When Mike Park first learned of the recent shootings in Atlanta, he felt angry and scared. But almost immediately, he had another thought.
“We can’t just sit down,” he said. “We can no longer sit in our little enclave.”
Born in South Carolina to Korean immigrants, Mr. Park grew up wanting to escape his Asian identity. It bothered him that he had to be the only student speaking on the Asia Pacific day and felt embarrassed when his friends didn’t want to eat dinner at his house because of the unfamiliar pickled radishes and cabbage in his fridge.
Now 42, Mr. Park embraces both his Korean heritage and an Asian-American identity that he shares with others of his generation. The Atlanta shootings that left eight dead, six of them women of Asian descent, gave her an even stronger sense of solidarity, especially after an increase in incidents of prejudice against Asians across the country.
“I think this horrible crime has brought people together,” said Mr. Park, who works as an insurance agent in Duluth, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta that is a quarter of Asia. “It really is an awakening.”
For years, Asian Americans were among the racial or ethnic groups least likely to vote or join advocacy or community groups. Today they are emerging in public life, running for office in record numbers and voting again like never before. They are now the fastest growing group in the American electorate.
But as a political force, Asian Americans are still taking shape. With a relatively short voting history, they differ from demographic groups whose families have built party loyalties and voting tendencies over generations. Most of their families arrived after 1965, when the United States opened its doors more widely to people in Asia. There are also great class divisions; the income gap between rich and poor is greatest among Asian Americans.
“These are your classic swing voters,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, president of AAPI Data. “These immigrants did not grow up in a Democratic or Republican home. You have a lot more persuasiveness. “
Historical data on Asian-American voting patterns are patchy. Analysis of exit polls show that the majority voted for George Bush in 1992, Ramakrishnan said. Today, most Asians vote Democrats, but that masks deep differences by subgroup. Vietnamese-Americans, for example, lean more toward Republicans and Indian-Americans lean heavily toward Democrats.
It is too early for the final breakdowns of the Asian-American vote in 2020, whether by party or ethnic line. But one thing seems clear: the share of Asian Americans appears to have been higher than it has ever been. Ramakrishnan analyzed preliminary estimates from voter data firm Catalist which were based on available statements from 33 states representing two-thirds of eligible Asian-American voters. The estimates found that adult citizens of Asian American origin had the largest recorded increase in voter turnout of any racial or ethnic group.
As relatively new voters, many Asian Americans find themselves especially interested in the two major parties, drawn by Democrats for their positions on guns and health care, and by Republicans for their support for small businesses and the emphasis on self-reliance. But they don’t fit into neat categories. The Democratic position on immigration attracts some and repels others. Republican anti-communist language is compelling to some. Others are indifferent.
Former President Donald J. Trump’s repeated reference to the “China virus” repelled many Chinese-American voters, and Democratic support for affirmative action policies in schools has drawn strong opposition from some Asian groups. Even violence and insults against Asians, which began to rise after the coronavirus began to spread last spring, have pushed people in different political directions. Some blame Trump and his supporters. Others see Republicans as supporters of the police and law and order.
Yeun Jae Kim, 32, voted for the first time last year. His parents had moved from Seoul to a Florida suburb when he was a child and started a truck parts salvage business. Mr. Kim graduated from Georgia Tech and later got a job at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, but like his parents, he was so focused on getting there that he didn’t vote or think much about politics.
Last year he changed his mind. But how to vote and who to choose? He and his wife spent hours watching YouTube videos and speaking in church with a friend with political experience, also a Korean-American.
“For me it was quite difficult,” said Kim, who described himself as “in the middle” politically. “There are certain things that I really like about what the Democratic Party is doing. And there are certain things that I really like about what the Republicans are doing. “
He wanted to keep his vote private. But he said casting a vote made him feel good.
“It made me very proud of the country,” he said. “As if they were all in this together. It helped me feel connected to other people who were voting as well. “
Some of the new energy in Asian-American politics comes from second-generation immigrants, who are now in their 30s and 40s and raising families much more mixed and civic than their parents. A new Asian-American identity is being forged from dozens of languages, cultures, and stories.
“Right now, we are coming of age,” said Marc Ang, 39, a conservative political activist and business owner in Orange County, California. His father, an immigrant from the Philippines of Chinese descent, came to California in the 1980s as a white-collar worker in the steel industry. The state is now home to about one-third of the country’s Asian-American population.
“Suddenly we are the best doctors, the best lawyers, the best entrepreneurs,” said Ang, who pointed out that the roughly 6 million Asians in California are equivalent to the size of Singapore. “It is inevitable that we become a voting bloc.”
Ang, a Republican, worked to defeat an affirmative action proposal in California last year. But he praised Democrats and their efforts to draw attention to the storm of insults and physical attacks over the past year, which he said have been a galvanizing force, unifying even the least politically involved people from countries as different as China, Vietnam. , Philippines. and South Korea.
More Asian Americans are running for public office than ever. They include Andrew Yang, among the first leaders in the New York mayoral race, and Michelle Wu, the city councilor running for mayor of Boston. A Filipino-American, Robert Bonta, has just become California’s attorney general.
At least 158 Asian Americans ran for state legislatures in 2020, according to AAPI Data, up 15 percent from 2018.
Marvin Lim, a representative from the state of Georgia, calls himself a 1.5-generation immigrant – he came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 7 years old.
Mr. Lim spent several years in public assistance and said his family “did not see that the boots would work for us.” He became a civil rights lawyer and began voting Democrats because his values, he said, aligned more with his. Now 36, he won a House seat in Georgia in November and met with President Biden last month during his visit to Atlanta after the shootings.
“I never felt more important,” he said.
Asian Americans lean toward the Democrats. Even more so among those born in the United States. But there are also things that alienate Asians from Democrats.
Anthony Lam, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled as a refugee in the 1970s and grew up as a working class in Los Angeles, had generally voted Democrats. But as a San Diego barber shop owner, he grew increasingly frustrated with directives for coronavirus lockdowns and was turned off by unrest during the Black Lives Matter protests. When he criticized the looting, he said some white Democrats berated him.
“They said, ‘You don’t understand racism,’” he said. “I say, ‘Wait a minute. Do you have racism right now? I’ve been living with this for 40 years. ‘
Mr. Lam voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Last year he supported Mr. Yang in the Democratic primary. But he said he ultimately voted for Trump, mostly out of frustration with Democrats.
Despite recent increases in political representation, some Asian American communities still feel invisible, and some members argue that this could lead to a shift to the right.
Rob Yang, a Hmong-American who owns shoe and clothing stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, grew up in poverty as a refugee. He has witnessed the turmoil in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in his traditional, largely working-class Hmong community. Their own stores were stripped of their merchandise during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Mr. Yang voted for Mr. Biden. He said he supported the Black Lives Matter movement but that some in his community did not. Years of feeling invisible had frustrated and demoralized them.
In his view, Asians still don’t have enough of a voice, and he worries that the pressure to contain everything for years is reaching dangerous levels. He said he was concerned that a populist Asian leader, “an Asian Trump”, could have a large following by taking advantage of this frustration. “We’ve been holding it all for so long, it will just take the right circumstances for us to explode,” he said.
For Park, the insurance agent in the Atlanta suburbs, the attacks in his city and others across the United States were a reminder that economic success does not guarantee protection against the racial ill will that is part of American life. Now it is up to Asian Americans, he said, to stand up and claim their space in American politics.
“He’s moving away from the idea that ‘the nail that sticks out gets in,'” he said. “We are realizing that it is okay to stand out.”