Melissa Harris-Perry | May 27, 2012
HARRIS-PERRY: Here in Nerdland , as we made a point of saying before, we don't like to put people into boxes, especially one size fits all boxes for voter who's happen to share the same racial or ethnic identity . But political expediency often ends up boxing people into broad categories anyway, as it did on Thursday, when the president attended a $35,800 a head fundraiser in San Jose , California , for a group of Asian American business leaders. It was closed to the press, but you can bet he got more mileage out of the speech he delivered to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies two weeks ago.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I think about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders , I think about my family, I think about all the folks I grew with in Honolulu , I think about all the years I spent in Indonesia . So, for me, coming here feels a little bit like home.
HARRIS-PERRY: So we felt compelled to take a look inside the so- called Asian-American voter box. And what we found is that this diverse group is one that political hopefuls ignore at their peril. According to the 2010 Census , over the last decade, Asian-Americans have been the fastest growing population of all racial groups, and as voters, they have been largely overlooked by both parties. In fact, a recent Democratic survey in Asian-American voters found that only 23 percent said they had been contacted by the Democratic Party in the last two years, while just 17 percent had heard from Republicans . More than half who identify as independents ripe for the political picking have not been contacted by either party in the last two years. But reaching out to Asian American voters mean reaching out to all the diverse voters who call themselves Asian-American . And that's everyone from the three largest groups, Chinese, Filipino, and Indian Americans, to Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese Americans. I could go on and on. Asia is a big continent, but you get the big picture . So, the question, can the political potential be mobilized into a single bloc?
With me here at the table are: actress and comedian Margaret Cho , political analyst and senior fellow at Third Way , Bill Schneider , political science professor at the University of Southern California , Jane Junn , and associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Connecticut , Jelani Cobb . Thanks to everyone for being here. So, I am excited about the idea that finally we may start talking in media about Asian American voters in the ways that we have I think increasingly started to talk about Latino voters and have long been talking about black American voters. But is that the wrong way to think about it ? Like the Asian-American voters is not that sort of voting bloc .
MARGARET CHO, COMEDIAN: I think after Jeremy Lin after everything counts. We're all finally in the game.
HARRIS-PERRY: We're all Jeremy Lin now.
CHO: Super exciting. I don't know. I think for my family in particular, we talked about this before, so hard for them to take ownership of political power and to vote, that they felt like they belonged in this country. When my parents came here, I was born in the '60s, my father was deported because my father stayed his student visa. I'm the only person in my family who have been born in America . So, my mother would push me forward, like, she's white. Like I was supposed to be the generation to take on the political power , and nah empowerment, my parents are uncomfortable with it. And that's the thing -- also Asian American voters don't have a group identity. They have so many diverse identities within Asian America . There is an unwillingness to identify as the same over here.
HARRIS-PERRY: It feels in that way similar to Latino voters who are from obviously lots of different national origins, and yet it's funny, you talked about Jeremy Lin moment, because the Sonia Sotomayor moment, was one in which here have you a Puerto Rican , who's going to become the first Latina on the Supreme Court , but it didn't make a lot of difference to Mexican Americans who were quite thrilled to have Sotomayor appointed to the court, despite the fact that Puerto Rico and Mexico different sorts of background.
BILL SCHNEIDER, POLITICAL ANALYST: Latino population is diverse, but overwhelmingly Mexican American and do speak Spanish overwhelmingly. Asians are enormously diverse.
HARRIS-PERRY: Including linguistically.
SCHNEIDER: Exactly. They speak different languages, they have different religions. The identity of being Asian doesn't exist except in the United States . They come here as Indians, as Filipinos, as Japanese. And suddenly in the United States , they say, hey, I'm Asian, I never knew that.
HARRIS-PERRY: It feels like in the West , some of sort of the Asian - American political power is finally being demonstrated. I found the San Francisco mayor 's race fascinating, right? There were six, I think, Asian Americans running, including Jeff Adachi , who is my sister's boss in the San Francisco public defender's office. This notion that there was a real power play by mayoral candidates, maybe the West is beginning do this work?
