Asian-American Millennials Pushing to Become a Political Force

Asian-American millennials are working to raise political participation.

ByStacy Chen
November 3, 2016, 10:12 AM

— -- Andrew Sam, a senior at UCLA, is passionate about the need to increase Asian-American political participation.

But the volunteer activist doesn't have to look beyond his own Chinese immigrant parents to see some reasons why in the U.S. political arena, Asian-Americans have punched below their weight.

“My mom doesn’t really care about American politics, and my dad feels like voting won’t make a difference,” Sam told ABC News.

Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. and have among the highest education levels.

But turnout among Asian-Americans was 47.3 percent in the 2012 presidential election, slightly below Hispanics at 48 percent and far below blacks at 66.2 percent and whites at 62.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Now some millennials like Sam are working to change this trend.

Sam's interest was sparked in a college Asian-American studies class.

“My professor told us that we are the fastest-growing, best-educated group in the U.S., yet our community is incredibly inactive when it comes to voting,” the 21-year-old said.

PHOTO: Andrew Sam, 21, a UCLA student active in efforts to increase Asian-American political participation.
Andrew Sam, 21, a UCLA student active in efforts to increase Asian-American political participation.
Courtesy Andrew Sam

Sam, who switched majors from chemistry to Asian-American Studies, became an outspoken activist, volunteering with two nonpartisan organizations that encourage Asian-American participation in electoral politics -- Asian Americans Advancing Justice and IamAsianAmerican.

Uyen Tieu, 35, was similarly jolted into action when she heard statistics on Asian Americans' low voting rate.

“I found out that only 37 percent of Asian-American millennials are registered and less than 40 percent [of the registered voters] make it to the polls," said Tieu, a New York resident whose parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam in 1979. “It’s just so surprising considering they’re mostly native-born, so I started texting my sister about it and figured we should do something.”

What started as a simple exchange of texts a couple of months ago turned into what Tieu called a “spontaneous show of unity” in a new online movement centered around a hashtag that Tieu started, #IamAsianAmerican.

On Oct. 16, IamAsianAmerican hosted a voter registration concert that drew thousands in four major cities: New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. That night, the hashtag #IAmAsianAmerican trended on Twitter, second only to Sunday Night Football.

There are signs that Asian-Americans' influence in the political sphere may be on the rise.

In 2010, Asian-Americans, including those identifying as having more than one race, made up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 though only about 4 percent of voters.

But the size of this electorate has been growing by about 600,000 voters in every presidential election cycle since 2004, according to a report released jointly by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Data.

Asian-Americans are expected to account for 5 percent of U.S. voters by 2025 and 10 percent by 2044, according to both the Center for American Progress and AAPI Data.

Despite the growth, political campaigns often fail to reach out to Asian-Americans in part because the population isn't viewed as politically active and also because of the racial group's diversity -- it includes both South and East Asians from countries as distinct as Japan and Bangladesh.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California-Riverside and the founder of the research group AAPI Data. "Parties are more likely to reach out to groups who have participated before, while voters are more likely to participate when political campaigns address their communities,” Ramakrishnan explained.

Asian-Americans are less likely to be contacted by political parties than whites and also less commonly come from families where politics is regularly discussed, Ramakrishnan found in in an unpublished study titled, “The Role of Parental Socialization on Asian American Participation.”

“Whites were approximately a third more likely to have grown up in households where politics was discussed,” Ramakrishnan said of the study's findings. “The cultural message remains powerful even among Asian-American college students," Ramakrishnan said. "They no longer live at home, but the way we are taught to focus on academics and the bettering of our families’ lives is a powerful influence among many youths.”

Angela Xin understands this firsthand.

“When my parents first immigrated here from China, they really had no community to depend on; all they know is how to depend on themselves,” Xin said. “My parents were dirt poor when they arrived. My dad worked at McDonald's, and my mom cleaned houses. They focused on survival, so participating in the political process is an afterthought, if [it occurs to them] at all.”

But Xin, a millennial, is following a different path, having become an ardent volunteer for the Nevada State Democratic Party.

PHOTO: Angela Xin, 22, (right) with Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan at a Democratic Party phone banking event in Nevada.
Angela Xin, 22, (right) with Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan at a Democratic Party phone banking event in Nevada.
Courtesy Angela Xin

Like Xin's parents, Andrew Sam's father focuses on his work, five days a week at a hardware warehouse and weekends as a chef. The Southern California resident also doesn't see voting as important.

“For us, we don’t care about who’s president, it doesn’t matter as long as the economy is good,” said Johnny Sam, a native of China who came to the U.S. decades ago via Vietnam.

Johnny Sam also faced language barriers at the voting booth.

“I don’t know how to read or write. I don’t know how to use computers, so I’d have to look for someone to read it out loud to me so I just never did it, I never had the time,” he said.

He believes, however, that Asian-Americans are growing more vocal and more confident in their own identities and backgrounds due to the rise of Asia's power in the global economy.

PHOTO: Andrew Sam, 21, a UCLA student, with his father, Johnny Sam.
Andrew Sam, 21, a UCLA student, with his father, Johnny Sam.
Courtesy Andrew Sam

His son, Andrew, meanwhile, sees work ahead to ensure that Asian-Americans' voices are heard.

“We are a diverse and large community, yet our needs are being ignored,” Andrew said. “Once we do turn up and vote, people will take notice and see, not only do we understand what’s going on, we also have our own problems to face, and that we aren’t just a 'model minority' they painted us to be.”

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