When Mike Park first heard about the recent Atlanta shootings, he was angry and scared. But almost immediately he had another thought.
“We can’t just sit back,” he said. “We can no longer sit in our little enclave.”
Mr. Park was born in South Carolina to Korean immigrants and grew up trying to escape his Asian identity. He resented being the only student speaking on Asia Pacific Day and embarrassed when his friends refused to have dinner in his house because of the unfamiliar pickled radishes and cabbage in his refrigerator.
Now 42, the park encompasses both its Korean heritage and an Asian-American identity that it shares with others of its generation. He felt even stronger solidarity in the Atlanta shootings, in which eight were killed, six of them women of Asian origin, especially after an increase in incidents against Asians across the country.
“I think this horrific crime brought people together,” said Mr. Park, an insurance salesman in Duluth, Georgia, a neighborhood Asian suburb of Atlanta. “It really is an awakening.”
For years, Asian Americans were among the least likely races or ethnic groups to vote or join community or interest groups. Today they invade public life, run for office in record numbers and vote like never before. They are now the fastest growing group in the American electorate.
But as a political force, the Americans of Asia are still taking shape. With a relatively short electoral history, they differ from demographic groups whose families have built party ties and electoral tendencies over generations. Most of their families arrived after 1965 when the United States opened its doors further to people in Asia. There are also great class differences; The income gap between rich and poor is largest among Americans in Asia.
“These are your classic swing voters,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, president of AAPI Data. “These immigrants did not grow up in a Democratic or Republican household. You have a lot more persuasive power. “
Historical data on Asia-US voting patterns are incomplete. Analysis of exit polls shows that a majority voted for George Bush in 1992, said Ramakrishnan. Today, a majority of Asians vote for Democrats, but that masks deep subgroup differences. For example, Vietnamese-Americans are more likely to be Republicans, and Native American-Americans are more likely to be Democrats.
It is too early for a final collapse of the Asia-US vote in 2020, either on a partisan or ethnic basis. One thing seems clear, however: American voter turnout in Asia appears to have been higher than ever before. Mr. Ramakrishnan analyzed preliminary estimates from the voter data firm Catalist This was based on available returns from 33 states representing two-thirds of the electorate in Asia and America. The estimates found that adult Asian American citizens saw the highest increase in voter turnout of any race or ethnic group.
As relatively new voters, many Asian Americans are uniquely interested in both major parties, drawn to Democrats for their stance on guns and health care, and Republicans for their support for small businesses and their emphasis on self-reliance. But they don’t fit into neat categories. The democratic position on immigration attracts some and repels others. The Republicans’ anti-communist language is persuasive to some. Others are indifferent.
Former President Donald J. Trump’s repeated reference to the “China virus” repelled many Sino-American voters, and Democratic support for positive action policies in schools has generated strong opposition from some Asian groups. Even the violence and blurring against Asians, which began to come to a head after the coronavirus spread last spring, has propelled people in different directions politically. Some blame Mr. Trump and his supporters. Others see Republicans as supporters of the police and law and order.
Yeun Jae Kim, 32, voted for the first time last year. His parents had moved from Seoul to a Florida suburb as a child and opened a truck parts recovery business. Mr. Kim graduated from Georgia Tech and then moved to Coca-Cola in Atlanta. However, like his parents, he was so focused on it that he was either disagreeing or not thinking much about politics at all.
Last year he changed his mind. But how should you choose and who should you choose? He and his wife spent hours watching videos on YouTube and speaking to a politically experienced friend, also a Korean, in church.
“It was pretty hard for me,” said Mr. Kim, who politically described himself as “in the middle”. “There are certain things that I really like about what the Democratic Party does. And there are certain things that I really like about what Republicans do. “
He wanted to keep his voice private. But he said that casting a ballot made him feel good.
“I was very proud of the country,” he said. “As if everyone were there together. It helped me feel connected to other people who also voted. “
Some of the new energy in Asian-American politics comes from second generation immigrants now in their thirties and forties, who form families far more racially mixed and civic than their parents. A new Asian-American identity is forged from dozens of languages, cultures and stories.
“Right now it’s growing up,” said Marc Ang, 39, a conservative political activist and business owner in Orange County, California. His father, an immigrant of Chinese descent from the Philippines, came to California in the 1980s to work in the steel industry. The state is now home to roughly a third of the country’s Asian-American population.
“Suddenly we’re top doctors, top lawyers, top business people,” said Ang, who pointed out that California’s roughly 6 million Asians are the size of Singapore. “It’s just inevitable that we will become an electoral bloc.”
Mr. Ang, a Republican, worked in California last year to thwart a positive proposal for action. But he praised the Democrats and their efforts to draw attention to the storm of blurring and physical attacks over the past year which he believes has been a driving force behind even the least politically involved people from countries as diverse as China, Vietnam and the Philippines United and South Korea.
More Asian Americans are running than ever before. They include Andrew Yang, one of the early leaders in the New York City Mayor race, and Michelle Wu, the councilor who is running for Boston mayor. A Filipino American, Robert Bonta, has just become attorney general for California.
According to AAPI data, at least 158 Asian American citizens were running for state law in 2020, up 15 percent from 2018.
Marvin Lim, a Georgia State representative, calls himself a 1.5 generation immigrant: He came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 7 years old.
Mr. Lim spent several years in public support, saying his family “did not see the bootstraps work for us”. He became a civil rights attorney and began voting for Democrats because their values were more in line with his. The 36-year-old won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in November and met with President Biden on his visit to Atlanta last month after the shootings.
“I’ve never felt so important,” he said.
Asian-Americans tend to be Democrats. Even more so with the Americans. But there are also things that turn Asians away from the Democrats.
Anthony Lam, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled as a refugee in the 1970s and raised working class in Los Angeles, had usually voted for Democrats. However, as the owner of a hair salon in San Diego, he became increasingly frustrated with coronavirus lockdown guidelines and was shut down by the riots during the Black Lives Matter protests. When criticizing the looting, he said some white Democrats punished him.
“They said, ‘You don’t understand racism,” he said. “I’m like,’ Wait a minute. Are you getting racism right now? I’ve lived with it for 40 years. ‘”
Mr. Lam voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He supported Mr. Yang in the Democratic Elementary School last year. But he said he eventually voted for Mr. Trump, mostly out of frustration with the Democrats.
Despite the recent surge in political representation, some Asian-American communities still feel invisible, and some members argue that this could lead to a right turn.
Rob Yang, a Hmong American who owns shoe and clothing stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, grew up poor as a refugee. He has witnessed the turmoil following the murder of George Floyd in his traditional working class Hmong community. His own stores were stripped of their wares during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Mr. Yang voted for Mr. Biden. He said he supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but some in his community didn’t. Years of feeling invisible had frustrated and demoralized her.
The way he sees it, Asians still don’t have enough voice and he fears that the pressure to hold onto everything for years will reach dangerous levels. He said he feared a populist Asian leader, “an Asian trump card,” could gain a large following by taking advantage of that frustration. “We held everything on for so long that we just need the right circumstances to blow,” he said.
For Mr. Park, the insurance agent in suburban Atlanta, the attacks in his city and other parts of America were a searing reminder that economic success does not guarantee protection from the racial animation that is part of American life. Now it is up to the Asian Americans to stand up and claim their place in American politics.
“It’s moving away from the idea that ‘the nail that sticks out is driven in,'” he said. “We realize it’s okay to stand out.”