By Jesse Washington
The Associated Press
LORTON, Va. (AP) — For a long time, says Loc Pfeiffer, his fellow Asian Americans were passive participants in American politics. But things are changing.
“Asians don’t like confrontation or being adversarial, but that’s politics,” says Pfeiffer, a 41-year-old lawyer who was 6 when his parents brought him to America from Vietnam.
“The more we’re raised and bred here, the less likely we are to be passive. So much of our culture, it’s a very, very obedient culture. … You don’t argue with the government. You don’t argue with Big Brother. There’s the assumption that you give up all your individual rights for the whole. Which is astounding to me, because I’m American now.”
An assertive Asian America matters, especially in places like Virginia and Nevada, swing states where Asians have been growing in numbers and influence.
With a booming population of highly educated, increasingly Americanized voters, this former “silent minority” is entering the most engaged and visible era of its political history.
The number of Asians in the United States has grown 25 percent in the last seven years, to 15 million, said Jane Junn, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. Educated people are more likely to vote, and 50 percent of the Asian population has a college degree, compared with 25 percent of the U.S. population, Junn said.
“There comes a point where there’s a critical mass,” said Junn, whose parents were born in Korea. “When you’re only one person out of 100, you’re very self-conscious about (becoming politically active). But there is power in numbers.”
In a recent column for the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Jeff Yang was even inspired to riff on President Clinton’s honorary black membership and ask if Obama’s background — parental academic pressure, struggle for identity, guilt-wielding mother, Harvard education — would make him the first Asian American president.
“So much of what we deal with is the notion of being outsiders, foreigners, of being outside the social dialogue of the United States,” Yang said in an interview. “You look at Obama and those are some of the same aspersions and slanders being cast at him. He’s kind of the closest thing we can have legally to an immigrant in the White House. He’s somebody who understands this journey that Asian Americans and other immigrants have made.”
In the past, Asians were largely overlooked during presidential campaigns because of their widely varied nationalities and concentration in the reliably Democratic states of California and New York.
Now, both campaigns have national Asian outreach efforts. In Virginia, Obama’s campaign is focusing on sending language-specific volunteers to register voters from particular countries. The McCain campaign’s priority is securing the support of community leaders from the Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Filipino communities.
Although no Democratic presidential candidate has won Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, polls show Obama edging ahead. Meanwhile, the state’s Asian population has grown from 3.7 percent in 2000 to 4.8 percent in 2006, above the national average of 4.4 percent.
Asian voters nationwide appear to be favoring Obama, the Democrat, in greater numbers than the 54 percent who voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
This could be explained by President Bush’s unpopularity, Obama’s recent rise in the polls amid the economic implosion, or the fact that Obama’s Senate chief of staff and legislative director are Asian. But it also has something to do with a new generation of Asian Americans.
Two-thirds of U.S. Asians are foreign-born. Their American-born children are now thriving, many in professions like medicine, law and high-tech industries. English is the first language of this second generation. And they have landed squarely in the Obama sweet spot of young and educated supporters.
“I’ve lived my life trying to be kind of race-neutral,” said Michael Chang, 34, who was born in Washington, D.C. to Korean parents. After his father died when he was 10, Chang’s mother sent him to law school and his sister to two doctoral degrees, all on a legal secretary’s salary.
Chang, who is married to an Italian immigrant, plans to vote for Obama because he likes his stance on the issues and because he’s younger. He also believes that Obama’s background, coupled with his rejection of racial rhetoric, makes him more relatable for younger, mainstream Asians.
“I’m proud of my heritage, said Chang, “but I think of myself as American.” ♦