Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

What the Asian-American Coalition Can Teach the Democrats

In this New York Times op-ed, Viet Thanh Nguyen explores the coalition politics of Asian-Americans and what that means for the Democratic Party.

Joe Biden at an event for Iowa’s Asian and Latino Coalition in August.
Joe Biden at an event for Iowa’s Asian and Latino Coalition in August.Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

In coalition politics, every part of the coalition matters, especially when elections are close. For Democrats, Asian-Americans are suddenly crucial: They are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, constituting 4.7 percent of the voting population — enough to make a difference in the presidential contest in Georgia, where Joe Biden won by some 12,000 votes.

Nationally, Asian-Americans voted for Mr. Biden over Donald Trump by a ratio of about 2 to 1, according to exit polls, marking a decades-long shift toward the Democratic Party. (In 1992, 55 percent of Asian-Americans voted for George H.W. Bush and 31 percent for Bill Clinton.) There is reason to believe this shift will continue: Though a third of Asian-Americans voted for Mr. Trump, 83 percent of Asian-Americans ages 18 to 29 voted for Mr. Biden.

Asian-American activists have argued for a while that the Democratic Party has not paid their community sufficient attention. What lessons might Asian-Americans have to teach? Their ability to form a solid majority around a shared politics despite their many differences is a model for the Democratic coalition — indeed, for the whole nation. They show that both identity and political ideology matter, not just one or the other.

When it comes to identity, Asian-Americans remain an enormously diverse group. There are many differences of language, migration, generation, religion, culture and national origin that enrich but also potentially fracture the community. The category “Asian-Americans” is not natural, for people in Asia do not typically imagine themselves as Asians, but rather tend to identify with specific nationalities or ethnicities.

Immigrants from Asia in the United States have always become “Asian-American” in response to anti-Asian racism. That racism — in the form of occasional violence, a steady stream of insults and slights and a positive but condescending stereotyping as a “model minority” — creates a solidarity that helps bind together the Asian-American community.

Today, in spite of their many differences, Asian-Americans have forged a relatively coherent progressive coalition. To be sure, Asian-American identity can be allied with conservative goals, as exemplified by the small but vocal minority of Asian-Americans who oppose affirmative action. But those who identify as Asian-American usually lean left. The act of identifying as Asian-American is typically ideological, implying a recognition of the importance of a broad multiethnic coalition.

It is no coincidence that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Democrat, has been enthusiastic about discussing not only her Black heritage but also her South Asian heritage. By contrast, the Republican politicians Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, two of the most prominent U.S. politicians of Indian descent, have been ambiguous at best about identifying as Indian-American, much less Asian-American.

Today’s progressive Asian-American coalition has also been forged by moderating its foundational political impulses. The origins of the coalition date to 1968, when students at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the name “Asian-American” to identify a movement that was antiracist, antiwar, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist and often Marxist. Those commitments. are still often held by the coalition’s intellectual and political leaders, but the widest swath of Asian-Americans is characterized by a more mainstream liberalism, or perhaps even something slightly more conservative.

An example of this ideological moderation is the presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Though his proposal of a universal basic income was relatively progressive, he was hardly a political radical. And though he did not aggressively promote himself as an Asian-American candidate, he did not back away from that identity either (though he did make several awkward or tone-deaf jokes about it).

Asian-Americans have built this political coalition not in spite of identities, but because of identities. Their success is a rebuke to those who denigrate “identity politics” and call for emphasizing class over race or identity. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s insight is evergreen: “Race is the modality in which class is lived.” The creation of race and the exploitation of racial difference has always been a part of capitalism. This is why any call for privileging class over race is fundamentally mistaken at best and dishonest at worst.

There are, of course, ineffective and even malicious examples of identity politics. President Trump’s mobilization of his base, for example, involved deliberately foregrounding white identity politics, which has always been the latent identity politics of the United States, but has rarely been called such. Mr. Trump simply made the country’s whiteness explicit rather than implicit. But the problem is not necessarily with identity politics per se. The problem lies in Mr. Trump’s conjoining of white identity politics with economic policies that favor the wealthy and a political strategy that includes demonizing other races.

The Asian-American coalition, by contrast, is demanding policies that in some way address those who are struggling and in need, and who are often people of color. According to Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at Columbia University and a principal investigator of the National Asian American Survey, “Asian-Americans converge in several notable ways, including experiences with discrimination, voting behavior and attitudes on policies ranging from environmental protection to gun control to higher taxation and social service provision.”

The question for the Asian-American coalition, as for the Democratic Party as a whole, is what constitutes economic justice: the Clinton-Obama neoliberalism of favoring Wall Street and trade deals, with insufficient attention paid to the middle and working classes? Or a more robust form of economic redistribution that would tax the wealthy at a higher rate, eliminate or greatly reduce student and medical debt, expand health insurance and child care, bolster public schools and enhance access to higher education?

As today’s Asian-American coalition sees it, no policy can be carried out effectively without paying attention to identities and differences. The majority of Asian-Americans, for example, support affirmative action, recognizing that it is needed to reduce inequities not only for African-Americans and Latinos but also for Pacific Islanders and poorer Asian-Americans.

This stance on affirmative action acknowledges the need for a multiethnic Asian-American coalition and for a multiracial American coalition. Group interest and self-interest sometimes align and sometimes don’t, but solidarity entails that a coalition’s members sometimes seek justice for themselves, and sometimes for others.

A crucial lesson of the Asian-American coalition is that although celebrating diversity can sometimes draw attention away from issues of economic inequality, that does not mean that a focus on diversity, difference or identity ignores economic inequality. On the contrary, economic inequality in this country has always been built on racial differences. Only the affirmation of racial differences, harnessed with a robust approach to economic justice, can help alleviate the many economic problems this country faces.


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