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The wrong way to court ethnics.


This was a tense winter for Mayor Diane Feinstein of San Francisco and leaders of her city's Asian-American community. Since Feinstein took office in 1979, many Asian-American leaders have criticized her for not instituting a strong affirmative action program in hiring and city contracting. (San Francisco is pledged to set aside 10 percent of its contracts for minorities; roughly a quarter of the city is of Asian ancestry.) The conflict heated up on January 7, when Feinstein announced a "clean sweep' of the police department, naming a new police chief and replacing three of the civilian police commission's five members, including the panel's sole Asian-American, Thomas Hsieh. Although Hsieh was preparing to vacate the commission to run for city supervisor (with Feinstein's likely endorsement), his departure renewed animosities between Asian-American leaders and the mayor. What irked them, said one Asian-American Democratic leader, was her "failure to replace Hsieh with another Asian in such an important commission.'

In a public letter, leaders of the Chinese-American Democratic Club, the San Francisco Taipei Sister City Committee, and other groups chastised Feinstein, charging that "Chinese-Americans and their needs do not rank very high on your priority list.' At the same time, the staff members of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) rushed to complete and publicize a report criticizing the mayor's poor record of appointing Asian-Americans to executive office. Henry Der, CAA's executive director, publicly berated the mayor. "She has slighted the Chinese community,' he said.

Feinstein appointed ten Asians to important posts over the next four weeks. Deputy Mayor Hadley Roff met with CAA officials to discuss their complaints. After the meeting, Der seemed optimistic, saying he was "satisfied that the administration now understands our concerns.' He added that both sides would meet regularly to discuss "specific steps to achieve the goal of Asian-American promotion.'

The political muscle of Asian-Americans in San Francisco is great but hardly unique. Nationally, Asian-Americans are becoming a major political force. Although they are a small minority--only 4.1 million Asian-Americans versus 16.9 hispanics and 24 million blacks--they are the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group. Their concentration in key electoral states like New York, California, Illinois, and Texas gives them additional clout. What's more, Asian-Americans are on average better educated and wealthier than the population at large, making them a significant source of campaign contributions. As a result, Democratic and Republican politicians now find themselves bidding for Asian-American support.

The birth of what might be called an Asian-American lobby offers an opportunity to raise some important questions about special interest politics in general. When we appeal to groups rather than individuals, do ideals suffer? How can we recognize differences in need among subgroups and among individuals? The rise of Asian-American politics also provides an interesting lesson in how an ethnic group's clout tends to grow in inverse proportion to the hardships it endures. Asian-Americans, like many other groups, had little power in history when they were suffering most from discrimination and poverty. Where were the politicians when the Japanese were being interned during World War II? Now that Asian-Americans are an ethnic success story, presidential candidates cater to them. Is there a better way to approach members of an interest group--one that ensures benefits will go to those who need them most?

The bad earth

Until very recently, the Asian-American vote was practically an oxymoron. A variety of historical factors conspired to keep Asian-Americans out of politics--most notably a legacy of discrimination worse than that endured by any other group that came to this country voluntarily.

Drawn by the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s, the first Asian-Americans were Chinese who emigrated to send money home to their families in the small coastal province of Toshian. When they arrived, employment discrimination confined them to menial labor, primarily laying track for western railroads. It was a hard life that became worse when the Gold Rush went bust and violence, even lynchings, became commonplace. Since trade unions, like Samuel Gompers's AFL, denied them admission, the Chinese became scabs--an especially dangerous occupation for such a visible group. In 1885, for instance, dozens of Chinese workers employed as strikebreakers were murdered in a Wyoming coal mine.

