Media Portrayals of Asian American Voters

By: Ellen Moll, Michigan State University

As another presidential election cycle is underway in the United States, voters face, in addition to ad fatigue, mega-donors, and other absurdities of how the country currently elects its leaders, the news media’s increasing tendency to report on the “horse-race” aspects of elections. In addition to being a distraction from more substantial inquiry into the candidates’ positions, these horse-race analyses bear the added distinction of regularly reducing complex identities (ethnicity, gender, age, and others) into over-simplified, homogenized voting blocs. As election coverage intensifies, it will be valuable to look at media portrayals of Asian American voters in recent presidential elections; I will focus here primarily on mainstream news media outlets. Closer examination reveals that these portrayals are especially interesting in light of the way that Asian American citizenship historically has always been contested.

It will be useful to start, however, with observing a basic way that the representation of voters and candidates mirrors other discourses: the portrayal of whiteness as the unmarked or default category of experience, and the suggestion that it is non-white voters and candidates who can be defined by their ethnicity. Scholar Nancy Wang Yuen, for instance, has noted that in the 2008 Democratic primary, news media coverage focused on Barack Obama’s race as a motivating factor for voters but did not discuss Hillary Clinton’s whiteness as a factor for her supporters or detractors. Similarly, there is virtually no substantial mainstream media coverage of whiteness, much less white privilege, as a way to understand why white voters vote the way they do; the ethnicity of white voters is unmarked. These assumptions contribute to the classic model of difference as a deficit; when non-white voters do not vote as pundits think they should, these voters somehow must be misunderstanding American values.                                      
Such an approach to difference was evident in responses, particularly in conservative-leaning media, following Mitt Romney’s loss in the general election to Barack Obama in 2012. According to New York Times exit polling, 73% of Asian American voters chose Obama, a rate even higher than for Latina/o and women voters, two blocs often discussed for their high rates of support for Obama in 2012. Explanations proliferated after this election, often revealing a deep confusion over why Asian Americans, in such an inscrutable fashion, refused to see why they should really be Republicans. This inquiry included the following revealing quotations:                                                                               
From an opinion piece published by the American Enterprise Institute
“Something’s wrong with this picture. It’s not just that the income, occupations, and marital status of Asians should push them toward the right. Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’…. Further, there are reasons for Asian Americans not to like Democrats. Asians who became successful because everyone in the family worked two or three jobs (a common strategy behind Asian success) are likely to be offended by the liberal ‘You didn’t build that’ mentality. Unlike every other minority group, Asians owe nothing to the Democrats for affirmative action. On the contrary, Asians are penalized by affirmative action, especially in the universities, where discrimination against Asian applicants (relative to their superb academic qualifications) has been documented in the technical literature.”

From a post-election analysis in The American Conservative:
“Based on these and other social and economic indications, Asian-Americans as an electoral bloc should be natural political ally of a Republican Party that is, after all, committed to the principles of the free market, supports the interests of small businesses, and celebrates hard work and family values, which is probably the way to describe what Asian-Americans are all about.”                                                                           
This comment from a Slate opinion piece (by a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and not necessarily a conservative perspective):
“It is also possible to understand how, as newcomers to the United States—the Asian-American population rose 46 percent from 2000 to 2010—some Asian Americans might tend to favor an incumbent president, feeling perhaps that it might seem (not that it would be) presumptuous for a newcomer to vote against the nation’s highest official.”

While a much more extensive analysis could be made, for the sake of brevity, let’s untangle just a few of the problematic assumptions at play here:

