On Sunday, President Trump used Twitter to attack four freshman members of Congress, all women of color, saying that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Over the past few days, many lawmakers from both parties have criticized these comments as xenophobic and racist. The House of Representatives on Tuesday even passed a formal condemnation of the president’s comments, mostly along party lines.
In addition to specifically targeting these four members of Congress, many critics felt that the president’s comments more broadly captured a sentiment that nonwhite Americans, particularly the foreign born, are not welcome in the United States. Many people, including both citizens who came to the United States as immigrants and those who were born in the United States, told personal stories of being told to “go back home” to their countries of origin.
Does the president’s rhetoric — and what some perceive as the Republican Party’s lukewarm repudiation (or sometimes defense) of it — affect the political attitudes of racial minorities? Specifically, how might it affect the political orientations of Asian Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States? Many Asian Americans are either immigrants or children of immigrants. They comprise an increasingly important voting bloc that has not clearly solidified behind one party.
We conducted two studies to address this question, and published our research in the Journal of Politics, a leading political science journal.
Asian Americans are more likely to be Democrats if they’ve experienced discrimination
In our first study, we analyzed data from the 2008 National Asian American Survey (NAAS), a nationally representative survey of Asian Americans. This study of 5,519 individuals is one of the largest and most detailed studies of Asian American political preferences to date.
The survey asked respondents whether they had ever been racially discriminated against in the following ways: (1) unfairly denied a job or fired, (2) unfairly denied a promotion at work, (3) unfairly treated by the police, (4) unfairly prevented from renting or buying a home, (5) unfairly treated at a restaurant or other place of service or (6) been a victim of a hate crime. Nearly 40 percent of the sample reported being a victim in at least one of these situations.
We then used statistical techniques to find out whether there was any relationship between experiencing discrimination and identifying with a political party, testing to make sure that the effects of discrimination didn’t get mixed up with several other plausible factors that might affect party choice.
What we found was that individuals who had experienced discrimination were seven to eight percentage points more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. This is a big effect — it’s comparable to the effect of religious identification and about a third as big as the effect of having higher education.
This tells us that Asian Americans who have experienced discrimination and exclusion are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party, which has been developing a brand of fighting for civil rights and against racial discrimination.
This is plausibly a causal relationship
As statistics teachers will tell you, correlation does not imply causation. Even if two factors go together, we don’t know which causes which. It is hard to be sure that the experience of being discriminated against causes more Asian Americans to identify with the Democratic Party. Perhaps Asian Americans who identify as Democrats are more likely to remember or report instances of discrimination. This is why we carried out an experiment, to try to figure out what was causing what.
We carried out our experiment on a group of college students, some of whom were Asian American and some of whom were white (to be used as a baseline group). To see how discrimination might affect party feelings, we had a white female research assistant randomly tell half of the students: “I’m sorry; I forgot that this study is only for U.S. citizens. Are you a U.S. citizen? I cannot tell.” This treatment is a milder form of the comments levied by Trump. It questioned the students’ citizenship and whether they really belonged as Americans. The idea was to make some of the subjects feel socially excluded based on their ethnicity, mimicking the kinds of common racial microaggression they experience in the real world. After the research assistant made this comment, the subjects completed a political survey on a computer.
We asked the subjects to list as many U.S. politicians as they could think of on the spot. The idea was that if the racial microaggression offends Asian Americans and makes them feel that they were perpetual foreigners in their own country, they might want to compensate by showing how much they know about American politics in an attempt to feel less excluded and prove themselves as more “American.” Asian Americans responded to the racial microaggression treatment by listing nearly six more U.S. politicians compared to white Americans. They also spent about a minute and a half longer to complete this listing task than white respondents.
We also created a measure combining the respondents’ various perceptions of the Republican and Democratic parties. The higher the value of this measure, the more positive was the respondent’s opinion of the Democratic Party relative to the Republican Party. The racial microaggression increased the positive evaluation score of Democrats by 13 percentage points among Asian American students when compared to the baseline of white students. This is strong evidence that Asian Americans are likely to feel less positive toward the Republican Party relative to the Democratic Party, when they feel socially excluded and have had their citizenship status questioned.
This may tell us how Asian Americans will respond to the last few days
American voters take cues from the rhetoric of political elites. When Asian Americans hear exclusionary language used by Trump, and a mixed and underwhelming response by Republican officials, they are likely to associate their everyday social exclusion with the Republican Party. This would make it less likely that they would support Republicans, and increase the predominance of white supporters of the Republican Party.
Of course, real life politics is more complex than social science experiments. There could be issues where the Democratic Party makes Asian Americans feel socially excluded. For instance, the Republican Party has already attempted to use affirmative action and skilled immigration as potential wedge issues to nudge Asian Americans to support the Republican Party. However, if the Republican Party continues to make Asian Americans and other minority groups feel as if they are not “true Americans” and strangers in their own land, their efforts to carve off Asian Americans on more specific issues are likely to fail.
Alexander Kuo is an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations and tutorial fellow at Christ Church at the University of Oxford.
Neil Malhotra is the Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Cecilia Hyunjung Mo is an assistant professor in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.