What separates the discrimination faced by the Chinese from that endured by, say, the Irish, was not merely degree but kind. In addition to private discrimination, local, state, and federal government drew legal sanctions against Asians. In the 1880s, Seattle and Tacoma went so far as to expel their sizable Chinese populations. San Francisco banned the carrying of baskets across the shoulders, the traditional Chinese method, and even gong-playing. In 1854 private violence was given impunity when California passed a statute denying Chinese the right to testify in court. Perhaps the worst measure was the Chinese Exclusion Act --an 1882 federal law sharply limiting the number of new Asian arrivals and forbidding those already here from becoming enfranchised. With the ratio of male to female immigrants about seven to one, the curtailment of immigration led to a decline in the Asian-American population that did not end until the eve of the Depression.

Japanese immigrants faced equally discriminatory laws, such as the Alien Land Law Act of 1913, which denied immigrants the right to own land--a vicious blow to Japanese-Americans, who were primarily farmers. Most shameful was Franklin Roosevelt's 1942 executive order interning 116,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. What was remarkable about this measure was the extent of its support, including even that of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The reaction of Asian-Americans to these hardships was much like that of Asian emigres elsewhere in the world. They secluded themselves in urban Chinatowns and Tokyo-towns. In these insular communities, where self-sustaining credit pools and culture prevailed, small business, not politics, became the predominant avenue of ascent. Asian-Americans were as politically organized and vigorous as "Danish-Americans.'

Keeping up with the Cohens

It's different today. One-third of Asian-Americans do not live in predominantly Asian enclaves. The countries of origin are no longer just China and Japan; Southeast Asia has become an important source. In 1960 the United States admitted only 59 immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos combined; since 1975, the influx from Vietnam alone has averaged more than 150,000 annually. South Korea and the Philippines are also significant contributors. All told, the Asian-American population mushroomed 146 percent between 1970 and 1980 and (according to the U.S. Census) will double again by the year 2000.

As a group, Asian-Americans are affluent. Although there are pockets of poverty, the median family income is above that of white Americans --$22,713 versus $20,800 according to the 1980 census, the most recent figures available. Entrepreneurial success accounts for much of the edge. In Los Angeles, for instance, you can buy a "Korean Yellow Pages' that lists 4,266 Korean-owned businesses. Asian-Americans' educational status ensures their continuing prosperity. Whereas 17 percent of white Americans age 25 or older are college graduates, 33 percent of Asians have a college degree. Because many Asian-American students are gravitating toward high-paying scientific fields, their futures look especially bright. This year all five winners of the Westinghouse Talent Search were Asian-American. Nearly a fourth of the student body at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is Asian-American.

Like most educated and well-off Americans, successful Asian-Americans have come to care about politics. "The older generations of Asians were not active

politically,' says March Fong Eu, California's secretary of state. "They opened groceries and laundries. The new citizens are very anxious to be part of the American way of life. They are more educated--doctors, bankers, lawyers.'

The appearance of a brand-new constituency has caught the attention of both parties. "Right now they only constitute a small percentage of the electorate but in time they could become very, very important,' says Terry McCauliff, director of fundraising for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Neither party reveals fundraising by race, but several DNC officials say that Asians rank second only to Jews as the party's largest donors. "In 1976 there was one Asian at the Democratic National Committee who worked the [Asian-American] community. In a few weeks, he had a million dollars,' recalls Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a Democrat from California. Candidates are starting to work San Francisco's Chinatown the way they work Miami's Jewish donor circuit. Fred Fujiota, president of the Japanese-American Democratic Club of San Francisco, finds himself an unlikely power broker. "I get approached by everybody from all over the country,' he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "[T]hey want an introduction to the club. They send appeals for money.'

For their part, Republican officials are hopeful that newer, more anticommunist immigrant groups will push Asian-Americans to the right. At the 1984 convention, the Republican National Committee feted Asian-Americans, arranging for them to be photographed beside top party leaders. "We're an open party, the natural choice for Vietnamese citizens,' Bob Walker, RNC executive director in San Jose, told The Wall Street Journal last year. Other RNC leaders like Frank Stella, chairman of the National Republican Heritage Groups Council, an umbrella group for the party's ethnics, are equally optimistic. "Asian-Americans could become as important to the Republican party as Jews have been to the Democratic party,' he speculates.

