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Asian Americans May Hold Key to Multiethnic Politics

October 05, 1997|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

Democratic Party fund-raiser John Huang used to tell potential Asian American donors that the nation's political establishment would take greater notice of them if their contributions exceeded their percentage of the population. Huang's fund-raising tactics certainly moved Asian Americans to the political center stage--if under the probing light of scandal. As a result, many Asian American leaders are looking for new strategies to give the nation's 9 million Asian Americans a more prominent role in politics. They may discover that they are uniquely positioned to lead a multiethnic society.

In Southern California, home of the largest Asian population in the nation, many Asian American civic leaders fear the scandal will, in the short term, dry up political contributions. But they disagree on whether it will keep average Asian American voters away from the polls or spark greater participation in the hope of ensuring representation at the highest levels of government.

Despite the well-publicized creation of National Asian Pacific American Coalition, a network of activist groups that seeks to be to Asian Americans what the Anti-Defamation League is to Jews, most Asian American political activists will probably devote more time to building regional political infrastructures. The Huang affair, among other things, has exposed just how little energy has gone into cultivating an electorate and recruiting candidates locally.

Even so, Asian American political participation reached a high point during the 1996 campaigns. In Washington state, the election of Gary Locke as the first ever Asian American governor on the mainland was a huge symbolic victory. Public debates over curtailing immigrant-family reunification and denying welfare benefits to legal immigrants spurred both a rush to naturalization and heightened political activity. Between 1992 and the present, the Asian portion of the California electorate doubled from an estimated 3% to 6% of the total.

Despite these gains, most observers of and participants in Southern California's Asian American political scene do not see the burgeoning Asian electorate becoming a potent political force any time soon. Asian Americans have the distinction of being the most geographically dispersed and residentially integrated ethnic minority. While it may seem puzzling that Asian Americans lack significant political clout given their considerable socioeconomic mobility, it is precisely because of this mobility that they lack greater political power.

Having the highest rates of academic achievement and the highest median household income of any racial group in the region, Asian Americans, overall, have more easily moved into upscale suburban neighborhoods than perhaps any immigrant group in the nation's history. Unlike other minority or immigrant groups, they do not have a history of looking to politics as a route to either individual or community upward mobility. Thus, lacking both demographic concentration and a cultural proclivity toward politics as a solution, Asian Americans have not formed a power base as have Jews and blacks. Even the three largest Asian concentrations in Southern California--the southern San Gabriel Valley, central Orange County and the South Bay--don't tip the ethnic balance of a state Assembly or Senate district, which represent 375,000 and 750,000 residents, respectively.

Yet, Asian Americans are not without future political advantages. The region's Asian population, which grew by 451% between 1970 and 1990, is relatively new to America and will likely become more civic-minded as years and generations pass. In 1990, only 28% of Southern California's Asians were U.S.-born. Large-scale Asian immigration, starting in the 1970s, transformed what had been a small, mostly U.S.-born and predominately Japanese American Asian population into a large, highly diverse and overwhelmingly foreign-born group. Chinese and Filipinos make up the two largest Asian groups, followed by Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

Continued voter-registration drives of the kind that signed up 20,000 new Asian American voters in Los Angeles and Orange County, and 75,000 nationwide, before the last presidential election could go a long way toward reversing the current low rate of voter registration among Asian Americans. A UCLA study released last year indicates, moreover, that once registered, Asian Americans have the highest rate of voting of any group.

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