Now in its 27th year, AAJA Voices is a student program that provides aspiring journalists with career-ready skills to succeed in the continually-evolving media landscape. By nurturing relationships between students and professional volunteers, Voices also gives students the opportunity to tap into mentors’ networks and begin their own while also providing AAJA journalists leadership and management opportunities. 

Understanding Asian American Political Identity – A Coming-of-Age Story

By Anh Nguyen

At a recent rally calling for the end of Southeast Asian American deportations, I had a realization.

The “End SEA Deportation” rally, organized by community group VietLead, was mostly attended by young high school and college students, community leaders and deportees’ family members.

Out of around 40 demonstrators outside a busy Vietnamese supermarket in Philadelphia – the home of more than 390,000 Asian Americans, few was older than 55 years old.

The Trump administration has accelerated the process of deporting Southeast Asian Americans with more than 16,000 individuals with final order of removal, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, but around the country, similar rallies were mostly organized and attended by 1.5 and second generation Asian Americans. 

Asian Americans have long contributed to American democracy, but their potentials are often eluded by the silent masses, eligible voters who simply don’t engage with politics at any level.

According to Pew Research Center, while people with higher levels of education and people with greater income are more likely to vote in U.S. elections, among the college educated, Asian American voter turnout (40%) lagged behind that of whites (64%), blacks (57%) and Hispanics (50%). This is despite the fact that some 47% of Asian-American eligible voters in 2010 had a college education, a rate higher than for whites (31%), blacks (18%) and Hispanics (16%).

The same report found out that about 37% of Asian Americans chose “Too busy, conflicting work or school schedule,” as a reason for not voting, compared with about one-in-four Hispanics, whites and blacks.

But that lack of engagement in Asian American electorate is changing fast as millennials, who are between 23 and 38 years old, are approaching the baby boomers, who are between 55 and 73, in their share of votes.

Across the country, a new wave of engaged and active voters in Asian American communities is turning the tide on local and national politics. In 2018, the Asian American vote helped flip three congressional seats in Orange County, Calif., so that the previous Republican stronghold is now entirely represented by Democrats. The surprise high turnout was attributed to a surge of young Vietnamese American voters who tend to lean Democrat – over their parents and grandparents’ generations who tend to lean Republican.

In Philadelphia’s local election this past May, the young Asian American Democratic vote helped re-elect Councilwoman Helen Gym, whereas her Republican counterpart, David Oh, was unseated.

Progressive agenda also comes with combatting systemic racism, an uncomfortable topic for older generation Asian immigrants who uphold the model minority myth and prioritize assimilation over anti-racism.

The divide, as pointed out by AAJA 2019 Voices member Marella Gayla, starts in the Asian American households. Asian immigrant parents and their children do not interact to form joint political identity as much as white families, whose dinner conversations may have been more open and political in nature. Young Asian Americans often developed their political identities in school and through other life experiences, often leading to a generational gap in political ideology between them and their parents.

This phenomenon transcends and connects the pan-Asian diaspora in the U.S., demonstrated by the correlations between voting patterns and age groups under the same racial category.  The 2018 AAPI Vote poll shows that in 2018, 76 percent of 18 to 34 year old Asian Americans disapproved of Trump, but only 46 percent of 50 to 64 year olds did, reflecting the gap between young and old white voters.

According to an exit polls survey conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in the 2016 presidential election over 14 states, despite the overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton across all age levels, Asian American voters between ages 60 to 69 showed the greatest support for Donald Trump at 28%, compared to 89% voters from 18 to 29 years old who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Beyond the party line, this demographic, just like the rest of the country, has seen a surge in young voters embracing socialist ideologies in handling the student debt crisis, the expensive yet ineffective U.S. healthcare system and global warming. How does this trend affect first generation Asian Americans, who might have fled their countries due to Communist regimes, and how does this play out in households with the lack of joint political identity?

AAJA 2019 Voices’ Politics team believe Asian Americans are at a watershed moment that is redefining their political presence in America. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., projected as the nation’s largest immigrant group to surpass Hispanics in 2055. As younger, more educated and politically engaged Asian Americans continue to vote majority Democrat, will this create clashes with the more right-leaning older Asian American immigrants? We believe it’s noteworthy to write about how these ideologies are originally formed among the older and younger Asian immigrants to understand the significance of the generational gap and how it will influence the 2020 presidential elections. The struggle for change starts with the political conversations discussed within the Asian American household’s family structure through the interplay of different identities, experiences and aspirations. Elections are times for unity, but will Asian Americans’ intergenerational strength survive this test?

Anh Nguyen is a 2019 AAJA Voices Student. She is a recent graduate of Temple University, and an incoming copy desk intern at the Los Angeles Times this summer.

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