Reorientation

by Franklin Foer | July 2, 2001

"You want to know about the awakening? This is the awakening." Ginny Gong, a manager in the Montgomery County culture and recreation department, is crowded into the wood-paneled school board chamber in Rockville, Maryland. Squeezed into the aisles around her are a Vietnamese financial analyst from Lockheed Martin, a Chinese administrator from the National Institutes of Health, and about a dozen other activists. When a speaker finishes a passionate peroration about the "disenfranchisement" of Asian Americans, the crowd applauds, and some hold above their heads yellow placards that exclaim THIS TIME.

This time, they want the county to name an elementary school in Germantown, on the outermost fringe of suburban Washington, after the late Hawaii Senator Spark M. Matsunaga. For five years Gong has lobbied the school board on the issue. "Whenever I saw a school named for an African American or another minority, it made me so mad," Gong tells me. "Everyone thinks Asians are so passive. We get ignored." She has a point. While Montgomery County has schools named after Roberto Clemente, Sequoyah, and Ronald McNair (an African American astronaut), it contains not a single public building honoring an Asian American.

Neoconservatives have an explanation for this: Asian Americans are the "model minority." Coined by admiring right-wingers in the mid-'60s, the phrase portrayed Asian Americans as the Ward Cleavers of American ethnic politics--industrious, conservative strivers with little interest in the angry multiculturalism of other minority groups. By decade's end, a small shelf could be filled with tracts like Nisei: The Quiet Americans and Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success. They generally shared the conclusion of Thomas Sowell's later work, Ethnic America: A History--Asian Americans owed their economic success to the fact that they "studiously avoided political agitation."

For a while, the model-minority theory fit. Aside from a few activists, Asian Americans seemed largely uninterested in street protest and largely untroubled by picayune cases of political incorrectness. In fact, polling revealed that the vast majority of Asian Americans were fiscally conservative, anti-Communist Republicans. As recently as 1992 they chose George Bush over Bill Clinton by a 27 percent margin. By the end of the decade, however, the situation had flipped. Al Gore won Asian American votes by 14 percent. Nor was this a momentary reversal. According to the recently published National Asian American Political Survey, 57 percent of Asians who self-identify with a party consider themselves Democrats. Indeed, over the last decade, the Asian American political, business, and media elite have been transformed. Almost 30 years after other ethnic groups, Asian Americans have stopped worrying and learned to love identity politics.

Before the late '60s there was no such thing as an "Asian American." Asian immigrants identified themselves by their family's country of origin; others sometimes lumped them together as "Orientals." But then came the New Left and its anti-imperialist zeitgeist. And on college campuses, where that zeitgeist was strongest, students banded together against the colonial overtones of "Oriental" and began calling themselves Asian Americans. University campuses such as Yale and Princeton saw the advent of slogans like "yellow power" and "yellow is beautiful"; in 1968 and 1969, students at San Francisco State College and the University of California at Berkeley went on strike demanding programs in Asian American studies.

The student leaders vowed to go into Asian communities and to help their oppressed people rise up. As Stanford University historian Gordon Chang puts it, "The activists went back to Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown with their big ideas about Asian American consciousness." But their slogans fell on deaf ears. "The term Asian American didn't mean a thing to these people," Chang says. Sometimes the reception was openly hostile. The Japanese American Citizens League condemned the student strikers. In her book Asian American Dreams, Helen Zia describes how lefty activists endlessly sparred with established fraternal organizations that prized anti-communism above all else.

The gap between the activists and the broader Asian American community wasn't just ideological; it was sociological as well. The student leaders--Yale's Don Nakanishi, Princeton's Zia--were American-born. They spoke English and knew of Asia only from college courses and family stories. The vast majority of Asian Americans, by contrast, were fresh off the boat. Thanks to Lyndon Johnson's 1965 lifting of stringent immigration quotas, 2.6 million Asians flooded into metropolitan America in a 15-year period. And, not surprisingly, the new arrivals cared more about building their lives and businesses than about combating American racism. Besides, they found the students' notions of pan-ethnic identity a bit bewildering. Why should Chinese and Japanese--or Japanese and Koreans--suddenly declare common cause after centuries of distrust and warfare?