Caucus clout

Of course, there's nothing improper about Democrats attending Chinatown fundraisers or Republicans registering Vietnamese immigrants as soon as they finish taking their oaths of U.S. citizenship. The problems start when candidates stop wooing voters who are Asian-American and start courting the Asian-American vote. The difference is important. Individuals can be approached as many things--steelworker, veteran, retiree, or just citizen. The multiplicity of our institutional and personal loyalties keeps our political views from hardening into the sort of rigid agendas promoted by groups like the United Steel Workers of America and the American Legion. People can appreciate complexity and the need to make sacrifices on behalf of others; lobbies aren't nearly as flexible. For example, a homeowner might support repeal of the mortgage interest deduction if he or she felt it would lead to a fairer tax code. The National Association of Homebuilders never would.

How does this distort our politics? Consider how Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson courted the Asian-American vote during the 1984 Democratic primary. Because California, where more than one-third of Asian-Americans live, was the last and largest primary in a close race, all three candidates worked its Asian-American groups with particular zeal. Two months before the California primary, Mondale, Hart, and Jackson all had endorsed the platform of the Democratic Party Asian-Pacific Caucus. While much of the platform was devoted to laudable calls to "enforce vigorously our present laws to protect the civil rights of Asian-Americans' and to fight "stop and search procedures which are discriminatory and without probable cause,' other sections seemed more questionable--for example, a commitment "to increase substantially the procurement from Asian-Pacific-American owned firms.'

It's reasonable to ask whether affirmative action benefits ought to accrue to, say, Japanese-Americans, whose median income is $27,388--second only to American Jews--who, by the third generation, are 88 percent college-educated compared to 16 percent for all Americans, and who are overwhelmingly native-born. But it seems unlikely that the candidates' staffs, let alone the candidates, ever spent much time weighing the justice of these policies. Instead, they probably endorsed the platform in the name of expediency.

Had these candidates examined the Asian-Pacific Caucus agenda, they might have raised some important questions. In pledging to "guarantee recognition to Asian-Pacific-Americans along with blacks, hispanics, and native Americans in all minority small business concerns,' why couldn't they draw distinctions among Asian groups? While the Japanese and Chinese earn more than the national median income, Cambodians earn less. Filipinos usually speak English; Fijians rarely do. Because Laos's largely illiterate Hmong tribesmen are not organized into associations with Washington offices, newsletters, and fundraisers, none of the three candidates ever devoted an address to their unique predicament. How can a broad category like "Asian-American' or even "Asian-Pacific-American' accommodate such distinctions? Last year Rep. Sala Burton, a California Democrat who represents a 22 percent Asian-American district (the third most Asian in America), introduced an amendment to the Higher Education Act that put Asian-Americans in the minority designation. A more sensible approach has been advocated by Senator Spark Matsunaga, who has sponsored bills aimed at the specific needs of poor Asians from Samoa, Guam, the Marianas and other outer islands.

It's surprising that none of the candidates noted the sociological differences between problems of Asian-Americans and those faced by blacks. For example, while 47 percent of all black families are single parent homes, only 12 percent of all Asian families are. This stable family structure has allowed Asians to rise out of poverty often by the second generation, while black poverty lingers from generation to generation.

The stable family is partially responsible for the success of Asian-American small business. Koreans own 75 percent of Washington, D.C. independent groceries; East Indian-Americans control 90 percent of New York City's newsstands. This is possible largely because they can recruit workers from inside the family instead of hiring outside labor. Illsoo Kim, a sociologist at Drew University, has found that "over 75 percent of Korean businesses in New York City had no hired employees.'

The failure to distinguish minorities in food lines from those who can afford to eat out every night is echoed in federal policies that treat wealthy Cubans, impoverished Puerto Ricans, affluent Chinese, refugee Haitians, and poor Mississippi blacks af if their histories and circumstances were identical. The implementing regulations of Executive Order 11246 (the cornerstone of affirmative action in employment, covering 58,000 employers and 73 million employees); the Small Business Administration's 8A loan program; the Minority Business Development programs of the Department of Commerce; the licensing provisions of the FCC--all treat "minorities' the same.

