Election 2008: How the Asian Voice Can Change the Political Arena

web-voting2headerBack in 1996, when President Bill Clinton was re-elected for a second term, opponents to his presidency accused the Democratic National Committee of accepting foreign money to fund his campaign. As mainstream news sources leapt to cover this reported “Asiangate Scandal,” the DNC rushed to return all funds it had received from anyone with an Asian-sounding last name, regardless of that person’s citizenship or affiliation.

While all this was going on, I was in third grade. On election night, my biggest preoccupation was making sure that my eighth birthday party would be as extravagant as possible. By the time I reached middle school, the only Clinton scandal I could name was the infamous Lewinsky affair, but even the idea of living through the second impeachment in U.S. history paled in comparison to my anticipation of the newest Backstreet Boys album. Washington, at this time, seemed as far away from my life as could be.

Needless to say, circumstances have changed. Since then, we have seen September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, climate change, economic downturns, and a surge in gas and food prices worldwide. Among other things, these are the conditions under which we have grown into political consciousness. We are a new generation of voters, distinct from those who voted (or chose not to vote) in 2000. The political atmosphere that we are inheriting is not the one to which we bore witness as middle and high schoolers less than a decade ago.

And this time, it’s our turn to make a difference. As the youngest generation of participating voters, as Asian Americans, and as women, it is time for us to declare in this new political atmosphere that we do have a voice, and we will have a say.

Research from the Office of Minority Health has identified Asian Americans as the single fastest growing racial minority in the U.S. Nevertheless, for over a century, there has been some doubt as to whether or not Asian Americans will be able to unify as a viable political voice in the American political arena. Many feel that the category “Asian American” is problematic in itself in that it does not acknowledge the diversity within our community. This diversity is racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic—we belong to a category that encompasses the recently emigrated as well as those who were born and raised in the U.S.

At the same time, we, as a community, remember Japanese American internment, the Vietnam War, Vincent Chin, the anti-Arab sentiment that followed 9/11, and all other instances in this country’s history in which we have been given the ubiquitous, uncritical label of foreigner.

Yet, as comedian Margaret Cho declared in response to critics’ demands that she “go back to her country,” we are in our country. We must not confuse diversity with divisiveness, nor unification with homogeneity. Remembering where we’ve come from is every bit as significant as having a say in where we are going. While we come from different places, hold different beliefs, and speak different languages, there are certain issues that pertain to us all: immigration reform, racial profiling, language barriers, hate crimes and equal access to jobs and education—in addition to healthcare, the economy, the war and the environment. We are entitled to protect our interests and make sure that the system is working for us.

While there are several organizations encouraging Asian Pacific Islander Americans to vote in larger numbers, the most famous of these organizations is the 80-20 Initiative. A national, non-partisan, pan-ethnic organization, 80-20 was founded in response to the campaign finance scandal of 1996 in order to address Asian American feelings of political helplessness, and, perhaps to a certain extent, naïveté. The organization’s main goal is to facilitate the creation of an Asian American swing vote by endorsing the candidate that makes a commitment to support APIA interests.

web-voting11“In order to create unity,” says Dr. S.B. Woo, former president of 80-20, “and to struggle effectively for our rights, it requires that we communicate with each other, and that we find a common issue.”

With a mailing list of about 700,000 people, 80-20 is one of the largest organizations committed to facilitating pan-Asian American communication. 80-20 is currently working to create equal opportunity in the workplace; its next goal is to achieve equal rates of admission to colleges and universities.

And the number of advocacy groups striving to increase political awareness in the community only keeps growing. Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP) has just founded the Asian American Civic Project, which aims to assist college graduates who hope to pursue a future in electoral politics. Providing a fellowship to receive practical training on the campaign trail, the project seeks not only to support candidates who will protect APA interests, but also, in the long run, to allow for more self-representation from our own community.

Whatever the outcome, the election this November marks a historic change in the political landscape of the U.S. Most noticeably, this is the first year that a major political party has recognized both a woman and a nonwhite candidate as legitimate contenders in a presidential campaign. Senator Barack Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate is particularly heartening for many minority voters; he is the only candidate who has an Asian Pacific American-specific policy outlined on his campaign website, which has been translated Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese to include immigrant voters whose first language is not English.

This campaign is also the first in which the internet has played a truly influential role. From the increasingly interactive campaign websites for each of the candidates to the rise of the blogging community, YouTube, Facebook and even Twitter as mediums for political discourse and outreach, the internet has helped generate a new information culture that puts us, America’s young voters, at a distinct advantage when it comes to making an informed decision. From mainstream media sources to less widely known opinion blogs, there are so many ways to research the candidates and the issues that are important to you. Blogs written by other Asian Pacific Americans are a particularly good way to learn more about some of the issues that affect us as a community. If you are not able to vote yet, there are still lots of ways to get involved: try volunteering for your candidate of choice, or with a political organization in your area.

This primary season has seen historic highs in voter turnout. According to the AALDEF, Asian American voter participation increased 71% from 1996 to 2004. Let us do our best to make sure that these numbers continue to rise. If you are 18, please be sure to register to vote. RockTheVote.com is a great resource to find out the voting registration deadlines in your state, and much more.

As we grow into the new political landscape that we have inherited from the leaders of the past eight years, it is imperative that we speak our minds, vote from our hearts, and make this election our own. In a country that has consistently treated us as either foreigners or as quiet members of the “model minority," the best way to reclaim our voice is to make sure that it's heard. No matter which candidate you support, please take the time to vote or campaign this November. In every district and every state, your vote is your own, and it makes a difference. We have the power, the agency, and the right to make a difference in this country, and now, we have the opportunity.