The Myth of (Asian) America

While many people assailed Bill Clinton's Cabinet nominations last month as affirmative action at the highest level of government, some groups were complaining about their continued exclusion from this country's highest political offices. Sure, Clinton went a long way in meeting his promise to from a cabinet that would "look like America," appointing four Blacks, two Hispanics and four women. But one important group remained unrepresented: Asian-Americans.

Asian-American organization sent the transition team hundreds of names, but not one Asian-American was seriously considered for a position. There were rumors that Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) might be the next secretary of the interior, but she said she wasn't even interviewed.

Granted, it is ridiculous to expect that every group in society be represented on a Cabinet which has only a limited number of spots. (Along with Asian-Americans, people born in North Dakota, people who worship the sun and people with the last names starting with Z also went unrepresented.)

And Asian-Americans on the transition team like Doris Matsui will likely see to it that qualified Asian-Americans are appointed to important sub-Cabinet positions. Even George Bush appointed a Chinese-American, Elaine Chao, to head the Peace Corps.

But even talking about diversity in positions below the Cabinet level irks many of Clinton's critics. They argue that the best people for the jobs should be picked regardless of their ethnic background. They also warn about the unintended backlash from whites and other minorities that might result from appointing members of certain underrepresented groups. If Cabinet appointees are perceived as mere tokens, both they and their ethnic groups might be stigmatized as qualified only by the color of their skin.


This isn't likely, especially for Asian-Americans, who have proven time and time again their competence and dedication as public servants. Just ask their constituents, the people (most of them from other ethnic backgrounds) who keep re-electing them.

However, what critics of Clinton's efforts to promote diversity really don't understand is that the risk of a public backlash must sometimes be taken if minority politicians are ever to be given a chance to show what they can do, and if the groups they represent are to ever develop a collective political voice.

Clinton doesn't have anything against Asian-Americans. The problem is that there just aren't enough Asian-American politicians out there. And according to Los Angeles City Councillor Michael Woo, who is also a front-running candidate for mayor, this lack of politicians is a self-fulfilling prophecy. "As there start to be more Asian-American politicians, more Asian-Americans will consider political careers," he says.

Mink says Asian-American politicians have to be cultivated at the grassroots level, gaining experience and establishing footholds in their communities. Only then will there be a natural filtering up to the state and federal levels. The problem is that most Asian-Americans just don't want to run.

In the past, Woo points out, pursuing public office was difficult because of overt discrimination against Asian-Americans. Recent studies also suggest that some Asian-American immigrants are more concerned with the politics of their homelands than the politics of the cities in which they live. Some of these recent immigrants also face language barriers which make it difficult for them even to cast ballost.

But these obstacles don't exist for many Asian-Americans. According to Woo, the real reason more don't run for office is that politics is just not a high-status profession for Asian-Americans, who desire more stability and money than public office can usually provide.

Mink puts it a lot more bluntly: many Asian-Americans just don't want to make the effort to get involved in their communities, she says. They are too absorbed in their work and businesses to take the time to reach out to others. And those Asian-American candidates who do run for office and are defeated often refuse to run again.

This is also part of the reason behind the notoriously low voting turnout among Asian-Americans. "Low rate of voter turnout has been a continuing disappointment," says Woo, who adds that more Asian-American candidates like himself--along with more voter education outreach--could be a good way to get more Asian-Americans to the ballot box. But right now, low turnouts and lack of candidates among Asian-Americans form a vicious cycle of political inactivity.

The reason for this political silence is as much self-absorption as the deceptive media messages that label Asian-Americans as the "model minority." The problem is that many Asian-Americans buy into this message: Why bother voting or running for office--why bother doing anything--when things are this rosy?

This success stereotype is a remarkable change from the image of Japanese-Americans propagated during World War II. Then, they were branded as deceitful, second-class Americans and herded off to internment camps--all for their own protection, of course.