SMITHSONIAN CENTER FOR FOLKLIFE & CULTURAL HERITAGE
The Weight of the Asian American Vote
When Asian Americans adopt a new nation, how might voting serve as a means for expressing our varied senses of identity and community?
This article was originally published on November 2, 2020, in Folklife Magazine.
Born in Hong Kong to parents who fled Vietnam as refugees after the Fall of Saigon, Phuong Lien Palafox is now a speech language pathologist based out of Austin, Texas.
She told me a story about the time she and her partner took their kids down to the racial justice march in Austin after the first protests condemning the killing of George Floyd began in late May. Later that night, her five-year-old son, Story, who is in an “apologizing phase,” walked up and said he was sorry.
“I asked Story why he was apologizing. He said, ‘I apologize that all the people we saw marching are hurting,’” Palafox recalled. “And I was like, you know what, human beings? If a five-year-old can freaking understand this whole thing, why can’t you?”
This simple moment of empathy from Story seemed to capture what the Black community and so many communities of color have been asking for: to have their stories listened to, understood, and validated. As the country approaches the presidential elections on November 3, many see voting as a way for individuals to voice their civic narrative.
Voting has always been sacred to me, even if I see the system as imperfect. My parents moved from China to Texas when I was three years old, and it took our family roughly twenty years to gain citizenship and unlock our opportunity to vote. I was born in a non-democratic country, so I viewed my vote, however small on its own, as a contribution to crafting the future of my adoptive home.
I voted for the first time in the presidential primary this year and then five months later in July. Throughout the experience, I thought about what the vote meant to other Asian immigrants. When Asian Americans adopt a new nation, how might the act of voting serve as a means for expressing our varied senses of identity and community, our hopes for shaping our new home, and as a way of voicing our lived experiences? How might we build community around the simple act of casting a ballot? Asian Americans have lagged behind white Americans in voter registration and turnout by almost twenty percent—and I wondered about the reasons for this.
Palafox views voting as both a privilege and a responsibility. As she relayed her childhood to me—learning how to use the rice cooker when she was four, living in a packed apartment with her extended family in Garland, Texas, and watching her parents work tirelessly to make ends meet—I saw how the contours of her life resembled my family’s American journey.
“They worked so hard, and you knew enough to know that they worked hard,” she said. “And amid all of that, there wasn’t room to talk about how people treated them and how people looked at them. But even with all of that, my parents would always go vote and tell me and my siblings how important it was to be involved.”
Palafox’s father, who spoke to me later that afternoon by phone, told me in Mandarin that he’s always been politically involved. As someone who fought for South Vietnam and worked two jobs to provide for his family, Chuong Khoi Lien emphasized that everyone needs to involve themselves in politics because everyone is, or eventually will be, impacted by policy. For Lien, the voting process is a ritual that directly affects the well-being of society and his community, one that demanded something of him.
“My dad had a stroke in ’09, and it impaired his left side. He has to use a quad cane, but he’s still voting,” Palafox noted, chuckling. “He gets in his car, and he does his thing.”
After witnessing this model of civic responsibility, Palafox too has adopted the act of voting.
“I knew that when I turned eighteen, I would vote. I even remember standing in that damn line that can wrap around the building several times and take hours to get through near the student center on UT campus to vote for the first time.”
For other first-generation immigrants I’ve spoken to, like Qing Turner, voting became a new muscle to learn how to exercise, but one that took a back seat to other challenges facing new entrants to the United States. Soon after speaking with Palafox, I FaceTimed Qing and her daughter Cindy, my college roommate.
After the Facetime technicalities worked themselves out, I saw Qing walk around in her kitchen in Houston, rubbing her eyes, a victim of the unrelenting Texas allergens. In another square, I saw Cindy greet me from her brother’s apartment in Austin.
