In the last decades of the 19th century, an American named Wong Chin Foo tried to organize the small Chinese American community of New York City against mounting calls that “the Chinese must go!” During a time of economic hardship following the Civil War, Chinese in America became a perfect pincushion for aspiring politicians. Wong was part of a tiny politically active cadre. They were an exception among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who lived in America but outside of its politics. The whole lot were thus defenseless against racially charged attacks from soapbox speeches to the Senate floor to the lynch mobs in the Los Angeles night. In 1882 Chinese became the only ethnic group to ever be deemed ineligible for American citizenship. Wong would not live to see the end of his Sisyphean crusade; the Exclusion Acts were not repealed until 1943 after millions of Chinese had, and continued to die fighting the Empire of Japan, a fact that greatly aided America’s own war effort.
Today, many Asian Americans still shirk politics. Our voter registration and turnout rates are the lowest of any racial group. Maybe we feel that we have nothing to gain or lose from an act as simple as voting. This year Asian Americans, especially non-Muslim and East Asian Americans, have not been targeted by racist and bigoted politics to the extent of many other groups. However, don’t think for a minute that this means we have achieved coveted “white privilege” status. What do you suppose a person that votes to ban Muslim arrivals or deport Latino immigrants thinks of people who look like us? How does opinion about our communities change when both political parties make a sport of bashing Asian countries for ruining the American economy and for threatening national security?
Since the founding of our country, people from Asia have come to these shores in search of economic opportunity. We ascribe to a very American narrative that individual hard work is the secret ingredient to success. If we keep our heads down, slowly disappear, the rest of the country will live and let live. We carry on at the margins of society, hoping to have first pick of the crumbs that the dominant groups in this country let fall from their table. “Success” achieved this way is a privilege, not a right; we exist at the permission of the ruling class. How quickly that privilege can be taken away: from Pearl Harbor to Japanese Internment, the rise of Japanese manufacturing to Vincent Chin, 9/11 to the Oak Creek shooting, the renaissance of China to Xi Xiaoxing, when Americans taste bitter in world events, Asians among us suffer as scapegoats.
Unlike in Wong’s time, our community is not only able but encouraged to participate in politics. Today we are the fastest growing racial group in the country. Although they still exist, we face fewer barriers at the ballot box than ever before. Multilingual ballots can be found at many polls. You can vote absentee from home or bring friends or family to assist at the voting booth. From the city council member who fixes the roads in your town to the president who directs our nation’s grand strategy, elected officials want to hear from our community. The responsibility is now on us to grasp these opportunities on November 8th and beyond. We are blessed to live in a democratic society under the rule of law. This means that although we are less than 6% of the population and 4% of registered voters, when Asian Americans vote, we create the institutions that protect our communities and sponsor our success. We shout that we are of this country and that this country is of us.
Brendan is one APIAVote MI's community organizers. He primarily works in Western Wayne and Oakland Counties, and in Ann Arbor.
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