Those Inscrutable Asians

I’m in the middle of doing a survey of the Sunday TV political shows, reading through transcripts of discussions of Asian American voting behavior just prior to and immediate after the recent elections. I was inspired to do this research when I witnessed with shock the complete surprise among pundits across the political spectrum over the overwhelming percentage of Asian American voters who chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. I figured I should check my perception of what went down against the record.

I won’t get into too much detail concerning the findings since a detailed report is forthcoming. But, to give you a preview, my perception matches reality. Most of what went down went something like this: this wasn’t supposed to happen and nothing we know about Asian Americans could have prepared us for it.

This reaction provides a striking, albeit brief, view into what the most visible analysts left and right think about Asian Americans. That is, almost nothing at all, a point punctuated by how quickly the story died, returning Asian Americans to relative invisibility.

The shock and awe expressed in that moment was made all the more striking because political analysts are, for the most part, data wonks. Yet, in spite of widely available data indicating that Asian American voters were trending liberal, everyone with a horn to toot expected something along the lines of the opposite.

I find that maddening. I’m not a data person and yet I knew what was coming. I didn’t expect such overwhelming support, but I did expect that Asian Americans would decisively go for Obama. And how? One word. Google.

Pre-election, I typed the terms Asian Americans, voting behavior, national, and research into my browser and found, among other useful hits, this overview of a report by the Pew Research Center on The Rise of Asian Americans. While Pew has been widely criticized for using faulty methodology in constructing its sample, and relying on a deeply problematic conception of “racial characteristics” (that I criticized here), the report is nonetheless widely cited, including by some of the very same political analysts puzzled over Asian American voting behavior.

Just scroll down the summary findings of the Pew Center report and you will quickly arrive at a graphic headed by this phrase: Asian Americans Lean Democratic.

The graphic shows 50% of Asian Americans surveyed leaning Democratic, compared with 28% leaning Republican. This is in contrast to 49% of the general public leaning Democratic and 39% leaning Republican. While 49% and 50% are pretty close, 28% and 39% aren’t. Yet, pundits and political analysts ranging from racist academic Charles Murray on the right, to The Nation’s Chris Hayes on the left, were surprised. And Hayes even mined the same Pew report for figures concerning the relatively high median family incomes of Asian Americans in order to make his case that the Asian American vote for Obama was surprising.

Also among the hits in my Google search was the National Asian American Survey. According to the survey, Asian Americans lean liberal on a variety of issues, including, importantly, affirmative action, health care (with the majority supporting Obamacare), and immigration. Asian Americans also prioritize the same primary issues as other voters and tend to live in urban centers in deeply blue states. The combination of those facts should have indicated we would vote with the liberal majorities in the communities we inhabit where, in the areas where we are most highly concentrated, overwhelming majorities voted for Obama.

It is true that only 32% of Asian Americans voted for Clinton in 1992, but that’s old news. As a result of the GOP’s move to the right on immigration and social issues, the Asian American electorate has been trending strongly Democratic ever since. Obama, whose positions on healthcare, immigration, and affirmative action closely mirror those of Asian American voters, was the clear choice over Romney, whose positions on all of these issues was, basically, the opposite.

But the political class is slowly, but, keep your fingers crossed, surely, catching up with Asian American voters. Just today, Jamelle Bouie published this insightful article.

What remains troubling, though, is how TV political analysts with the staff support, the means, and strong incentives to establish their expertise on all questions political, got caught by surprise. And then, once caught, would react with sloppy research and quickly thrown together explanations.

So to the political class I have this to say: we mattered not one whit to you when you thought you could easily predict our behavior based on popular stereotypes. Now that we’ve exploded some of those stereotypes and gotten your attention, you could at least take the time and effort to do us the courtesy of not, once again, leaning on stereotypes to explain something about us that could easily be known to anyone with an internet connection, some genuine interest, and a spare hour or two.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Those Inscrutable Asians”

Hmph. I only voted Obama because like most minorities, it’s in our best interests. Liberalism and leftism itself makes me sick. If this was back in China (and assuming we could vote) I would’ve voted anything BUT liberal.

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