The student activists gradually created a pan-ethnic civil rights establishment with legal defense funds in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco and with an agenda borrowed unabashedly from African American politics. As Zia puts it, they craved "the emergence of Asian American leaders who could stir up passions in the manner of the Reverend Al Sharpton." But the activists still lacked a broad following. And to the degree Asian America had leaders, they came from its burgeoning business elite, from professionally successful, politically conservative recent immigrants who tended to describe themselves in terms of national identity. For someone like John Huang, a banker who emigrated from Taiwan in 1969, there was no reason to create elaborate alliances with Japanese and Filipino immigrants. Institutions like the National Association of Chinese-American Bankers, which he headed, suited his networking and political needs much better. Instead of pan-ethnic civil rights agitation, the businessmen based their politics on promoting anti-communism abroad and protecting liberal immigration law at home. On the whole, the Republican Party suited them well. In 1988, according to the Los Angeles Times, Asian Americans gave the Bush-Quayle campaign more soft money than any other "donor bloc." Some Republican strategists predicted Asians would become the GOP's Jews--a loyal minority constituency with hefty check-writing ability.

The Asian American business elite might well have stuck with the Republicans. In fact, Newt Gingrich's libertarian bent appealed to immigrants who grew up distrusting the corrupt dictators and bureaucrats of their homelands. But then the GOP blew it. Following former California Governor Pete Wilson, Republicans jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon in hopes of building an indomitable base of angry white men. In 1995 Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson pushed legislation to drastically reduce legal immigration and carefully track resident aliens. A year later, a provision in the welfare reform bill stripped legal immigrants of food stamps and other benefits.

Terrified at the prospect of being deported or losing benefits, thousands of Asian resident aliens rushed to become citizens. With the Simpson legislation pending, courthouses were no longer large enough to hold naturalization ceremonies. In the Bay Area, the Immigration and Naturalization Service set up shop in the San Jose Convention Center and San Francisco's 3,000-seat Masonic Auditorium. On their way out, the new citizens were greeted by activists like David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. In 1996 groups like Lee's registered an unprecedented 75,000 new voters. And, according to Lee, most of them became Democrats.

The government's assault on immigrants' rights gave the civil rights groups the constituency they had long lacked. In Los Angeles they recruited thousands for a downtown march against Wilson's Proposition 187, which also restricted benefits for illegal immigrants. At Berkeley and UCLA, they organized student rallies. Even members of the business elite swung left, switching party affiliation after what they considered the GOP's betrayal.

But if Republican immigrant-bashing sent Asians pouring into the Democratic Party, they soon discovered that it wasn't free of nativism either, which radicalized the community even further. "Nineteen ninety-six was supposed to be the coming-out party," recalls Nakanishi, now a political scientist at ucla. "Asian American politics was finally going to be politically mature." Seeking to capitalize on the GOP's blunders, the Democratic National Committee, led by vice finance chairman John Huang, aggressively sought checks from the Asian American entrepreneurial class. President Clinton appeared at Asian American fund-raisers in L.A.'s Century Plaza and Washington's Carlton Hotels, intending to seal the new relationship. There was loud talk that the community would be rewarded with patronage: Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien was considered a shoo-in to replace Hazel O'Leary as secretary of energy.

So when the fund-raising scandals broke, making household names of Huang, Maria Hsia, Charlie Trie, and Johnny Chung, the effect was devastating. An election that had begun with euphoric pronouncements about Asian American political power ended with congressional investigations and racist slurs by Ross Perot. ("Now then, Mr. Huang is still out there hard at work for the Democrats," Perot told a crowd at the University of Pennsylvania. "Wouldn't you like to have someone out there named O'Reilly?") And the DNC itself seemed to turn on its friends, hiring the accounting firm Ernst and Young to question donors with Asian names about their citizenship and business dealings abroad. Which left the immigrant elite even more convinced that the civil rights activists were right. One big donor, Charlie Woo, the owner of the Los Angeles-based company Megatoys, told me, "I had always recognized that the prejudice was a factor. I didn't realize that it can destroy you and ruin everything you work for."

The radicalizing effect of the fund-raising scandals might have worn off. "I think people began to forget," says Howard University Law Professor Frank Wu. "But then there was Wen Ho Lee." The physicist's 1999 arrest on charges of espionage revived the Asian elite's suspicions of deep-seated American racism. Groups that in the past had carefully avoided political controversies responded angrily. The Committee of 100, a prestigious Chinese-American fraternal club that had never expressed much interest in domestic politics, suddenly sounded like the campus radicals. Henry S. Tang, the group's chairman, told the Los Angeles Times: "No matter how accomplished, no matter how educated, no matter how wealthy, no matter how loyal, [an Asian American] could still become suspected of activities counter to the interests of this country." The new tone affected not only the more traditionally political second and third generations but newcomers as well. After a long history of sidestepping civil rights issues, Chinese-language newspapers like the Taiwanese-owned World Journal and the national Tsing Tao chain of dailies made Lee's freedom a crusade. Articles turned Lee into a Chinese-American everyman, describing in intricate detail his suburban neighborhood, his assimilated family, his workplace, and his unjust fate. Portia Li, the correspondent who covered the case for World Journal, told me, "We wanted to educate about civil rights. I wrote a lot about racial profiling and discrimination [against Chinese scientists]."