Cindy and I have known each other since freshman year at UT Austin and had later shared an apartment. Cindy is from Houston, so during college our mothers would sometimes converge in our apartment, bonding over homemade soymilk and the similarity of their experiences growing up in China. They constantly reminded us how much opportunity Cindy and I had to pursue our passions, something Qing said was not an option for her.
As a student near the tail end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, Qing obeyed a rigid, almost militaristic routine in college, in which she and her colleagues woke up, “stood in line just like soldiers,” had breakfast, went to class, and studied and studied.
“We didn’t have any of these student organizations,” Qing said. “There was nothing even close to activism or advocacy. There were so many things we couldn’t do. I wasn’t even allowed to date!”
In 1989, Qing traveled to South Dakota to attend graduate school roughly half an hour by car from Mount Rushmore. Qing had always been curious of how politics and civic engagement operated in America. Well before she left China, she paid attention to the presidential debates, even watching political speeches. But in South Dakota, she received her first up-close taste of the American democratic process.
“I couldn’t get into local elections at first. It was just too much. I couldn’t remember all their names. But the ’92 presidential campaign was big. I watched closely, very closely,” Qing recalled, chuckling. “I remember Bush speaking for the first time. I was like, ‘Oh damn, he’s handsome.’ And you know, he just also talked great.”
When I asked how she perceived the democratic system of voting, Qing explained that it was strange. As citizens of a communist government, “people start to think that they don’t have a voice,” she explained. That mentality travels with them as they reach a new country, even one that claims a democratic process.
“As an immigrant, I didn’t always understand what’s going on,” Qing said. “Then you throw the language barrier on top, and it gets so much worse. In China, we were told our whole lives that nothing’s going to change.”
The language barrier Qing mentions affects over one third of Asian American adults, who report less overall English proficiency than Latinx, Black, and white eligible voters. This makes a significant difference: in the 2004 presidential election, translated voting ballots were found to have increased voter turnout by eleven points in communities that spoke little English.
According to Patricia Yan, former staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, this is a huge factor leading to decreased voting rates from Asian Americans. Although Section 203 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act federally mandates provisions for “language-minority” Americans, very few counties have implemented this policy. Instead, we see a paucity of properly translated materials and a lack of language assistance at poll centers.
In addition to language barriers, the Asian American voting bloc, as diversified and important as it is, has been neglected by political parties, explains Janelle Wong, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland. Historically, political parties have been disinterested in mobilizing Asian Americans, which ends up meaning that many don’t see their varied interests represented in electoral politics. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters in the United States, and yet a 2018 study found that fifty percent of Asian Americans received no targeted outreach from the Democratic party, while sixty percent reported the same from the Republican party.
“This means Asian Americans are tagged as low-propensity voters, leading to a positive feedback loop of civic disengagement,” Wong said.
Alongside low party outreach and language barriers, voter ID laws such as Georgia’s “exact match” system are reportedto disproportionately impact people of color: over 21 million eligible voters in the United States do not have institutionalized, government-issued forms of identification.
According to Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote, these voter ID restriction efforts target foreign-born eligible voters and those who have limited English proficiency, including newly naturalized Asian Americans who are often employed in lower-wage industries.
“In a small town, a local election can be determined by hundreds of votes. And all too often, a position can be determined by a tie or even one vote,” Calvin explained. “Especially with the people we work with, they are so dependent on local government services because the local government will decide how long the food shelters will open for or where bus routes will be located.”
Qing says she knows many of her peers in the Asian American community who are hindered by these barriers and, consequently, don’t vote. She notes a conversation she had with a colleague who bought into the stereotype that Asian Americans are civically passive.
“He teaches government at my school, and he’s told me before: ‘We can’t count Asians as a key voting bloc because you all just don’t vote,’” Qing recalled. “That’s why I tell my friends: we have to get out of our comfort zones. We have to keep fighting for our collective freedom, and we have to vote.”
What he was referring to is a perceived complacency often associated with the position of Asians in America and the “model minority” stereotype, which emerged as a toxic tactic during the civil rights era.
