As the clock ticks toward the November 8 US presidential election, national polls show that Republican Donald Trump has become a polarizing force for Asian American voters opposing his candidacy.
An October 5 nonpartisan National Asian American Survey (NAAS) found that 59% of respondents back Democrat Hillary Clinton. Only 16% favor Trump, with 26% undecided or supporting third-party candidates.
“Trump is driving Asian Americans to the Democratic Party,” according to NAAS director Karthick Ramakrishnan.
The focus on Asian American voters is especially sharp since they make up critical parts of the electorate in must-win swing states like Nevada and Virginia — where they account for 8.5% and 6.5% of the population respectively.
This makes the once-ignored ballot preferences of 30-something Korean-American app developers or Bangalore-born convenience store owners of utmost importance in what has become the most volatile presidential race in American history.
Mainstream media has pinpointed Trump’s stance on immigration and his vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants as the top reason why Asian American voters oppose him.
However, “immigration” has clearly become a euphemism for deeper ethnic concerns. There’s ample evidence that perceptions of rising racial discrimination against Asians in the US has become the elephant in the room with Asian American voters in 2016.
“Anti-Asian discrimination appears to be increasing. People are definitely more aware of it,” said Margaret Fung, executive director of the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Many Asian Americans say heightened bias against the community — especially Chinese — is being stoked by “Chinaphobia” in the wake of escalating Sino-US tensions and negative portrayals of China in the US press. Other factors cited are jealousy of Asian American economic and educational success in a post financial crisis economy where other groups haven’t regained their footing.
“There’s rising anti-China feeling in the US because Trump’s supporters in particular see Chinese as the enemy,” said Bonnie Wong, president of the New York-based nonprofit Asian Women in Business. “They think China’s the reason why they don’t do as well, why their jobs aren’t good and why nothing is made in the US anymore.”
In this sense Trump, who routinely trashes China for allegedly manipulating its currency and repetitively mouths the word “China” at rambunctious rallies in Rust Belt states, has merely become a demonic poster boy for many Asian Americans frustrated about the race issue.
Trump enjoys some support among Asian Americans, particularly among property developers who believe a Trump White House will be good for the industry. Trump’s campaign has also cranked up its outreach to Asian American voters in recent months. But most community members say his backing is negligible.
“Over the last four years, the sort of rhetoric that’s been coming out of the right wing of the Republican party has been very much about targeting certain groups of people, from immigrants to Muslims to Latinos. Even for the parts of the Asian community who support Trump, you still have to come up with some sort of explanation for what Trump’s saying,” said Timmy Lu, a field director for the activist Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in Oakland, California.
Clinton’s staffers, in contrast, have had an Asian American campaign force on the ground since the primaries.
We are all Chinese
Many Asian Americans say they’ve increasingly become the object of incidents such as racial slurs in public places or the workplace over the last decade.
It is said to be as much a reflection of an expanding and upwardly mobile Asian American population competing with others for jobs, housing, and education, as it is a symptom of Chinaphobia.
Victims say those who make anti-Chinese slurs in public places are typically indifferent to whether targets are actually of Chinese ancestry. Anyone with an Asian face in their eyes is “Chinese.”
Violent incidents such as armed robberies of Chinese American businesses in cities like Philadelphia and hate-crime assaults on Asian students in US schools appear to be on the rise. “There’s a great perception of an increase in violence; against Asian Americans,” said APEN’s Lu.
Wong, of Asian Women in Business, compares escalating Chinaphobia to the reaction that greeted US-Japan trade friction and a large influx of Japanese investment in the 1980s. She recalls people calling out, “Jap go home,” after Japan’s Mitsubishi Estate bought New York’s iconic Rockefeller Center in 1989.
But the focus of such racial harassment has shifted as the US confronts China in the South China Sea and Chinese companies acquire famed properties like New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
“At that time I was considered Japanese, now I am considered Chinese because China’s in the news,” Wong said.
Whoever wins on November 8, the issue of racial discrimination against Asian Americans will clearly outlast the election.
Most recently, the ire of the Asian American community was roused by an October 3 Fox News TV segment in which O’Reilly Factor correspondent Jesse Watters visited New York’s Chinatown to poke some “tongue-in-cheek” fun at local residents.
The 5-minute clip, replete with “chopstick” music, had Watters querying a street vendor if his merchandise was “hot,” asking a Japanese if he knew karate and mocking seniors for their inability to answer questions in English. The Asian-American Journalists Association and others rallied to demand an apology.
“I thought it was disgraceful,” said Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It [the parody] was so incredible to me that this kind of segment would actually make it on air … it was horribly racist and especially disrespectful to elderly people who probably don’t speak English and didn’t know who [Watters] was.”
Incidents of this sort aren’t lost in translation in the voting booth. Data shows Asian Americans are shifting toward the Democratic Party faster than any other ethnic group.
A generation ago, many gravitated toward the Republican Party, drawn by its conservatism, anti-communism and support for family values. But 73% of all Asian American voters went for President Obama in 2012 vs. 26% for Mitt Romney.
Ramakrishnan, of the NAAS, notes the party splits that characterized Asians living in “Red” and “Blue” states in 2012 have largely disappeared in the 2016 election survey. “They are voting Democratic. Geography doesn’t matter now and you can probably credit Trump for that,” Ramakrishnan said.
The US Census says there are 21 million Asians in the US. They constitute 4% of the eligible US electorate. Since 2000 they have been growing faster demographically than any other ethnic group — including Hispanics. Much of the increase is attributed to Pacific Islanders and mixed-race individuals.