For a while now, I’ve written about how the demographic increase in the size of the Latino American and Asian American populations will inevitably also lead to increased political, economic, and cultural power and influence as well. I also hypothesize that one example of this burgeoning political power was how Latinos and Asians voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the presidential election and as a result, helped to put him over the top.

In other words, Latino and Asian American voters are becoming increasingly important as voting blocs — a sizable constituency group that, if mobilized to voter overwhelmingly for a particular candidate, can make the difference between victory and defeat in a close election. For years, groups such as African Americans, Jewish Americans, and “NASCAR dads” have been important voting blocs.

To reinforce this notion of the increasing political power of Latinos and Asian Americans, as first mentioned by Seth Hoy at the Immigration Impact blog, the Census Bureau has just released detailed voter data from the 2008 election and among other things, they show:

  • Latinos represented 7.4% of all Americans who voted in the 2008 election (about 9,745,000 out of 131,144,000 total voters). This represents an increase from being 5.4% (about 5,934,000) of all voters in the 2000 election.
  • Asian Americans represented 2.8% of all Americans who voted in the 2008 election (about 3,627,000 out of 131,144,000 total voters). This represents an increase from being 1.8% (2,045,000) of all voters in 2000.
  • Non-Hispanic Blacks comprised 12.3% of all voters in the 2008 election, an increase from 11.5% in the 2000 election.
  • Conversely, non-Hispanic Whites made up 76.3% of all voters in 2008, a decline from 80.7% in 2000.

The data comparisons between 2000 and 2008 clearly show that Latinos and Asian Americans (and to a slightly lesser extent African Americans) comprise an ever-increasing proportion of the American electorate. Just as important, their power as a voting bloc are increasingly becoming evident as well, as noted by the following quote from the Immigration Impact blog post:

In Indiana, Obama won by roughly 26,000 votes, and received the votes of nearly 24,000 more Latino New Americans than John McCain. Similarly, in North Carolina, Obama won by approximately 14,000 votes, yet received the votes of nearly 26,000 more Latino New Americans than McCain.

We should note that Whites are still the largest racial voting group by far. Nonetheless, the rise of Latinos and Asian American is likely to become even more pronounced as both both groups continue to increase in population size, particularly among those who become naturalized citizens and the second generation (the U.S.-born).

The other interesting trend to note is data that shows Latino and Asian American voters are increasingly voting Democratic as well.

With these demographic and cultural shifts in mind, the fundamental nature of the American political landscape is likely to continue to change for generations to come.

I previously wrote about the evolution of the American identity and how in the context of American society becoming more diverse and globalized, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to use our transnational cultural ties and networks to make meaningful contributions to moving American society and its economy forward into the 21st century. In other words, our “foreignness” may finally be seen as an asset, rather than a liability.

Having said that, I also recognize that there are still “traditional” beliefs about what it means to be an American that we need to overcome and persistent stereotypes about our Asian identity and loyalty to the U.S. that we still need to dispel once and for all. This week, we saw three examples on this kind of “traditional” assumptions about our community and questions about the validity of the “American” part of our identity as Asian Americans.

The first example involves Lori Phanachone, a Laotian American high school student in Des Moines Iowa, who refused to take an English fluency test, arguing that as an Honors student for several years and one who speaks perfect English, the test is insulting, demeaning, and discriminatory. She was initially suspended by her school district and her National Honor Society membership was revoked. Earlier this week, after a lawsuit threat by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Iowa school district finally relented, reclassified Lori as an English proficient student, will waive the test requirement, and reinstate her National Honor Society membership:

Lori Phanachone, a senior who ranks seventh in her class of about 119 and has a 3.9 grade point average, refused to take the English Language Development Assessment several times last month, saying the test was demeaning and racist. Previously, the school district’s curriculum coordinator, Lori Porsche, said taking the test was mandatory for Phanachone because she indicated on her school registration that English was not the first language spoken in her home.

Her parents are Laotian and still speak little English. Phanachone, who was born in California and lived in upstate New York before moving to Storm Lake with her family in 2006, said she has never been enrolled in any English Language Learning or English as a Second Language program.

In the second example in which Asian Americans were questioned on their American identity, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Texas state Republican representative Betty Brown recently urged Asian Americans to change their names to “simpler,” more Americanized names that would be “easier for Americans to deal with”:

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. . . .

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said. Brown later told [Organization of Chinese Americans representative Ramsey] Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

Finally, the third example involved an incident that unfortunately, too many Asian Americans (especially students) are familiar with. As described in a newly-created Facebook group, this particular example occurred at Tufts University in Boston:

There was a bias incident involving members of the Korean Students Association (KSA) that took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, April 9, in Lewis Hall Lounge, while the club members were practicing for their culture show.

At approximately 1:45AM, a white freshman male living in Lewis Hall approached five male members who were practicing their dance. He had been drinking at a bar prior to arriving at Lewis Hall. He insisted several times that the KSA members teach him the moves to their dance and was repeatedly asked to stop. Despite this request, he continued to molest the dancers, imitating the dance moves and declaring, “This is the gayest shit I’ve ever done.”

The KSA members then asked him to leave, to which he responded, “Fuck you. Fuck you, I could take all of you. I’ll kill you all.” He then threatened to get his fraternity brothers to help him retaliate. At this point, he began to physically harass the dancers, spitting at one member and shoving another one of the guys. An altercation ensued during which the freshman ripped two shirts and inflicted minor cuts to a member’s forehead. In order to restrain him, the KSA members pinned him to the floor and put him into a headlock, at which point the freshman mentioned that he could not breathe and the person holding him down immediately let go.

At this moment, the freshman’s friend and his girlfriend, who watched from the side, stepped in to take him away. When he got up, he started cursing “Fuck you, fuck you” and spitting at the dancers again. As he was being dragged away, he shouted, “Fuck you all, you fucking chinks, go back to China! Go back to your fucking country, you don’t belong in this country.”

His friends took him to the bathroom, where he could be heard repeatedly shouting, “If I see them again, I will fuck them all.” The fight was reported to an RA, who wrote and sent in a bias incident report. According to the RA, submitted within the report was testimony from his girlfriend supporting the fact that her boyfriend initiated the altercation.

In all three incidents, the assumption is pretty clear — that because we may happen to speak a language other than English at home (even though we are still completely fluent in English), or because we don’t have Anglicized “American” names like Smith or Jones, or because we don’t want to indulge the whims of a drunken frat guy, that we as Asian Americans are not real or legitimate Americans. Instead, we’re considered foreigners, outsiders, and troublemakers who make unreasonable demands.

Beyond the sheer ignorance and ethnocentric beliefs fundamentally embedded in these assumptions, what the Iowa school district, Rep. Brown, and the drunken frat guy all fail to see is that contrary to the stereotype that we are intent from being separate from mainstream society, our history and experiences consistently show that we’ve been trying to integrate into mainstream American society all along. In these three cases, it involved using our bilingual skills to help ease our parents into American culture, trying to make sure voting records are correct so that we can participate in the American democratic process, and putting on a performance that bridges Asia and America.

But as with previous incidents and examples over the past 150 years or so since the first Asians immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers, even as we attempt to become Americans and integrate into mainstream American society, we are questioned, challenged, and prevented from doing so time and time again by those who consciously or unconsciously believe that only one group qualifies to be a “real” American — Whites.

Unfortunately, as these three recent incidents demonstrate, this kind of ignorant, narrow-minded, and short-sighted thinking is still with us today and still confronts us as Americans of Asian descent.