New trends in Asian American Political Action: A conversation with Professor James Lai The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has turned a new chapter in its political history. A record nineteen declared AAPI candidates are running for US Congress, a rapid increase from just eight candidates in 2010. This political tipping point reflects the growth of the AAPI community as the fastest-growing and most diverse racial group in the country.
Earlier this year, James S. Lai, associate professor of Political Science and Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University, published his timely book, “Asian American Poltical Action: Suburban Transformation” (2011, Lynne Rienner Publishers). In this book. Dr. Lai analyzes how suburbs serve as political incubators for Asian American candidates.
We posed the following questions to Dr. Lai to gain insight on the growing trend of AAPIs running for elected office and to learn about his groundbreaking work on today’s AAPI political landscape.
What prompted you to look beyond traditional gateway communities (e.g. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York) for Asian American community formation and political participation? As a scholar of Asian American politics, I witnessed the growth of new immigrant communities in suburbs throughout the nation. Yet, despite this growth, no one in my field was paying any attention to these new immigrant suburbs and the role that Asian American immigrants played in changing the social and political institutions in them. As the long-time editor (with UCLA Professor Don T. Nakanishi) of the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, I could clearly see that local Asian American candidates were being elected not in metropolises such as Los Angeles or New York City, but in small and medium-sized suburbs namely, Garden Grove (CA), Cupertino (CA), Bellevue (WA), Sugar Land (TX), and Eau Claire (WI). Given all of this, my goal in writing this book was to shed light on where and how recent Asian immigrants are forming communities and changing the city’s culture, but also how they are changing the local politics in these cities.
Was there anything that surprised you in your research? Absolutely. Some political scientists argue that Asian American political participation will increase as the U.S. born generations become more heavily involved. In many of the ten suburbs that I examined in the book, the political pioneers who ran and won as the first Asian American elected officials were often immigrant-born Asian Americans. Many of them expressed to me that they wanted to give back to their communities.
Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based political consultant, told me that he was not surprised of this trend because many of these immigrants arrive in the U.S. as graduate students, refugees, etc. with no or little social networks and limited under these challenging circumstances. This classic “rags to riches” narrative translates very well in the political arena. Still, I found it extremely intriguing given the old argument among political scientists that greater Asian American presence in electoral politics, outside of Hawai’i, would have to wait for the subsequent U.S.-born generation. I was happy and excited to see that future was already happening in these suburbs with the political pioneers often being from the immigrant generation.
In your view, what are the major political challenges our AAPI officials are facing?
There are many political challenges. One of the central themes of my book is that context and location matters when discussing Asian American politics today.
Asian Americans are able to rise in political office much more quickly in new immigrant suburbs than in the traditional metropolises. These suburbs serve as “political incubators” for Asian American elected officials to advance “horizontally” at the local level (city council, mayor, city commissions) and “vertically” (successful local candidates who run for state-level offices).
Some challenges in larger metropolises include the presence of entrenched political machines that make it extremely hard for new immigrant groups to gain political power. Other challenges include the fact that Asian Americans tend to be more residentially dispersed in the larger metropolises.
Perhaps the most vivid example is the 2011 election of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Why did it take so long for Asian Americans to have the first elected Asian American mayor despite the fact that one in three San Franciscans is of Asian or Pacific Islander descent according to the 2010 census?
In the suburbs that I examine in my book, Asian American candidates are not only getting elected a decade or two earlier than in San Francisco, but they are also becoming majorities in their legislative bodies. For example, in 2010, there were two Asian American majority city councils on the continental U.S., namely Westminster and Cupertino in California.
However, this doesn’t mean that candidates running in these suburbs have it easy. In the suburbs, candidates must traverse complex and subtle racial and ethnic fault-lines that have developed due to drastic demographic changes, and that have resulted in a new white-flight and perceived threat.
In addition, in mature immigrant suburbs, new paradigms are emerging within the Asian American majority communities as well. Ethnic voters are becoming more sophisticated in the issues that they advocate. For example, Asian American electorates may prefer candidates speak a particular Asian language, or have a certain stance on Asian ethnic language schools.
Any advice on how to overcome them? My advice for Asian American candidates is to keep an open mind and continue to learn. A successful candidate must be consciously aware of the subtle and explicit racial dynamics in a multi-racial city that is undergoing rapid demographic transformations. She or he must study the issues that matter for multiple racial communities, as well as issues that matter to the mainstream community. A successful political strategy is one that both addresses the needs of his or her pan-ethnic coalition of voters, and that also resonates with a broader mainstream audience.
An overwhelming number of successful local Asian American candidates that I interviewed in the book ran that I refer to as a “two-tiered” campaign that outreached both to the White constituents and to the multi-ethnic constituents. Often times these messages about the issues were distinct and calibrated to a particular audience.
Sometimes, as I pointed out in one of the case studies in my book, an ethnic candidate will try to keep the two messages separate and distinct, but if one message gets translated to an unintended constituency, it can be used against that candidate by those individuals concerned about whether the candidate is only out to serve their ethnic community or the larger community. In this specific situation, a Chinese American candidate running for city council in an Asian American majority suburb was advocating in Mandarin at a Chinese forum the reason why he was running was to give Chinese Americans greater representation in a city where they were under-represented. The quote ran in a Chinese newspaper but was later translated in English to a concerned and high-profile individual in the community that used it to question the underlying reason for the candidate’s campaign in the open letters section of a mainstream newspaper. The candidate who was at the center of the political storm never overcame the quote despite his clarification of the intended meaning of his quote and several retractions of the actual quote by the ethnic newspaper.
Tell us your story. What inspired you to be an academic voice for the AAPI community?
My story began as an undergraduate at UC Davis majoring in political science and minoring in Asian American Studies. The two fields were overlapping and complimentary in many ways, but at that time, there were no courses or sources (books, articles) that spoke to Asian American politics specifically. This later inspired me to get my Ph.D. in political science and an M.A. in Asian American Studies so that I could help develop the political scholarship of the nation’s fastest growing racial group. To me, my teaching and research on Asian American politics has always been about trying to fill this void and making it assessable to those in the Asian American community.