With the presidential election just months away, campaign season is in full swing. Candidates in both parties are aggressively courting certain demographics viewed as crucial to securing the White House, including women, millennials African-Americans, Latinos, evangelicals and many others.
One group appears conspicuously absent from this voter outreach: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). This constituency has barely factored in the policy discussions and narratives surrounding the current presidential election. Hillary Clinton's engagement with the AAPI community, most recently during the Democratic primary in New York, and her decision to speak at a forum hosted by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies Leadership Network is the exception and not the rule. For the most part, AAPIs have been largely ignored.
On the surface, this omission of over 19 million people, (constituting over 5.5% percent of the population according to latest U.S. Census data), seems curious at best. While AAPI numbers may seem insignificant, at 13% and 17%, African Americans and Latinos are also not a big part of the of the population. But both these groups have proven their political potency in elections time and time again. (Hillary Clinton's sweeping victory in the southern states in the current election cycle is a case in point.) Consider the fact that AAPIs are the fastest growing ethnic demographic in the United States, particularly in key swing states. For example, the percentage of the electorate that is AAPI was roughly equal to the margin of victory in Nevada, Virginia and Florida during the 2012 Presidential election.
Asian Americans have begun to run for elected offices at state and national levels and have achieved unprecedented success, appealing to diverse groups beyond their own communities. In addition to high-profile current and former governors like Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Nikki Haley (R-SC) and Gary Locke (D-WA), fourteen Asian Americans currently serve in the United States Congress, the highest number in the history of the institution and this number is likely to increase in the coming election. Most of these members, including Reps. Ami Bera (D-CA), Mark Takano (D-CA), and Grace Meng (D-NY), hail from districts where Asian Americans comprise just a fraction of the electorate. Similarly, Asian Americans have begun to rise in the ranks of appointed government officials, both in the Executive branch and on Capitol Hill, proving their commitment to serve the country.
The relatively high-income levels among several Asian American communities also make them ripe sources for campaign contributions. Indeed, a number of Asian American leaders have been prominent supporters of both parties at the state and national levels and the percentage of their contribution is growing.
Given the increasing participation of AAPIs in the American political process and their willingness to serve the nation in government service, what explains the relative neglect of this vibrant community? Here are some possible reasons.
One: AAPIs are registered to vote at rates much lower than other ethnic groups in the country. In 2014, the community had a registration rate of approximately 50 %, compared with 63% for blacks and 66% for whites. Studies have demonstrated that scores of AAPIs who are registered to vote choose not to do so. As a result, in an era of limited resources and even limited time, candidates may perceive AAPIs as a constituency not worth engaging.
Two: The often publicized reference to Asian Americans as the "model minority," due to their high level of educational and financial success relative to the national average, conceal the deeper socioeconomic diversity of the community and the multifaceted challenges afflicting it. For example, top three ethnic groups with the highest per-capita income are Asian: Indian, Taiwanese, and the Filipino. But 16.1% of Asian Americans (adjusted for large percentages of the community living in most expensive states) live below the poverty line compared to 10.4% of whites, and this number is growing at a faster rate than the national average. Challenges of language and cultural differences compound the problems of the poorer Asia Americans, many of them older and without the working knowledge of English. Issues such as healthcare, immigration, access to education and protecting civil rights are just as salient for the AAPI community as they are for rest of the country. But the specific concerns of the community are hardly ever taken into account.
Three: The struggle for AAPIs to garner greater recognition within the political mainstream is also compounded by ongoing challenges within the community itself. Even though the nomenclature--Asian Americans--emerged in the civil rights era in the late 1960s and has been part of the census classification since 1990, debate continues to persist over the very definition of the AAPI community. Unlike the Latino population, AAPIs have no shared language or cultural heritage binding them together. Some wonder whether the absence of such a cohering principle makes it easier for the community to be overlooked.
As we celebrate the month of May as Asian Pacific Heritage month, it is worth recognizing that what really binds the AAPI communities together is their shared American experience in the context of their Asian origins: often being perceived as the "other," not quite American enough, because of their Asian Pacific origins. Periodic surveys conducted by the Committee of 100, a Chinese American organization, point out that almost half of the non-Asian American population perceives people of Asian origin as having stronger affiliation with their country of origin than with their adopted country, more as foreigners than as "true" Americans. This why an Indian American Miss Universe, representing America, was asked to go" home" after winning the crown.
If Asian pacific Americans want to make a difference in the national elections, they will need to come together strategically to identify issues that matter to them in this country and learn from the experience of other groups to have their voices heard. They will need to register to vote and actually exercise their right to do so to have their voices heard.
To be sure, unprecedented progress has been made by both parties and should be recognized as such. As DNC Director of AAPI Engagement Koustubh "K.J." Bagchi notes, "This year, the DNC launched ProgressAAPI, a series of programs, trainings and conversations that build on the work that past AAPI Democrats have done, such as social media actions, webinars on the convention, connecting youth to campaign opportunities, and events to get our message out."
Similarly, the GOP is seeking to capture its own share of the AAPI vote. Jason Chung, RNC Director for APA Engagement, observes, "The RNC is continuing a multi-million dollar investment effort to compete for the AAPI vote. Our initiatives are more than paying for booths at cultural events, festivals, and advertising; we are out there engaging AAPI voters where they work, live, and play. These long-term investments are already making our party stronger."
These efforts by both parties are unprecedented, but more work remains to be done. And not just because AAPIs can potentially swing the upcoming presidential election, but because they are an integral part of the evolving American identity.
Vishakha N. Desai is President Emerita of Asia Society and senior advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University. Ronak D. Desai is an affiliate at the Belfer Center's India and South Asia Program at Harvard University. Authors are not related.