Obama: An Asian American?

Jan 21, 2009
*Special to asia!

They are calling him the first post-racial president. But theasiamag.com is playing the race card and claiming him as one of our own.

Most notably, during the course of his 2000 bid for the Republican ticket, McCain was quoted as saying, "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." An initially unrepentant McCain defended his comments by stating that "I was referring to my prison guards and I will continue to refer to them in a language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends." Insisting that it was not an epithet when it came to describing his Vietcong captors, McCain added, "Gook is the kindest appellation I can give."

Coined by US soldiers in the late 19th century, "gook" entered the American lexicon as a racial slur during the Korean and Vietnam wars and remains one of the most deeply offensive anti-Asian epithets. Three days following the incident, McCain apologised. "I will continue to condemn those who unfairly mistreated us," McCain said, "But out of respect to a great number of people whom I hold in very high regard, I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort."

Still, for voters like Reggie Hui, a second-generation Chinese American, it calls into question McCain's ability to relate to an increasingly diverse populace. "I understand that he had tough experiences as a POW," says the 30-year-old Bostonian. "But growing up, I was also called a gook." McCain's statement, adds Hui, "is something I will never forgive or forget".

Political observers expect that Asian Americans will re-orient their previous allegiances and turn out for Obama on November 4. Such an assumption would have been much more difficult to make in previous decades, when G.O.P support for small-business owners and the party's stance against Communism made them the Asian American party of choice, particularly among Korean and Vietnamese immigrants.

The sharp shift leftward began in the 1990s, a decade that served as a political coming-of-age for those who migrated in the 80s as well as for second generation Asian Americans whose parents arrived in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s. "Their first exposure to American politics was President Clinton," says Wong of USC. "This had an enduring effect on their party identification."

At an August 17th Asian-Pacific Islander fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama focused his opening lines on the South Asian community and warmed up the crowd with a kind of subcontinental street cred unheard of among his predecessors. "Not only do I think I'm desi," said Obama, employing a cultural identifier commonly used by people of South Asian extraction, "I am desi."

Amid lighthearted anecdotes involving his ability to cook dal and his inability to make naan, Obama closed out the evening with US$7.8 million for his campaign war-chest.

Ultimately, turnout - not support – is likely to be Obama's biggest challenge among Asian American voters. Asian American votership remains disproportionately low when compared with the community's population: according to the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan research group, while Americans of Asian heritage constitute just over 4% of the US population, they make up a mere 1.9% of the vote. 
In contrast, white Americans, who make up 70% of the population, represent 81% of all voters. Despite research indicating that Asian Americans have a strong interest in politics, the main reason remains lack of eligibility, says Wong. "The majority of these folks have not become citizens."

Actor Daniel Dae Kim (best known for his role on the American series, Lost) starred in a two-minute commercial for Allen's opponent, Jim Webb, which still generates commentary on YouTube. "For too long, we've been the silent minority, watching history unfold around us while we focused solely on our immediate concerns," states a solemn Kim as he gazes directly into the camera. "Our community may well cast the deciding vote in a Senate election that will have ramifications throughout our country and the world."

With some 280,000 Asians who were US citizens of voting age in Virginia in 2006, the fact that Allen lost the race by 9,300 votes would seem to indicate that even a fractional turnout by Asian American Democrats would account for Webb's pivotal win. Moreover, Webb's victory shifted the precarious balance of the 100-member Senate in favor of the Democrats while signaling a change in the racial politics of a reliably Republican southern state.

Virginia's move from red to blue in the 2006 Senate race makes it a toss-up state in this election, and an Obama victory in Virginia would make it the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Whether Asian Americans will again make the difference remains to be seen, but "the takeaway here is that Virginia, like the rest of the United States, is becoming ever more ethnically diverse," wrote Andrew Leonard in a November 2006 article for Salon.com. "Screw with that at your peril."

For one Asian American, however, this election offers a win-win situation. Bobby Jindal, a rising star in the Republican party who was once eyed as a potential vice-presidential pick for McCain, is often cited as a future presidential candidate. Literally half McCain's age, the 36-year-old Indian American governor from Louisiana can expect to flex more clout on the national circuit under a McCain administration, possibly even as a cabinet appointee. But an Obama victory would clear other hurdles, namely, paving the way for a second man of melanin to enter the Oval Office.

Which begs the question: If Bill Clinton was "the first black president", and if Barack Obama becomes "the first Asian American President", who will lay claim to Bobby Jindal?

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kavita pillay

Kavita Pillay is a Boston based documentary film-maker, wanderluster and occasional soapmaker. She is the creator of ‘Scrabya’ (http://scrubya.com), a soap company she started in 2006, which donates all of its proceeds to nonprofit groups that are “cleaning up the mess” it blames on Dubya & Co.