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Asian American underrepresentation

Emily Zheng

Editor’s Note: 2015 AHS grad Emily Zheng, who is one of ten American students who have been accepted into the Fulbright-University of Bristol summer program in the United Kingdom this May and June 2016, had the following article published in the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy in January while attending her first year at Pomona College.

Asian American Underrepresentation: Political Consequences and Policy Reform Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy / January 22, 2016 By: Emily Zheng, PO ’19

Despite high education standards and high involvement in politics, Asian Americans continue to falter in governmental representation. From cities to the national stage, the underrepresentation prevails at all levels of government, especially in the legislature. Congress, for example, numerically should have 31 Asian Americans, instead of 12.[1] Locally, “each additional percent in the population [of Asian Americans] only translates to about 0.4 percent on the city council.”[2] There is a large gap between the percentage of Asian Americans in positions of power and the percentage of Asian Americans in the country’s overall population. Because of a complex history of restricting laws and expectations, Asian Americans have a representation problem.

Significance of the Issue

This inequality is an issue because it affects not only Asian Americans, but also the community at large. Culture and background strongly influence voting behavior and decision making of elected officials despite the diversity of their voters, so this dearth will prevent legislatures from representing all their constituents. This consequently gives more influence to other races and can affect the policy process. Even as recently as 2014 in California, when an affirmative action law for state college admissions was proposed in the State Senate, there was a large backlash from the Asian American community because they believed that the law would hurt their families and friends. Senators Ted Lieu, Leland Lee, and Carol Liu, who are all of Asian descent, joined together to stop advancing the bill further.[3] They exemplify the positive aspects of representation, because they heard the protests of their constituents and took action with the interests of the Asian American community in mind.

For the larger community, descriptive representation—the idea that elected officials should represent not only the preferences of their constituencies, but also their descriptive characteristics that are politically relevant, such as geographical area of birth, occupation, ethnicity, or gender—can increase voter turnout for all minorities, because they “might feel more empowered in the political system and hopefully in turn ensure that their needs are represented on the governmental level.”[4] Some scholars have also suggested that descriptive representation “might lend itself to the avoidance of extreme political activities such as protests, riots, or terrorism,” which would positively affect the entire population.[5]


Asians are the fastest growing immigrant population in the United States.[6] Yet, Asian immigrants are often overlooked in politics because language and cultural barriers make communication between immigrants and political parties difficult. Before discussing the issue of underrepresentation, it is vital to understand the background of Asian American immigration and the attitudes of those who make up the majority of the population and hold the most power towards these immigrants because they influence how Asian Americans are perceived today in both the government and society.

Asian Americans’ struggles are often masked by the model minority stereotype, which is the belief that Asian immigrants are superior to immigrants of other races socioeconomically, academically, and professionally. Asian Americans are thought to “possess the ‘right’ cultural traits and value education,” which has led to the resentment of some who are “outperform[ed]” by these immigrants.[7] However, it is important to realize that Asian immigrants “comprise many subgroups with very different and diverse needs and are not exempt from issues, such as poverty and unemployment, that face portions of all groups living in the United States,” which the model minority belief ignores.[8] It is also vital to remember that Asians were not always hailed as an example, but rather as “‘marginal members of the human race’ and ‘unassimilable.’”[9]

Asians immigrated to the United States for various reasons. Their first large-scale move occurred in 1848 during the Gold Rush. Many of the Chinese came to the United States to find fortune and return home wealthy.[10] Similar to some of the Chinese and Japanese, many Indian unskilled and uneducated farmers immigrated to the United States to work on agriculture in California.[11] The Asian immigrants population was primarily poorly educated, low-skilled, low-wage laborers, to the disdain of American citizens.[12] The end of the Korean War, Vietnam War, and the “Secret Wars” in Southeast Asia led to a new wave of Asian American immigration with people from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Some were highly skilled and educated, and some were refugees seeking asylum.