What Democrats in particular have often failed to understand is that when appeals to groups degenerate into special interest pandering they can backfire. One suspects that, in 1984, Mondale's appeals failed with many an Asian-American voter--not to mention other voters-- simply because they seemed patronizing. In a special "Asian-American' position paper, Mondale committed himself to appointing Asian-Americans to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the White House Public Liaison office. During his acceptance speech, Mondale honored the request of Rep. Norman Minetta and other Asian leaders to specifically hail the achievements of Asians. (During a "Today' show interview after the convention, Minetta criticized Governor Mario Cuomo of New York for failing to mention Asians in his keynote address.)

Mondale's solicitude fit into the overall pattern of the campaign, which William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute describes as one long genuflection that ended up offending voters of all stripes: "Hart promised a united Ireland to the Irish. Both he and Mondale fought to see who could move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem the quickest. By the end, everyone was disgusted.' To be sure, Republicans have played the same game. At the 1984 convention, for example, RNC officials encouraged senior delegates to give up their seats so that lesser-ranked Asian-American delegates could sit in on top meetings. And though Republicans like to criticize Democrats for their caucus mentality, when a Republican party spokesman was recently asked what distinguished the Republican message to Asians from that of the Democrats, she replied, "We have an Asian caucus, they don't.'

But the most popular Republican of all, Ronald Reagan, has shrewdly avoided playing this game. In contrast to Mondale's, Reagan's campaign eschewed ethnic appeals in favor of a more broad-based approach. An ad that appeared in several papers, including The Pacific Citizen, the newspaper of the Japanese-American Citizen League, showed a cowboy-shirted Reagan with the Statue of Liberty looming large in the background. The text spoke to all Americans: "Opportunity, hard work, and faith in God and family are the building blocks of the future and the basis of President Reagan's new beginning for America.' Reagan ended up with 67 percent of the Asian-American vote. Similarly, the Republican right has enjoyed tremendous popularity among new Vietnamese immigrants, not with a specially tailored pitch, but with a consistent brand of virulent anticommunism. Democrats needn't adapt such extreme foreign policy views to recognize the value of appeals based on something broader than ethnicity.

Rehabilitate "fairness'

This is not to suggest that ethnic awareness is without value. Among people who share a certain heritage or set of experiences, it's only natural that a special feeling of community will develop. And certainly our sense of justice can't help but be informed by both individual and group experiences. Federal policy toward Indians is understood by those who live on the reservation a good deal better than by those who live in Manhattan; Gulf Coast fishermen are bound to care more about setting proper boundaries for territorial waters than are grain storage operators in Kansas. Legitimate grievances against our government inevitably are recognized only after the affected parties have spoken up. Barring a sudden and unexpected epidemic of empathy and altruism, that's the way it will always be. But it's important to keep in mind that every citizen's ultimate interest is in preserving a society that deals fairly with everyone--not just fellow members of an ethnic or special interest group.

Polls conducted by the Democratic party show that "fairness' has become a dirty word to the American public. The likely reason is that it has come to be understood as a code word for brokering among groups rather than a legitimate means of serving social justice.

Categories like "Asian-American,' "elderly,' and even "black' don't necessarily distinguish those who need to be dealt in from those who already have been; they are a shorthand that substitutes for, and sometimes obscures, a more subtle understanding of human need. Those with the most need, of course, almost never have meaningful clout on their own. The poor and underprivileged, it is often noted, do not contribute to political action committees. When Asian-Americans were powerless, few of us worried about their plight. Now that they are engineers and businessmen, polticians are eager to help. Our goal should be to find out who are today's equivalents of the Chinese who laid the railroads and how we can help them.
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Author:Massey, Thomas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
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