence”; these voters feel they belong in the political system.

Another barrier, I think, is the model minority stereotype -- groups that mobilize, campaigns, and political parties might think Asian Americans are less interested in politics. There's this belief that we're mostly focused on education and making money and taking care of our own communities. Even some Asian Americans can internalize those ideas, and then it's almost self-fulfilling; but in fact, there is little evidence that that's all Asian Americans are about. We express a pretty high level of interest in politics and policy. It's dangerous to focus on these cultural stereotypes when other structural issues are bigger barriers to our involvement.

Can you tell us more about the National Asian American Survey that was recently approved and funded? The last National Asian American Survey was conducted in 2008. Is there anything you're looking at this time that wasn't part of the 2008 survey?

We are going to be conducting it with an extensive group of national origin groups, in a range of languages. We're going to talk with 3600 people, with one wave in late August to mid-September, and a second wave mid-September through the election.

As for what's new, we're hoping to take a closer look at youth, because there's been kind of a disturbing trend -- some research suggests APIA young people (aged 15-30) tend to have the most access to the Internet, but participate in politics online at lower rates than other groups (participation would include things like posting political content, signing a petition online, joining a political group online, etc.). This is a group with a lot of resources in the aggregate -- many don't have same barriers as first-generation Asian Americans; they are citizens, they don't have the language barrier.

We're taking a closer look at race and intra-group relations -- so, Asian Americans' attitudes toward police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and their own experiences with racial discrimination. For the first time, also, we're looking at what different Asian American national origin groups think about other national origin groups.


What are the respective campaigns and parties doing this year to try and reach out to APIA voters?

The Clinton campaign is hiring some folks who've been active in the Asian American community. They've been explicit about wanting to do some outreach to Asian Americans, and the campaign does have a position paper targeted to Asian Americans. Asian American elected officials took the stage at the DNC, and they talked about Asian American history and policy positions.

Sometimes the Democratic Party or even the GOP will do targeted, general PSAs and campaign spots -- usually posted online, not televised. It's sort of a start. But in these spots, both parties, I think, tend to play on the model minority stereotype inadvertently. They'll show Asian faces and then talk about education and family, instead of focusing on the issues that tend to make Asian Americans distinct.

What issues are those?

We know that Asian Americans are more likely than the general population to want regulations to promote environmental health and safety, even if those come at some cost to business. Asian Americans support gun control. They are supportive of the Affordable Care Act. They want a social safety net and they're strongly in favor of immigration reform.

How do these limited efforts compare with those in the past? Or are we just now seeing the first concerted efforts to reach out to Asian American voters at all?

There have been some efforts -- starting in Bill Clinton's administration, there was a bit of effort, I think, but no one has really put serious resources into mobilizing the Asian American community because I think there's not quite enough political incentive to do so yet. What we see is more of a halfhearted, largely symbolic attempt to reach out. In a way, the same is true of the Latino vote -- for all the buzz about this important constituency in every election, when push comes to shove the parties don't put huge resources into getting out the Latino vote, either; they only make a strong effort in swing states with “high propensity” voters that have a strong history of involvement. A big chunk of the Latino and Asian American population gets left out when the rubber meets the road.

Another potential factor is Asian Americans' lack of strong partisan affiliation. Even though APIA voters have been trending heavily Democratic, we see that in terms of stated affiliation, they are more likely to say they're unaffiliated/independent. Parties do want to go after undecideds, but I think some are afraid to go after Asian Americans because they aren't sure if they'll vote their way.

You mentioned trending Democratic -- as a group, we heavily favored the reelection of Barack Obama. Depending on which report you look at, the President won 71% to 76% of the Asian vote in 2012.

Right, that was huge. I think that has to do with Asian Americans being very supportive of strong government programs. They tend to want those programs, and are willing to pay taxes for them. In surveys, if you ask “Do you want a bigger government with more services, or a smaller government with fewer services?” Asian Americans support more services, and are willing to pay higher taxes to get them. No matter how you parse out the Asian American population, no matter which national origin group you look at, you tend to see support for a strong safety net. That's a fundamental difference between the two political parties, the role of the government in everyday life.

What can we do to help ensure high voter turnout and help our communities have a strong voice -- this election year, and going forward?

Our communities need to be doing year-round voter education and mobilization. Registration is so important. Asian Americans aren't asked to register to vote at the same rate as many other groups. It needs to be a multilingual effort, and it needs to be ongoing -- not just during the big national races, but local elections too, and in non-election years. To a degree, we bear a great responsibility for our own mobilization and involvement. But campaigns, parties, and states can be doing more as well.

There is knowledge in our communities about where people are congregating -- how can we find people and help them register, make it as easy as possible for them? Research suggests that once Asian Americans register to vote, they vote at rates close to the general population. It can be a challenge to get people registered, but there's a huge payoff.

We also need to build up the infrastructure of political power and engagement in our communities. I'm intrigued by the idea that some younger voters, those engaged in racial justice issues and organizing, are more participatory in politics -- I'd love to see a campaign really trying hard to engage these young Asian American voters and mobilize them to help address racial inequality, think more about intersectionality and their connections to other groups. That is important and could also be really effective in terms of political involvement.

There's discussion in different states of a system in which everyone is automatically registered when obtaining a driver's license unless they opt out -- it's being implemented in California and is already happening in Oregon. Something like that, if it caught on, could be huge for a lot of communities with historically low voting rates.

We're seeing growth in the number of elected officials -- we're seeing more Asian Americans in local politics. This will help with voter mobilization, too. But the pipeline is still narrow. As our population continues to increase, I think we'll keep seeing more representation in politics. While we have seen growth, though, it's definitely an area of American life where we are currently underrepresented, despite gains we've made in other areas. Politics and entertainment are two big areas where we are still very underrepresented.

You've studied Asian American politics for over a decade now -- it's a long time for our communities. Are there any new trends you see that you are excited about?

I'm really happy that in every election we see more participation. I'm excited to see the beginning of what looks like it could be a broader Asian American political agenda, focused on things that some perhaps don't consider “our” issues -- like environmental protections; gun control; healthcare as a basic human right.

But I also have to say that I see some dangers, some divisions, especially in the Chinese American community around racial justice issues. It's not overwhelming, but it's beginning to look like the Chinese American community is split on affirmative action in college admissions, when the rest of the Asian American community is overwhelmingly supportive of it. It's a conservative position a small but vocal segment of the Chinese American community has taken, and it's starting to look as if they are pushing a kind of “colorblind” approach to society that denies or downplays the existence of real racial inequality.

There's a small group of Chinese Americans who even oppose disaggregating data by Asian American subgroup, because they don't want to recognize pockets of real need among other Asian national origin groups and would prefer not to think about some of these identity differences and issues. That's a problem, because this is a long-term civil rights issue for our community. It's hard to know what you are working toward, what you are up against, if you can't even get all the data.

Nicole Chung is a contributing editor at Catapult and The Establishment and the former managing editor of The Toast. Her essays, interviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Medium, and other publications; her first book, a memoir, is forthcoming from Catapult.

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