Today’s notion of highly educated Asian Americans derives from the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which established a preference system based on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with United States citizens or residents. The immigration policy reform was created in response to the growing strength of the civil rights movement.[13] Previously, immigration was based on a nationality-based quota, which was contradictory to the civil rights movement’s beliefs of equal treatment regardless of race or nationality. This Act created employment-based immigration channels instead.[14] Because of this, “contemporary Asian immigrants who arrived after 1965 are, on average, highly selected,” meaning that many of them are highly educated.[15] The People’s Republic of China continued to spur this movement in 1977 when it removed restrictions on emigration of college students and professionals, and people of similar backgrounds from India started immigrating to the United States around this time as well. In the first five years after the bill’s passage, immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries quadrupled.[16] By the end of the 20th century, the face of the American population greatly changed. In the 1950s, only six percent of immigrants were Asians; by the 1990s, 31 percent were of Asian descent.[17]

A History of Persecution

How Asian Americans interact with the government cannot be fully understood until after reviewing their history of persecution. Anti-immigrant laws and rulings legalized anti-Asian sentiment starting in the 1790s, when the Naturalization Act was passed. This severely restricted Asian immigration into the United States, because it stated that “any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen,” therefore preventing any foreigners of color from becoming citizens. In 1858, the California Legislature passed a law barring entry to Chinese and Mongolians. California passed another law in 1870 making the “import” of Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolian women for prostitution illegal. This was used to justify forbidding the entry of unmarried Asian women, and also heightened skewed perceptions of Asian women’s sexuality. 1882 marked the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States and naturalization for ten years. The Act was renewed in 1892 for another ten years, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was declared permanently illegal.[18] It was finally repealed on December 17, 1943 by the Magnuson Act, two years after China became an official allied nation to the United States in World War II. Another law called the Alien Land Law was passed by Washington State in 1886 to bar Asians from owning land. Japanese immigrants could no longer receive naturalization papers from courts in 1906, and could not immigrate through Canada, Mexico, and Hawai’i due to President Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order. Before 1922, any woman who was a United States citizen and married a non-citizen would lose her citizenship. The Cable Act undid this, except for when women married Asian immigrants. United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) ruled that despite Indians being Caucasian, they were not white and were therefore unable to naturalize. Despite all these examples, these are only a handful of all the laws that concern Asians.

Asian Americans also face indirect persecution because of the bamboo ceiling. Similar to women’s glass ceiling, the bamboo ceiling refers to the “barriers some Asian-American professionals believe that they face when trying to reach leadership roles in the workplace,” and in this case, political positions of power.[19] In fact, both male and female Asian Americans face challenges much like those faced by women overall. For example, Asian Americans and women often have a better education than their colleagues, yet advance slower in the workplace. Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, which conducts leadership training for Asian-American executives, believes that a contributor to this bamboo ceiling is the “baked-in kind of assumption of what leaders are supposed to look like, what leaders are supposed to act like. And when it’s different, then people sometimes have a hard time seeing beyond that.”[20] When attempting to crack this bamboo ceiling, Asian Americans often debate whether to believe that personal adaptation is the solution, or whether something greater like the understanding of managers and corporations should be achieved.[21] Should Asian cultures continue to be viewed as a hindrance to leadership achievement, or should companies adapt and realize that accepting these differences could help them gain even more?

Even when Asian Americans are elected into office, they still face persecution. GOP AAPI Assembly Member Ling-Ling Chang of Assembly District 55 in California was mocked by her colleagues on the Assembly floor on May 28, 2015.[22] When she introduced AB 388, a bill she authored, fellow Assembly Member Donald Wagner of District 68 “complimented” Assembly Member Chang for her “gumption” in introducing a bill on her own after criticizing the co-authoring of her previous bill with a Democrat. Following Assembly Member Wagner’s remarks, Assembly Member Eric Linder of District 60 simply asked, “Ling-Ling, did you forget your bling-bling?” before returning to his seat. If even elected officials are mocking their colleagues, to what extent do Asian Americans have to go in order to overcome a problem such as underrepresentation when even our names are not accepted?

