What They’re Saying When They Talk About Us

The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

From January 1 through June 30 of 2013 (26 weeks) ChangeLab, an Asian American-led racial justice laboratory and the publisher of this blog, conducted a study of what are known as the Sunday political shows in order to learn what they’re saying about Asian Americans. The study focused on what are known as the Big Five Sunday shows: Face the Nation (CBS), Fox News Sunday (Fox), Meet the Press (NBC), State of the Union (CNN), and This Week With George Stephanopoulos (ABC).

In addition, we also studied two MSNBC political talk programs, Melissa Harris Perry and Up with Chris Hayes/Steve Kornacki. Both follow the general format of the Big Five, but run two-hours each on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and serve a somewhat different market, both in terms of size and demographics. For these reasons, we’ll report on them separately.

Those MSNBC shows do a lot more talking about Asians and race in general than the Big Five. But what they have to say is often neither very flattering nor credible. But that’s still coming up. If you’re interested, to quote the catch phrase of MSNBC ratings leader Rachel Maddow, watch this space.

In order to conduct our study, we downloaded transcripts of all shows aired during the period under examination and scoured them both manually and electronically for references to Asian Americans. We then coded and analyzed the textual content, and then analyzed the guests on the shows by race and gender.

What did we find? A more detailed report is forthcoming. Here’s a preview.

Over 130 episodes, amounting to approximately 130 hours of programming (including commercials), Asian Americans, by every term we could imagine including colors and ethnic references, were mentioned 13 times. That’s it.

Of those 13 instances in which Asian Americans were specifically referenced, 11 mentioned Asians as part of a list of two or more groups. This statement, made by Joseph Califano, Jr. (former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Carter) during a January 20, 2013 appearance on Face the Nation is typical of what we mean by a list –

Look at the electorate today. I mean, you have Indian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans saying we’re voting for our candidate, this is our country.

These lists say virtually nothing about the groups referenced. In this case, what we learn is that Asians are voting for “our”, by which he means Democratic, candidate. But the real story concerning Democrats’ success at winning Asian American votes has to do with issues, not just demographics. Those issues were never discussed in relation to us on any of the Big Five programs. Never.

But then that leaves those two references to Asian Americans in which we weren’t just one group in a list. They’re also troubling, both for what was said and who said them (and who didn’t).

The speakers were former Republican Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, and former Republican Mayor of New York, Rudy Guliani. Here’s what Governor Bush said –

…I mean, if you look at Asian Americans, for example, in general, they have higher income[sic] than the median of our country, more intact families, more entrepreneurship, higher levels of education. And they supported President Obama 75-24; higher margins than with Hispanics…

The statement leans in the direction of model minority stereotyping and suggests that Asian Americans should, or could be induced to, lean Republican. That suggestion defies recent research, including the National Asian American Survey, and a 2009 Gallup Poll both of which suggest that Asian American voters are more liberal than the general electorate. But, to know that, and, more importantly, to know why, you’d actually have to know more about us than the generalities Governor Bush used to describe us.

Mayor Guliani’s comment is also telling.

…if you’re following objective evidence. Somebody tells you that the person who committed the crime is 6’4″ and he’s white, you don’t go look for a 5’4″, you know, Asian…

Mayor Guliani’s comment is telling because his reference to “Asian” is totally incidental, which is typical of much of what we found. That the reference is used in the course of arguing for racial profiling is, frankly, appalling, but not relevant. He could have used any other racial identifier here with the same effect.

Together, these singular references to Asians amount to about 73 words, depending on how you parse them out. That’s 73 words used to refer to Asian Americans as something other than a group in a list culled from 130 episodes of the Big Five Sunday political talk shows over six months of 2013. And those words were spoken by Republicans, while Asian American votes are going overwhelming to Democrats who, at least on those five shows for those six months, made no meaningful references to America’s fastest growing, and majority Democratic, racial minority.

If you count all of the relevant words in all of the statements that refer to Asian Americans as something other than a group among other groups in a list that were uttered on all of the shows we studied, all of them, including those MSNBC shows we are yet to report on, the total word count is 846. This post is 845 words long.

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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.

4 replies on “What They’re Saying When They Talk About Us”

Hey Scot: ChangeLab is doing some mind-bending much needed research. All I can say is Thank you and WOW. It depresses me to think of what research would say if the same methodology was used to look at what is said by whom about African Americans. Your research points out the paradox of how Asian Americans are seen and not seen simultaneously, how their human-ness is stripped from them as in dismissing/ignoring the cultural differences within the broader catergory of Asian American and the already, all to well known repeated demonstrations of little to no felt need to understand the personal and broader politics of the Asian diaspora.

Thanks, Jo Ann. I do wonder what they are saying about African Americans. When I starting blogging, I undertook an exercise to figure that out, watching hours and hours of news programming on MSNBC. Most of the references on that political (mind you) news outlet was telling. Most of the references were to sports figures and popular culture celebrities.

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