The popular image of Asians as politically quiet and uncomplaining diverted attention away from institutional racism, shifting the blame for chronic inequities onto Black Americans. The resounding question reverberates even now: “If Asian Americans can be successful, then why can’t Black Americans?”
Over time, some Asian Americans have internalized the model minority image, accepting their status privilege as evidence of their own hard work, rather than something enabled through the leaders of the civil rights movement.
“This stereotype has led to a racial wedge and has driven political distancing of Asian Americans with other communities of color,” Ellen Wu, a historian at Indiana University, noted. “Unfortunately, it overshadows a lot of progressive racial justice work that many Asian Americans are doing in solidarity with other people of color.”
In reality, the Asian American voting bloc, a broad term that encompasses all the nuances and cultures of various Asian communities, owes a lot to the civil rights movement, Cindy noted. “And the entire Asian American community has benefited from it.”
Qing nodded in agreement. “That’s for sure.”
Even though the Asian American population is comprised of diverse cultures and experiences, it seems powerful to me that the origin of the term “Asian American” was coined as a beacon of solidarity. In 1968, Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, two UC Berkeley students inspired by the Black Power movement and protests against the Vietnam War, wove together our distinct Asian cultures into a “radical label of self-determination… that indicated a political agenda of equality, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism.” This identity, my identity of “Asian American,” had always been intended to unify and solidify support.
However, Asian Americans have had a complicated relationship with other communities of color. Our communities have stood side by side: Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X’s friendship, Filipino farmworkers who led a revolution that César Chávez and other Mexican workers would join, and Black civil rights activists who marched together after the murder of Vincent Chin.
But we have also seen anti-Black racism permeate in our communities: the murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocery store owner, HolyLand’s anti-Black controversy, and officer Tou Thao, who stood by while George Floyd was murdered—just to name a few.
Even right now, Palafox sees division within her Vietnamese community regarding how those she knows will vote in the upcoming November elections.
“I think it’s fascinating. I think there are some people who pride themselves on being called ‘the model minority.’ Like look, we’re doing what people think we should be doing. And then there’s the other side, who’s trying to work through our own advocacy. And that’s how I feel right now. We’re just roaring. Like, I’m in a real big roar mood right now.”
Across Texas and the country, Asian Americans are developing creative messaging and other tools aimed at empowering more people in their communities to vote. The goal is to create larger shared communities of civic conscience. Beginning with the 2018 elections, the Korean American Voters League based in Harris County, which includes Houston, organized a Korean American Early Voting Day. This get-out-the-vote effort focused on older Korean Americans, providing translated voter guides and holding news conferences on ballot issues. In 2019, the county hosted the first volunteer deputy voter registrar trainings in Vietnamese and Chinese. In Austin, the Indian American Coalition of Texas holds voter education and public affairs forums aimed at their community. Other grassroots efforts, such as the Letters for Black Lives initiative, create and translate resources on anti-Blackness for various multilingual communities.
As a speech and language pathologist in the education space, Palafox sees her work in empowering voices with our collective prerogative to support immigrants and communities of color.
“My work right now is really helping people in low-wealth communities and helping our English language learners, not because I need to ‘save them’ or anything but because they’re worthy and relevant within their own regard,” Palafox explained. “And it’s important to ensure that the people who are teaching them and giving them services honor all of that.”
Still, even in her profession, she’s heard racist and microaggressive comments made to her Black students and children from BIPOC communities.
“We’ve got to unveil all this racism and injustice, and one way we can do that is by voting,” Palafox said. “I love being an educator, and I can talk about all the shit that’s happening right now for sure. The most important thing for my kids and members of the BIPOC community is to know that their narratives are relevant and valuable. And whenever they feel safe to speak those stories, for everyone else to let the stories in.”
This article reminded readers that nationwide voting takes place on November 3, the day the article was originally published, urging people to visit vote.org for state by state voting information.
Laura Zhang is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. Currently, she works as a health consultant.