The Asian Fantasy of Charles Murray

After virtual silence in the mainstream media on the subject of Asian Americans during much of the campaign season, Asian American voters going 73% for Obama has gotten folks talking. Among the talkers is right wing racial theorist  Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Regarding Asian Americans voting in such large numbers for President Obama, Murray argues:

My thesis is that the GOP is in trouble across the electoral board because it has become identified in the public mind with social conservatism. Large numbers of Independents and Democrats who are naturally attracted to arguments of fiscal discipline, less government interference in daily life, greater personal responsibility, and free enterprise refuse to vote for Republicans because they are so put off by the positions and rhetoric of social conservatives, whom they take to represent the spirit of the “real” GOP. I use Asian-Americans as an example of how powerfully this antipathy can alienate a naturally conservative voting bloc…

He then presents evidence of Asian Americans’ “natural” inclination toward conservatism from the Current Population Survey of 2003:

Murray goes on to say,

Something’s wrong with this picture. It’s not just that the income, occupations, and marital status of Asians should push them toward the right. Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define “natural…”

Leaving his ridiculous presumption that one can deduce something about Asian Americans by conducting a casual survey of highly filtered anecdotes about Asians in Asia to one side, there are a few other things wrong with Mr. Murray’s analysis. First, he apparently knows next to nothing about campaigns and elections. You can’t seriously analyze voter behavior by looking at broad national surveys regarding characteristics of whole populations, particularly when the population in question is as diverse as Asian Americans. For instance, the Asian American population includes the highest percentage of non-citizens. This contributes to the fact that Asian American voter registration rates are extremely low. Asian American voters aren’t necessarily representative of Asian Americans in general.

What’s more, there’s nothing natural about the political choices of any voting constituency. Our choices are constructed by a variety of things among which income, profession, and marital status are not the only nor necessarily the most determinative factors. Moreover, Asian American voters’ choice of presidential candidates isn’t the only thing to look at when trying to understand our behavior as voters. We still know little or nothing about the other voting decisions Asian Americans made. Having this information might put our choice of president in a different light.

For all we know, only one or two issues may have made the difference in Asian American voters decision to support Obama. Moreover, Asian Americans are most well represented as percentages of the populations of California, Hawai’i, Virginia, New Jersey, Washington, and New York, all of which went for Obama and five of which are states where Romney made almost no investment because they are reliably blue in presidential elections. Certainly this is at least worthy of consideration.

Any attention paid to factors like these might have been helpful. But, Mr. Murray instead relied on surveys that view Asian America as a monolith, and on stereotypes of Asian Americans made up of white America’s anxieties, fears and fantasies. For instance, many Asian Americans’ conception of traditional family has little or nothing to do with the narrow definition of “family” conservatives have been attempting to impose on us for the last few decades. Moreover, our supposed “entrepreneurial” and “self-reliant” natures are as much about barriers to opportunity for new immigrants in other parts of the economy as anything else.

So Charles Murray is pretty much shooting in the dark here. But the real rub is that he isn’t alone in his confusion. Political commentators on the right and the left have expressed similar surprise about why Asian Americans didn’t act upon their “natural” inclinations, and based on little more, and often less, than Mr. Murray considered when positing his twisted theories.

Given this insistence on a singularizing view of Asian Americans, I offer this. most Asian Americans do understand this one thing: we live in a white dominated nation with a powerful distaste for the diversity we represent. Yet the key to understanding us may just lie in embracing that same, inconvenient diversity. Get a grip on that, and you may start to get a clue as to why we aren’t more likely to lean conservative than any other group of voters who don’t fit easily within the narrow confines of the conservative and liberal views of what constitutes “natural.”

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