March 01, 2008

Asian American Voters: Does Race Matter?

author_cn By C.N. Le

I assume that many people are following the Presidential primaries, especially the race between the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As I write this Obama has more pledged delegates and has won more states, but Clinton has more “super delegates.” Clearly the race is still very tight.

Since my expertise is in studying racial/ethnic minorities, particularly Asian Americans, and to follow up with my last post on racial attitudes between racial/ethnic minorities, I'd like to discuss what the Super Tuesday results in California a few weeks ago say about Asian American voters in the largest state in the union and the one that contains the largest population of Asian Americans.

According to an MSNBC report, in California Asian Americans voted for Clinton by a surprisingly large margin of 3-to-1. These results have led many to ask to what extent racial prejudice against African Americans (and therefore, against Obama) played in the decisions of Asian American voters in California to overwhelmingly support Clinton.

In Does Obama Have an Asian Problem? Time magazine writes,

[Asian Americans] are the one ethnic group that has voted most consistently — and overwhelmingly — for his rival, Hillary Clinton. . . . [CSU Long Beach Sociology professor] Wang also suspects that race lurks among the possible reasons behind Asian immigrants' reticence to back Obama. "The images of African-Americans that get exported to other cultures is not often positive," says Wang, who teaches about pop culture and race. "It's not unusual to find new immigrants who have never had a meaningful, personal encounter with an African-American. So there's a very uninformed bias," says Wang.

It's certainly true that there has been a history of tension and even conflict between some African Americans and some Asian Americans. Some obvious obama-asians2 examples of this tension include the murder of Latasha Harlans by a Korean store owner during the 1990s in Los Angeles; public boycotts against Korean store owners in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; and perhaps most famously, the destruction of dozens of Korean American-owned small businesses during the Los Angeles Riot in 1992. While many scholars argue that the media has exaggerated and sensationalized such tensions, others note that cultural misunderstandings have contributed them.

To what extent do such tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans still exist some 15 years later after the incidents I mentioned above? Are they still intense enough to cause three-quarters of Asian American voters in California to vote for Clinton rather than Obama?

Others have argued convincingly that there are most likely factors other than racial prejudice that can account for why Asian Americans in California voted in large numbers for Clinton.

Specifically, Asian American voters may be more familiar and comfortable with "establishment" candidates who are more associated with being powerful and influential. In that respect, based on her close association with her husband and former President Bill Clinton, Hillary personifies being part of the "establishment" more than Obama does.

For example, another Asian American political blogger Jeff Chang writes:

Clinton's main advantage is that she has the access to power and the party structures that deliver promises to officials and operatives. Obama doesn't. Emergent politics favors individuals seeking power. Think of it this way: Hillary, the woman candidate, is bringing Latino and Asian American leaders into the old-boy's network.

These leaders, in turn, deliver votes via their community's structures of power: business groups, labor unions, voter groups, community organizations. Those groups tend to deliver an older voter who is already "in the game", who can directly benefit from the opening of the old-boy's network. "Experience" really is a cover for "access."

Also, as the Time magazine article cited above also notes, 

Like other new immigrants, Asian-Americans are more conservative in their choices for leaders, and therefore likely to go with the known entity — which in this race, thanks to her husband and her time in the White House, is Clinton. Many Asians are business owners who prospered under Bill Clinton. . . . Perhaps most significantly, the Clinton campaign had long ago locked up support from local politicians, who hold unusual sway over their ethnic communities. . . .

What's more, there's the gender factor. Many Asian cultures are patriarchal, and Clinton is the only female candidate in the field. But despite their cultures, many immigrants from those countries may in fact be more familiar than Americans with a female leader: Indira Gandhi in India, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. And many of those leaders, like Clinton, were married to or descended from obama-asians-carlos-barria-reuters2 former leaders.

Confirming my own read of the Democratic landscape, Jeff goes on to note that since Obama's strength seems to lie more with younger and U.S.-born voters rather than older ones, it's likely that he did much better with younger Asian American voters in California as well, while less successful with their parents, or with first-generation Asian immigrants.

For now, what we do know is that Obama and his campaign have some work to do to win over Asian American (and Latino American) voters. While Obama appeals to younger members of both groups’ distrust of the establishment (particularly among young Latino and Asian American bloggers who disproportionately support him), that message does not play as well with older members or first-generation immigrants.

As the Asian American community continues to become younger, Obama’s appeal is only likely to increase among Asian American voters. This demographic shift probably won’t occur in time for him to win the Democratic nomination, but if he does get the nomination it will be interesting to see how much support he receives from the Asian American community in the general election.


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