JANE JUNN, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR: It's only a matter of time , stands to reason given the size of the population in California . Hawaii and California , the two states with the largest Asian American populations as diverse as it is across the country. Nevertheless, California 's population is almost 13 percent Asian-Americans , almost three times the size of the African-American population, which is staggering from an East Coast perspective. Similarly, Hawaii is the only state that's a majority of Asian American in mix as well as single race.
HARRIS-PERRY: Does that make President Obama the first Asian American president? It's a bit like calling Bill Clinton the first black president . Maybe more of a claim given Hawaii and childhood in Indonesia , and that sort of thing.
CHO: I think so. I think that he does sort of claims in sort of the same way Tiger Woods is Asian American , that sort of like we're going to lay claim on it, and Hawaii to me is Asian America in a nutshell. You get like spam used to be in the 7- Eleven . That's so exotic. I love that. JELANI COBB, UNIV. OF CONNECTICUT: There's an interesting parallel here, we're talking about President Obama as the first Asian-American president. You know, when we look at the 1965 Voting Rights Act and what it did with African-Americans and vastly increasing the number of black voters in the system, it is somehow like a new group, immigrant group coming in and coming into the political system . What's important, look at the Voting Rights Act has evolved and is key to mobilizing the Asian American vote. One other provision says a population over 5 percent in a particular area, you have to have ballot materials in the indigenous language . And so, without the Voting Rights Act , you would not have that provision. And so, we see a generation later that will have maybe that parallel.
HARRIS-PERRY: We insisted in the first hour that African-American voting needed to be policy based and not just identity based. And so I'm wondering, we're talking a little on the identity politics piece here for Asian American voters, is President Obama the first Asian American voter? But what are the policies look like? I mean, with this kind linguistics and national origins difference, are there discernible differences in what Asian American voters are looking for a candidate?
JUNN: They're definitely more Democratic, and we know this after systematic public opinion surveys of Asian-Americans . Many of the interviews having to be done in language. Jelani noted 40 percent of Asian American who's conducted surveys at least in studies that I have with my colleagues, have done it in their native language . And that's the function of the fact that 8 out of 10 adult Asian-Americans are foreign born . They're most comfortable speaking to interviewers in their own language. What we find issues that animate -- political issues that animate Asian-Americans are very much the same as animate all Americans . They're not necessarily different in that way.
JUNN: Economic, jobs, economy. All important issues. In 2008 , the war in Iraq very important to Asian-Americans . Health care as well. But we see emerging overtime is a consensus toward the Democratic Party and toward Democratic candidates, In part because of the nature of the inclusiveness and the language of inclusiveness to the Democratic Party . Because you are an immigrant, by definition, you don't really fit in and to find a party that is embracing as immigrants as opposed to pushing them away is an important element to the affect that Asian - Americans have for the Democratic Party .
HARRIS-PERRY: I found it shocking when we dug up these numbers, it said that the parties aren't contacting. We know this from political research that, you know, the attitude and opinions is one thing, but what turns them into votes is mobilization. Someone calling up, saying I want your vote, I need your vote. Let me tell you what day the election is.
SCHNEIDER: They contact Asian American leaders for money. Remember Al Gore in the Buddhist temple fund-raising. Asian-Americans are very successful in the United States , as business and professional people and they do contribute money to political campaigns . They haven't become a major voting force. Last couple of elections, only 2 percent. And also keep in mind they there are some sources of Republican support among Asian-Americans . For one thing, Chinese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Korean-Americans, they have communists and many of them come over, the first generation, are very Republican because they are anti-communist --
HARRIS-PERRY: Free enterprise, anti-communist. That's a great point. Coming up, to win a voting bloc , even a complicated one, you're going to need a star politician to represent that group. We'll look at who the Asian American idol is, after the break.