By Marpheen Chann
The 2022 midterm elections are on the horizon, the first major elections since the tragic Atlanta shootings that sparked the #StopAsianHate movement. Although the movement has raised the visibility of the Asian American experience in the U.S., prevailing narratives continue to slow progress on integrating Asian Americans into the American fabric.
A 2022 study by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) and The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) revealed that the number of U.S. adults who believe Asian Americans are at least partly responsible for COVID-19 nearly doubled. In addition, 33% said they believe “Asian Americans are more loyal to their country of origin than to the United States,” compared to 20% in 2021.
Harmful narratives such as these not only drive the national dialogue, but also limit how and when political parties and advocacy organizations choose to engage with Asian American communities, and frame what politicians, political parties, pundits, and Americans think Asian Americans care about as we head into the midterms.
Asian Americans are not single-issue voters
In a survey released by Asian American Advancing Justice in July 2022, Asian Americans rank healthcare (88%), jobs and the economy (86%), crime (85%), education (82%), gun control (73%), and the environment (75%) as “extremely important” or “very important” issues. In other words, Asian Americans can’t be pigeonholed. We don’t only care about immigration, crime, or education, which seems to be the common perception.
According to the same survey, 52% of Asian Americans said they had not been contacted by the Democratic Party at all in the past year. Similarly, 60% of Asian Americans said they had not been contacted by the Republican Party. This begs the question of when and on what issues the two parties engage with Asian American communities.
Not only do political parties, candidates, and advocates need to be aware of their messaging and narratives around immigration, economics, trade, and foreign policy, they also need to more deeply engage with Asian communities to understand what Asian Americans care about. The Asian American community is far more diverse than meets the eye and deserves political engagement beyond the few issues people think they care about.
How not to talk About China
Candidates, parties, political action committees, and U.S. voters like to talk about China, and certainly there are many things to criticize China for: its record on human rights abuses, most recently of Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic minority; the militarization of the South China Sea and encroachment on Taiwan and neighboring democracies; and its censorship policies and restrictions on free speech. But how people talk about China matters when it comes to influencing perceptions people have of Chinese Americans. A line must be drawn when that criticism blends into and feeds negative stereotypes, stigmas, and scapegoating of people who are of Chinese descent – or East Asian or Southeast Asian descent, for that matter.
To this day, the myth of Asian Americans posing a “yellow peril” (a racial metaphor depicting peoples of Eastern and Southeast Asia as a threat to the Western world) finds its way into the talking points and speeches of politicians and pundits.
On September 30, former President Donald Trump referred to his former Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) “China-loving wife, Coco Chow.” In doing so, Trump ignored that Chao is Taiwanese-born, in order to invoke the “yellow peril myth” by painting her as “China-loving.”
The narrative that Asian Americans are not “American enough” and owe their allegiances to “foreign” influence and powers has real and harmful effects on Americans’ perceptions of Asian Americans.
These views date back to the 1800s when Chinese and Japanese migrant workers and laborers started arriving to find work building railroads. A September 3, 1865, New York Times editorial illustrates the xenophobia of the times:
“[If] there were to be a flood-tide of Chinese population – a population befouled with all the social vices…with heathenish souls and heathenish propensities, whose character, and habits, and modes of thought are firmly fixed by the consolidating influence of ages upon ages – we should be prepared to bid farewell to republicanism and democracy.”
Such attitudes led to exclusionary laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred people of Chinese descent from working or immigrating to the U.S. Later during World War II, that xenophobia led to concentrating people of Japanese descent in internment camps.
Echoes of that era reverberate throughout U.S. history and even under the current and former administrations. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Justice oversaw the China Initiative program which ramped up investigations and prosecutions for trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage that directly benefited the Chinese government. The program came under scrutiny for targeting scholars and academics of Chinese descent working in the U.S. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the program “…increasingly targeted fundamental research scientists of Chinese ancestry…for relatively minor errors and omissions in grant applications, rather than spies stealing national security secrets or proprietary technology at the direction of the Chinese government.”
Not only did this program target people of Chinese descent based on fears that they were Chinese government agents, the program also exploited long-festering narratives that scapegoat China and Chinese workers for domestic economic woes. The “stealing jobs” narrative has existed since the time immigrants and migrant workers started moving to the U.S. for jobs and opportunities.
President Joe Biden and his administration also perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of Chinese, East Asian, or Southeast Asian descent. Both Democrats and Republicans have traded jabs on who is “tougher on China,” and both parties have invoked variations of the “stealing jobs” narrative to score political points.
There is debate about whether Biden’s labeling of China as an “existential threat” to America goes too far. For instance, a group of more than 60 predominately progressive organizations made a joint statement criticizing the Endless Frontier Act and the Strategic Competition Act, both bipartisan bills that aim to bolster American competitiveness against China. In that statement, the coalition issued a warning, saying that “Anti-China framing for such initiatives is not only politically unnecessary; it is harmful, as it inevitably feeds racism, violence, xenophobia, and white nationalism.”
It is not an easy task to unroot narratives that run deep in the U.S. dialogue around the Asian American experience. It will take great effort on the part of candidates, political parties, advocacy organizations, and voters to be mindful of not perpetuating narratives that paint Asian Americans as the “other” or as foreign. But thinking outside of those narratives will help people view the Asian American experience as more complex and broader than what is perceived at first glance. In the long run, such efforts will aid the progress of more fully integrating Asian Americans into the American fabric – rather than pushing us to the margins.
Do you identify as an Asian-American voter here in Maine? We want to hear from you. Tell us your story at [email protected].