Possible Reasons for This Problem

The problem is not that Asian Americans are not running for office. In fact, “three times as many Asian-Americans have been running for Congress…than in the past two elections” according to CNN in 2012.[23] Yet, despite the recent surge in Asian Americans running for office, there is still a representation problem. What is preventing voters from electing them? “There’s always this stereotype — we’re quiet, we don’t speak up, we don’t fight back when we’re made fun of, we’re nerds, etc.,” says Gloria Chan, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies. “It’s been difficult for Asian-Americans to break through those stereotypes.” In many districts, the question of “How American are Asians?” frequently occurs, says Curtis Chin, board president of the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress. Many of those running for office are accused of having their loyalties and interests elsewhere. Often, their backgrounds are scrutinized for potential corrupt business and political relationships overseas. Most candidates of other backgrounds are not subject to the same treatment.

Is low political participation contributing to the issue? There is evidence of this, but it has become less and less of a major factor in election results. In the 2008 National Asian American Survey, 79% of recent Asian immigrants said they were politically Independent or uncommitted, so this may have lead to the lack of Asian voters. However, among those who had been in the U.S. for 25 or more years, that figure fell to 48%.[24] Stephen Sham, Mayor of Alhambra, California, comments that Chinese-American political activity has been growing with increasing education levels and income, which could explain the rise in political participation with longer U.S. residents. He also believes that the history of migration directly relates to the awareness of political participation among Chinese-Americans.[25] Because the history of the Chinese immigrating to the United States is much shorter than that of Africans or Europeans, the Chinese are generally less experienced with the governmental and electoral system than their counterparts. Therefore, Asian American political participation is rising with each successive generation. Their lack of experience will still influence their participation for some successive generations, but not indefinitely.

Jay Readey, the executive director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, suggests that “minority voting groups are not necessarily getting the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice” because “their vote is diluted” over a wide area.[26] “As municipalities [in Illinois] like Zion, Naperville, Hanover Park and Morton Grove became more diverse,” writes the Chicago Tribune, “Latinos, Asians and African-Americans still could not wield power because their populations were spread out.” Only in some areas where Asian Americans have large populations do they elect Asian American candidates at the local level.[27] Examples include Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, California and Chinese Americans in San Francisco, California, though there are many exceptions. Koreatown in Los Angeles, for example, rarely elects Asian Americans into office: in May 2015, Los Angeles Council Member David Ryu was elected, becoming the first Korean American and the second AAPI elected to the Los Angeles City Council. His district includes a portion of Koreatown. AAPI Voices, a data-inspired AAPI-focused journalism site, found that “no individual state has Asian American legislators at parity with its Asian American population, although Hawaii comes close, with only a 3% representation gap. Asian Americans are particularly underrepresented in New York, where…the [one state representative] fails to reflect the seven percent of New York State residents who are Asian American.” New York needs to elect 18 more representatives to their state legislature in order breach the underrepresentation.[28]

Possible Solutions

The solution is not simply adopting quotas, which may violate the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment that provides that no state shall deny to any person the equal protection of the laws, or changing the United States voting system to proportional representation. Firstly, American education policy must be reformed to be more inclusive when teaching students about their country’s diversity. Too often, minorities are overlooked or fleetingly gleaned upon, so citizens and residents of all backgrounds misunderstand minorities’ culture, background, and struggles. Instead, students should be educated from the beginning about more of America’s population and cultural history more comprehensively. Categories of analysis can include class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and/or sexuality and how their relationships to each other affect power dynamics in American society. Though these issues are usually addressed in collegiate studies, this knowledge should not be limited to those seeking higher education. Exposure to different cultures is only one step towards learning and practicing tolerance, but is a necessary step towards a greater understanding that America’s history of legalized discrimination severely lacked.

