The diverse world of Asian-Americans
A century after they were kept out of the country by law, Asian-Americans are influencing both domestic politics and foreign policy of the US
There are now over 23 million Asian Americans, constituting seven per cent of the population of the United States (US). This is a widely heterogenous group, consisting of people who trace their origin to the mosaic of nationalities that constitutes Asia. But in the American social lexicon, the term refers broadly to people from East Asia, China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Among the six largest groups are Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, who together constitute close to 80% of the country’s Asian population.
What a stark departure this is from a century ago, when the Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded Asians from entering the US. Asians owe a huge debt to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That movement for equality and against discrimination, led by Black-Americans, eventually paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1965, which, in turn, enabled the migration of Asians, including Indians, to pursue their American dream.
Given their numbers, economic strength, presence in all states, role in political processes, and contribution to every facet of American life, American politicians now view Asian-Americans as a political category to be wooed.
While this applies to both Democrats and Republicans, Democrats have been more committed to the idea of inclusion. From ramping up celebrations during Asian-American Pacific-Islander Native Hawaiian heritage month every May to the anti hate-crime legislations in the wake of enhanced attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, and from setting up dedicated organisational units to ensuring that the Joe Biden administration has the highest number of Asian-Americans in US’s political history, Democrats have carefully sought to cultivate this constituency. On the other hand, Republicans are hoping to make inroads with these communities by tapping into high-income groups with their promise of lower taxes, socially conservative attitudes of these groups towards gender and sexuality with the “anti-woke” rhetoric, and perceived rifts with other marginalised communities over issues such as affirmative action by speaking the language of “merit”.
The numbers reflect the gap between the two parties. According to a landmark Pew study of Asian-American attitudes released earlier this year, 56% Chinese, 68% Indians, 68% Filipinos, and 61% Koreans lean towards Democrats. At 51%, Vietnamese-Americans appear to be the only Asian group where a slight majority leans Republicans.
For many, the common history of exclusion from and in the US, and a convergence of interests, especially in the face of rising White Supremacist politics, means that Indian-Americans are a part of this wider milieu of Asian-Americans. Indeed, this is the hope of Democrats as they seek to build a multi-racial and multi-ethnic democracy, both as a philosophical commitment but also as a smart electoral strategy. For instance, Shekar Narasimhan, a respected community figure active in Democratic politics, is the founder and chairperson of the AAPI victory fund, the first super political action committee (PAC) dedicated to building the political power and increasing representation of progressive Asian-American candidates. Every May, the who is who of Asian-American political and cultural landscape come together at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to celebrate the community’s rise. At the same time, Indian-Americans are also a distinct category and are seen by others as one. The same Pew Study suggests that while close to 90% Asian adults view East Asians and Southeast Asians to be Asians, only 67% of them view South Asians to be in the same category and an even lesser proportion, 43%, view Central Asians as Asians. At 41%, Indian-Americans are also most likely among all Asian groups to identify themselves solely as Indians.
Beyond domestic society and politics, as US foreign policy takes a clear adversarial view of China, there has been a fallout within Asian-American politics. Progressive Democrats fear that the anti-China attitude runs the risk of translating into hate crimes against Chinese-origin American citizens. But while there must be vigilance against hate crimes, progressives don’t appear to be listening to the constituents they claim to represent.
A new Pew Study, released on Tuesday, shows that while 78% Asian-Americans view the US favourably, only 20% view China favourably (33% have favourable views of India). Indeed, 52% of all Asian-American adults surveyed have very or somewhat unfavourable views of China. Another Carnegie study of Asian-Americans in California had a similar conclusion: 54% of survey respondents held unfavourable views of China.
While all other Asian-American groups have favourable views of their own countries of origin, Chinese-Americans are an exception, with only 41% of them having a favourable view of their ancestral homeland, according to Pew. Instead, 72% Chinese Americans have a favourable view of the US. Along with the Vietnamese, Chinese adults are also the only ones to express more favourable views of other places in Asia than their homelands. At 62%, Chinese adults also have a more favourable view of Taiwan than of China itself — though this number is higher for those born in the US than those who have immigrated from China. 53% Chinese also believe that the US will remain the top economic power over the next decade.
To see the contrast, see comparable figures for Indian-Americans. 86% have a favourable view of the US, 76% of them have a favourable view of India while 60% have an unfavourable view of China. Compared to 16% Chinese, one-third of Indians are also open to moving back to their country of origin. From domestic politics to foreign policy, get ready for Asian-Americans to exercise more influence over US politics; 99 years after they were kept out of the country through law, they are poised to shape America’s present and future.
The views expressed are personal