Home > News > How to un-model a minority: A micro-syllabus on Asian American politics
204 views 9 min 0 Comment

How to un-model a minority: A micro-syllabus on Asian American politics

Here’s how to teach — or learn — about this complex topic

- April 27, 2021

While some people talk of Asian Americans as “honorary Whites,” the recent spike in violence against Asian Americans — including a gunman killing eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area spas — remind us that this group too can be marginalized and attacked. As Margaret M. Chin and Yung-Yi Diana Pan explained here at TMC recently, the “model minority” myth is part of the problem.

So how do you un-model a minority? That requires understanding this population’s immense diversity and its complex place in the nation’s efforts to repair its racist past.

Professors: Want more? Look at our new Race and Ethnic Politics topic guide.

How to teach (or learn about) Asian American politics

Following a micro-syllabus on scholarship on Black Lives Matter, we created a micro-syllabus on Asian American politics, drawing on articles from the journal “Politics, Groups, and Identities” (PGI). We loosely organized the articles along seven interrelated topics. The articles will be free to read and download until Aug. 1.

We begin with articles describing different ways to think about and undertake political analysis from the perspectives of Asian and other racial and ethnic minorities, including the racist beginnings of the political science discipline and continuing challenges in collecting and accessing scientifically sound data on numerically small and scattered populations.

Asian Americans comprise an extraordinarily diverse category. People whose families have come from such different parts of Earth’s largest continent as China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on may not see themselves as closely connected to one another — much less with other U.S. racial and ethnic groups.

We know that group identity can affect how people think and act politically. Among Asian Americans, having candidates from the same national background can help increase interest in politics. For example, Vietnamese American candidates can trigger greater turnout of Vietnamese American voters, and more Filipino Americans may vote when Filipino candidates are on the ballot.

But Asian Americans can also vote for fellow Asians regardless of ethnic differences. A California study found Asian Americans likely to band together across ethnic lines to support Asian candidates facing a non-Asian opponent. Other research with national data produces similar findings.

Asian Americans vary not just by national origin but also along many other dimensions of identity: gender, income, education, occupation and whether someone is U.S.- or foreign-born. For example, Asian American women overall tend to be more likely to vote than Asian American men. But female foreign-born Asian Americans are less likely than their male counterparts to contact officials, contribute to campaigns or become politically engaged in other ways.

Asian immigrants usually do not arrive with strong leanings toward either political party, making it less likely that they will influence their children’s partisan leanings. Instead, for both the immigrant and second generation, peer groups often influence Asian American choices about which political party to support.

Those born and raised in Asia often keep social, political, cultural and other connections with people in their country of origin. That influences their political concerns, like Korean Americans’ interest in redress for World War II “comfort women.”

There’s a long, global history to today’s anti-Asian bias and violence

The new racial fault line

Asian Americans have a complicated place in the U.S. racial structure, including how this group looks at affirmative action, racial threat and discrimination, and racial coalitions.

Whether Asian Americans say they support affirmative action depends on how a survey phrases the question. For instance, they support “programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education” or policies “to give qualified individuals equal access to employment.” But if asked about supporting racial or gender “preference in hiring and promotion,” Asian Americans say they’re opposed. While Whites are the most vigorously opposed to affirmative action, Asian Americans actively opposed affirmative action in college admissions. But their reasoning might be more complex than survey research could reveal.

Some observers argue that the admissions issue could push Asian Americans toward the Republican Party, but pandemic-related anti-Asian bias could instead pull them toward the Democrats — especially since President Donald Trump and his supporters began referring to “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan flu,” spurring more anti-Asian attitudes and attacks. Asian Americans who see connections among different Asian American nationalities are more likely to support Black Lives Matter.

When Asian Americans feel discriminated against, they sometimes start feeling they have more in common with other marginalized ethnoracial groups. Fear may push Asian Americans to get more politically involved, volunteering on campaigns or going to protests, but we don’t know whether that will persist as attacks disappear from the headlines.

What do these tell us about Asian Americans on today’s racial fault line? Political theorist Claire Jean Kim suggests that Asians have long been triangulated in relation to Blacks and Whites, praised for socioeconomic achievements but also treated as “forever foreigners” who cannot assimilate, even if their families have been in the United States for generations. Kim’s argument reveals that understanding Asian Americans requires taking a broad perspective, as these identities are shaped by historical and transnational forces that cross scholarly disciplinary lines.

Americans aren’t learning about anti-Asian bias prompted by the pandemic. We have the data.

Learn more about Asian Americans and politics

Our micro-syllabus is just a start. Those who want to learn more might wish to learn about Asian immigrants’ long struggle to be fully included in American society by reading scholars such as Roger Daniels, Ronald Takaki, Sucheng Chan, Mae Ngai, Beth Lew-Williams, and Erika Lee, who show the hostility, violence and legal exclusion that met earlier generations.

Groundbreaking research laid the foundations for understanding Asian American political behavior today. In 1986, Don Nakanishi published a seminal research paradigm in which he categorized Asian American politics into four contrasting but intersecting dimensions: electoral vs. nonelectoral and U.S.-domestic vs. non-U.S.-based politics. Building on that, the American Political Science Association recently published a review of more than two decades of research on Asian American politics to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, which we co-founded.

In the midst of the U.S. racial reckoning, recognizing the complexity of Asian Americans can help with the task ahead.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Andrew Aoki (aoki@augsburg.edu) is a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg University.

Pei-te Lien (plien@polsci.ucsb.edu) is a professor of political science and of Asian American studies, feminist studies and Black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and vice president of the Western Political Science Association.