Another possible solution is immigrant incorporation into the electoral system and government, which could encourage more immigrants, especially Asian Americans, to participate in voting and running for office. Increased ballot access through language policy can make voting more accessible due to multilingual ballots. This is a complex issue, however, because the difference in interpreting the legal requirements by government entities poses a challenge without a known legislative fix yet. Yet, some measures have already been enacted to foster this progression. The Voting Rights Act, first approved by Congress in 1975, requires States, counties and political subdivisions to provide ballots and election materials in other languages if Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, or Alaskan minority groups that cannot proficiently speak or understand English well enough to vote in elections make up at least 10,000 citizens or more than five percent of the voting-age population.[29] The minority group should also have below national average literacy rates. James Thomas Tucker, a former Justice Department attorney and current voting rights lawyer, states that “the law has been key in the election of new Hispanic and Asian officials in many places.” The United States Election Assistance Commission also provides glossaries of election terminology in six languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese) and voter’s guides in eleven languages (Cherokee, Chinese, Dakota, English, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Yupik). However, the commission’s materials are generally advisory, not mandatory. Half of the States started providing bilingual voting ballots in 2011.[30] Though more and more languages and State participants are added over time, more can be done. Common Cause, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, suggests that, though resources are often short in supply, “if elections officials identify their language needs early—especially with respect to the anticipated number of potential LEP voter turnout—they can seek out bilingual volunteers from nearby advocacy groups to provide necessary translation of voting documents and interpretation services.”[31]


This move towards greater and fairer representation in all levels of legislature would allow minorities to be heard. If this trend continues, unfair or unfavorable governmental policies that may harm the Asian American population will be uncontested during their creation. Without the balanced, multi-cultural view that the AAPI community offers, legislatures will be severely lacking in proper representation of their constituents. The underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the government is a problem that affects all citizens and their lives.


[1] Do, Anh, “Asian Americans Enjoy Greater Representation in Congress,” Los Angeles Times, 11/19/12

[2] Masket, Seth, “Non-white Representation on America’s City Councils,” Washington Post, 8/21/14

[3] Murphy, Katy, “California Affirmative Action Revival Bill Is Dead,” San Jose Mercury News, 3/18/14

[4] Fowler, Derek J., Merolla, Jennifer L., and Sellers, Abbylin H., “The Effects of Descriptive Representation on Political Attitudes and Behaviors,” Claremont Graduate University

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malik, Sanam, “Asian Immigrants in the United States Today,” Center for American Progress, 5/21/15

[7] Lee, Jennifer, “How Hyper-Selectivity Drives Asian Americans’ Educational Outcomes,” Contexts, 6/13/15

[8] Malik, Sanam, “Asian Immigrants in the United States Today,” Center for American Progress, 5/21/15

[9] Lee, Jennifer, “How Hyper-Selectivity Drives Asian Americans’ Educational Outcomes,” Contexts, 6/13/15

[10] Le, C.N, “The First Asian Americans,” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America, 10/12/15

[11] Zong, Jie and Batalova, Jeanne, “Indian Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, 5/6/15

[12] Lee, Jennifer, “How Hyper-Selectivity Drives Asian Americans’ Educational Outcomes,” Contexts, 6/13/15

[13] “U.S. Immigration since 1965,”, 2010

[14] Zong, Jie and Batalova, Jeanne, “Indian Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, 5/6/15

[15] Lee, Jennifer, “How Hyper-Selectivity Drives Asian Americans’ Educational Outcomes,” Contexts, 6/13/15

[16] “U.S. Immigration since 1965,”, 2010

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Chinese Exclusion Act,”, 2009

[19] Martin, Michel, “Does the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ Shut Asian Americans Out of Top Jobs?” National Public Radio, 5/23/14

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The California Channel and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus of the California Democratic Party

[23] Stein, Jeffrey, “With Surging Numbers, Asian-Americans Look for Congressional Gains,” CNN, 7/17/12

[24] Diggles, Michelle, “The Untapped Political Power of Asian Americans,” Third Way, 1/8/15

[25] Jun, Liang, “Chinese-American Political Participation in US Rising,” People’s Daily, 7/22/10

[26] Bowean, Lolly, “Minority Representation Lacking in Elected Government Offices, Study Finds,” Chicago Tribune, 4/24/15

[27] Aoki, Andrew L., and Okiyoshi Takeda, Asian American Politics, Cambridge: Polity, 2008

[28] Bhojwani, Sayu, “Most States Are Failing on Asian American Representation,” AAPI Voices, 10/13/14

[29] Yen, Hope, “Bilingual Voting Ballots Ordered in 25 States,” Huffington Post, 10/12/2011

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Jurisdictions should provide bilingual poll workers at any polling place with a significant number of voters who do not speak English,” Common Cause.


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