If You're API and You Know It …
The California Asian Pacific Islander (API) Legislative Caucus convened its first annual policy summit, "Speaking in One Voice" on June 7, 2004, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento. The Summit, the first of its kind, reflects the growing political strength and consciousness of the API community …
— APA News & Review (Sacramento), Aug./Sept. '04
[That's not a typo in the reference tag, by the way. "APA" stands for "Asian Pacific American," a newer term than "Asian Pacific Islander." Obviously modeled on "African American," the preferred term since the 1970s for Americans visibly of black-African ancestry or part-ancestry, "APA" seems to have originated in the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Because of its upbeat emphasis on the American-ness of the referents, my guess is that "APA" will soon supersede "API" altogether. As the news snippet above indicates, though, it has not done so yet.]
Yes, folks, it's election season, time for the quadrennial head-scratching about the black vote, the Hispanic vote, the Jewish vote, and of course the API vote. The VNS exit poll for the 2000 presidential election showed two percent of voters identifying themselves as "Asian," breaking 55-41-1-3 for Gore-Bush-Buchanan-Nader. More APIs will be voting this year — probably 2.2 percent of the electorate. How will their vote break? Permit me to scratch my head.
In the first place, it is instructive to look at what "API" (or the newer, more user-friendly "APA") actually means. Asia stretches from the Suez Canal to the Bering Strait, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Coral Sea. Whatever "API" signifies, it is certainly not a race, in either the biological of social-construction sense. A Samoan has no more in common with an Iranian than he has with an Irishman; a Pakistani is further removed from a Korean on any criterion at all — linguistic, cultural, religious, phenotypic, or genetic — than he is from a Norwegian. "API" is in fact a very odd category, even more absurdly artificial than "Hispanic." The folk gathered thereinunder have only this one common characteristic: they, or their recent forebears, hail from somewhere between Istanbul and Tahiti.
How many APIs are there? The US census for the year 2000 showed 3.6 percent of the population identifying as "Asian alone," with a further 0.6 percent as "Asian in combination with one or more other races." As always in the dismal business of racial classification, it is hard to be sure that the definitions from one source match those from another — especially when a source has an interest in inflating its figures! — but it seems to me that the 2000 census definition of "Asian" agrees pretty well with "API." After a further four years of increase, via immigration and the natural reproduction of a mostly-young population, probably around 4.5 percent of the US population could fairly be classified as APIs. (That 4.5 percent including many non-citizen residents unable to vote. Hence the discrepancy with the 2.2 percent of the electorate mentioned above.)
So … how are they going to vote? I'll give my best guess in a moment. First, let's look at how API activists would like their people to vote. The clue here is in the title of that policy conference in the news clip I started with: "Speaking in one Voice." A concerted effort is under way to get APIs voting as a bloc. There is, for instance, the "80-20 Initiative".
Here is the logic behind 80-20. Around 110 million Americans will vote in November. If my guess that 2.2 percent of these voters will be APIs is correct, that means about 2.4 million API votes. If half those votes were to go to candidate X and half to candidate Y, then X and Y would each get 1.2 million API votes. If, on the other hand, APIs were to vote as a bloc, with 80 percent voting for X and only 20 percent choosing Y, then X gets 1.92 million API votes while Y gets only 0.48 million, a difference of 1.44 million votes nationwide (sixty percent of 2.4 million).
Now, any American presidential hopeful worth his salt would juggle chainsaws while standing in a pit of rattlesnakes with his hair on fire to win the favor of 1.44 million voters. This is especially true after the 2000 close photo-finish. And the outline analysis I have offered above does not even take into account regional weightings. Over half of APIs live in California, New York, or Hawaii. At the time of the 2000 census, three-quarters lived in just ten states, those states containing only 47 percent of the US population.
Reading the aforementioned APA News & Review, and looking at the 80-20 Initiative website, it is not insuperably difficult to figure out which names the API activists would like to see substituted for my candidate X and candidate Y in the previous paragraph. The 80-20 Initiative is in fact a vote-gathering exercise on behalf of the Democratic Party, and if there is any organization with "API" or "APA" in its name endorsing George W. Bush for President, I have been unable to locate it.
At a first glance this is not very surprising. There nothing new about ethnic bloc voting. In US politics, there is hardly anything older. And for at least a century, well-defined groups of new immigrants have always turned first to the Democratic Party as their representative; so a conglomeration of such groups, even one as artificial as is gathered under the "API" label, is likely to do so, too. Furthermore, a high proportion — around eighty percent, I would guess — of movers and shakers in the world of API activism are Chinese, and Chinatown has always been a Democratic bastion. One of the first things I ever saw in the USA was a large banner strung across Mott Street, in New York's Chinatown, promoting the mayoral campaign of Democrat Abe Beame, in English and Chinese.
On further thought, there are good reasons why recent API citizens should be less likely to bloc-vote Democratic that was formerly the case. Certainly you can still find ill-paid sweatshop and restaurant workers in Chinatown; but of recently-naturalized API immigrants, to judge from my own and my wife's naturalization ceremonies, the largest groups by far are middle-class technical or professional people from India and China (or Taiwan). Their usual first reaction to our outrageously high levels of income taxation is stunned horror. They have a good work ethic, are strong for law and order, regard the welfare system as an amoral racket to be gamed (though one which, I am sorry to say, they often join in the gaming of), and are surprisingly often on the restrictionist side of the immigration debate.
So what does the Democratic Party offer to APIs? To judge from the 80-20 Initiative website, the answer seems to be: victim status.
[L]iberty and justice remain an unrealized dream for Asian Pacific Americans, APAs. A low glass ceiling hangs instead over our heads, denying us the opportunity to rise to the top of our professions, just as it hung over women and blacks until recently.
API is the new black, you see. This notion has more resonance with middle-class APIs than you might think. Both Chinese and Indian immigrants bring with them to the US a profound sense of having been historically wronged: the Chinese by the "century of humiliation" (Opium Wars to WW2) at the hands of Western powers and Japan, the Indians likewise by a century under British imperialism. There is also, running through Chinese culture, a strong emotional tendency towards self-pity, illustrated by a high proportion of Chinese novels, movies, and TV shows, and noticeable even in ancient literary productions. This is fertile soil for the seeds of victimology.
There is also the appeal of socialism. We think of East and South Asian immigrants as vigorously entrepreneurial, as indeed many are. There is, however, a strong counter-current running deep in both cultures. In Confucian China, and those nations influenced by Confucianism, for two thousand years the dream of every capable young man, and the entire object of the educational system, was to get a government job. (Confucius himself spent his whole life seeking state employment.) Statism was not such a force in pre-modern India, but that country only recently emerged from a half-century of Fabian socialism, and the appeal of state employment must still be strong among many Indians.
Whether these psychological and historical factors are enough to fulfil the hopes of the 80-20 proponents, I rather doubt. My guess is that 2004 exit polls will show only a modest strengthening of the 55-41 Gore-Bush split, due largely to the solid anti-Bush sentiments of Arab and Muslim Americans (who mostly count as "Asian" in census figures). I'd be surprised if the bias went beyond 60-40, though.
A split of the order of 80-20, as desired by the API activists, would, I believe, be a very bad sign for the country. The US electorate already has one racial bloc voting 90-10 for Democrats. If we were to acquire another such, even a pseudo-racial bloc like the APIs, voting 80-20, the thought might begin to occur to the 69 percent of Americans who are un-black, un-Hispanic, and un-API that they might try an 80-20 strategy themselves. Let's see: 69 percent of 110 million is 75.9 million; eighty percent of that is 60.7 million. Now that is a voting bloc.