Among the immigrant engineers and scientists of Silicon Valley, Lee generated instant empathy. "Traditionally, Asian Americans felt you could advance in science based on merit," says Woo. "This was a wake-up call. In America, you can't hide in your research lab." The Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund raised nearly $500,000, much of it from Bay Area techies. And, in the wake of Lee's arrest, Asian American scientists began to come forward with stories of the glass ceiling. At the Energy Department's Livermore labs, nine Asian employees filed a discrimination report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Joel Wong, a middle manager at Livermore, told the Associated Press that his bosses expect Asians "to behave as European-Americans." As an article in Time magazine predicted last year, "Lee's nine-month imprisonment may be the last time an Asian American suffers in silence."

To see the transformed Asian American politics in action, go to San Francisco. Last fall, on the one hundredth day of Wen Ho Lee's imprisonment, Mabel Teng, campaigning for reelection to the city's Board of Supervisors, spoke at a rally in front of San Francisco's federal building, telling the assembled crowd, "Our government is committing exactly what they did in Manazanar"--one of the camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Similarly, Wilma Chan, a state assemblywoman from the Bay Area, told me, "Even though Asian Americans are only six percent of my district, I thought it was important to talk about Wen Ho Lee." Democratic organizer David Lee concludes that Wen Ho Lee "was all over the place last campaign."

Even politicians who have made careers of avoiding tricky ethnic issues have begun to play to the crowds--and to the donors. At a May meeting of the Committee of 100, Sacramento's soft-spoken Representative Bob Matsui accused House Republicans of fomenting anti-Asian sentiments. In Republican Matt Fong's 1998 Senate campaign, the candidate waxed radical at Asian American fund-raisers: "How American do you have to be to be considered American? Do I have to wear a blond wig to be considered an American?" And, after the election, Fong blamed his loss on racism: "It caught Wen Ho Lee, and it caught me."

Whereas Chinese-Americans traditionally viewed domestic politics through the lens of foreign policy--in particular, anti-communism--the fund-raising scandals and the Wen Ho Lee case have reversed that perspective: Many now see relations with China as an extension of their domestic struggle against discrimination. And that has led to greater sympathy for Chinese nationalism and increased suspicion of a U.S. hard line. "Chinese-Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with China-bashing," says Occidental College American Studies Professor Xiao-huang Yin. "They worry it will only serve to degrade Chinese-Americans in the eyes of larger society." During last spring's spy-plane standoff, many of the major Chinese-American organizations issued press releases condemning U.S. politicians and the media for creating an atmosphere hostile to Asians. In The Village Voice, Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued that "Asian Americans are becoming the sacrificial lamb to secure the U.S.'s position as the superpower of the world." Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu has been eviscerated by local papers and activists for his criticisms of the Communist regime. In 1996 George Koo, a consultant with Deloitte and Touche, wrote an open letter to Chinese Community Forum calling on Chinese Americans "to keep the spot light on the dark and sleazy side of this man so that the American public will not be so easily led astray by his outrageous lies." And while some Chinese-American support for the People's Republic is clearly economically motivated--many young Chinese-Americans have gone to work in the emerging China market in recent years--ethnic solidarity is an equally powerful impulse. As China scholar Arthur Waldron puts it, young Chinese-Americans now go to China "just as young Jews go to Israel."

But if identity politics represents a political coming of age for Asian Americans, it's not without its problems. After all, the natural logic of identity politics is for people to define themselves in ever-narrower categories, rejecting the possibility of cultural assimilation. And faced with that ethic, a category as broad and as recent as "Asian American" is in perennial danger of unraveling. Consider the fight in Montgomery County. When the opportunity to name a school finally came last March, a coalition of Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese leaders met and settled on the Japanese-American Matsunaga. "He's a great American. He should be remembered," Gong told me. The community prepared to bask in its impending victory.

But, as the school board prepared to officially select Matsunaga, Gong and her allies came under fire. Chinese-American leaders, including the former president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, objected. "They didn't like that there would be a Japanese spelling on the school," says local activist Michael Lin. "They still remember atrocities the Japanese committed during World War II." In a school board meeting earlier this month, the debate spilled into the open. The Chinese activists brought their own raucous contingent, carrying placards that proposed Chinese names. The board approved Matsunaga, but only after three angry rounds of voting. "I'm a bit disgusted," says school board president Nancy King. "I thought naming a school would be a happy event. Instead, it's torn a community apart." Live by multiculturalism, die by multiculturalism.

 

This article originally ran in the July 2nd, 2001, issue of the magazine.

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