Stereotypes of Asian Americans as industrious, conformist, and reverent toward authority and tradition are true, and should be more reliable indicators of voting behavior.
“Family values” have come to mean anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-sex, and anti-feminist values in some U.S. circles; Asian Americans’ emphasis on family should logically translate into these same positions; Republican critiques of security nets for the elderly would not likely be interpreted as an anti-family-values position, even among cultures that have long traditions of respecting elders. In short, the white U.S. conservative definition of “family values” is universal.                                                                                         
The ideal for ethnic minorities to ascribe to is to be “hard working” and “self-reliant.” Asian Americans fit the “model minority” stereotype because of their income and perceived similarity to the ways that some white voters define whiteness in opposition to negative stereotypes of Latina/o, African American, and Native American populations.         
As has been well established, the myth of the “model minority” often serves to advance an agenda that denies the role of oppression in creating inequality, and attempts to pit Asian Americans against other U.S. ethnic minorities by evoking essentialist stereotypes and denying the historical and economic factors that contribute to income and education. (The model minority myth of course also erases differences among and within Asian American communities.) This emphasis on what makes Asian Americans “natural” Republicans demonstrates the ways that Asian American agency and civil rights consciousness are erased by the model minority myth. Furthermore, underlying this conversation are conservative assumptions about “makers and takers,” “the breakdown of the traditional family,” and other racialized discourses that reveal how the model minority myth is a way of reducing Asian American citizenship to a weapon to be used to promote racism against other minority communities. This portrayal of Asian American voters is thus a way of minimizing the citizenship of Asian Americans, as well as those of other ethnic minorities.                                                                                                                 
Similar problematics can be seen in the mainstream media discussion of Asian American voters in the 2008 Democratic primary, in which the puzzle was why Asian American voters would prefer Clinton to Obama. Many mainstream media outlets focused their coverage of Asian American voters on the question of whether Asian Americans are prejudiced against African Americans. While a study has shown that, as with other segments of U.S. voters, Asian Americans were to some extent influenced by race and racism in their voting habits, this study has also shown that media attention to the role of racism was vastly overblown and reductive.                                                                               
In one of the most infamous examples, an Anderson Cooper 360 segment with Gary Tuchman featured interviews with Asian Americans, with the apparent goal of arguing that the primary reason Asian Americans preferred Hillary Clinton was anti-African American racism. It has been noted that the mainstream media overemphasized conflicts among ethnic minorities during this election, without similarly implying that white voters’ support for Clinton was primarily because of anti-African American racism. This CNN segment caused a particular outcry, however, perhaps because of the investigative methods used. Most of the interviews of Asian Americans happened at a specialty grocery in Seattle’s Chinatown, and most interviewees appeared to be first generation Asian Americans. This on-location reporting is itself based on a deeply problematic premise – that one should obviously go to a Chinatown grocery store to find the Asian American community’s opinion (were they unable to locate an opium den or a martial arts studio?). In one particularly egregious discussion, a Clinton-supporting interviewee referred to Clinton as “the white lady,” and the reporter strongly implied that this comment proves that anti-African-American racism was her main reason for her choice, thus publicly slandering a woman as a virulent and unapologetic racist in a way that to many Asian Americans might seem to be ‘taking advantage’ of her non-native English to skew her position. There was a leap to a claim that this individual who used the word “white” was necessarily using whiteness as her primary criteria, and there was no context provided that this word usage could be for any other reason: no hint in the reporting that it is very common for those who do not speak English as a first language to clarify their expressions with additional descriptors, or that it is a Eurocentric assumption to believe that anti-racism consists first and foremost of never mentioning race, or that it is unproven that someone of color who refers to someone as “white” is inevitably speaking of whiteness as a positive attribute.                                                                                
The one pro-Obama Asian American featured in this CNN segment, however, was a young, fourth-generation Japanese American who had a vaguely punk hairstyle, one who would likely embody a sense of being fully “Americanized” to many white audience members. The implicit assumption seemed to be that Asian American support for Clinton must be primarily caused by racism, which in turn is a sign of a lack of assimilation, or a lack of American-ness. Note that this rhetorical turn, associating Hillary support with racism and both with a lack of assimilation, also implies that the mainstream (implied white) liberal culture to which one might assimilate is free of racism. The mainstream media emphasized racism as a factor in Asian American communities’ voting habits (and similarly in U.S. Latina/o communities and their support of Clinton in the primary) to the exclusion of other factors in voting behavior, while a wide variety of white voters’ characteristics and motivations were covered; this emphasis implicitly takes the anti-African American racism toward Obama in the Democratic primary and places it on the shoulders of other ethnic minorities rather than on U.S. culture more broadly. Racism is “othered,” as if racism were something that is being brought into this American election from groups that are stereotyped as “foreign” and as recent immigrants. 

Tensions over the American-ness of Asian Americans have long dominated debates over everything from immigration policy to critical race theory. In Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe argues that Asian American identities have been central to debates over what constitutes citizenship in the United States, noting that “[i]n the last century and a half, the American citizen has been defined over against the Asian immigrant, legally, economically, and culturally. These definitions have cast Asian immigrants both as persons and populations to be integrated into the national political sphere and as the contradictory, confusing, unintelligible elements to be marginalized and returned to their alien origins” (4). It is therefore vital that when the media discusses voting, arguably the defining act of citizenship, they attend to their complicity with long histories of using culture and representation to exclude some identities from the full meaning of citizenship. 

Ellen Moll specializes in contemporary literature and digital cultures, with emphases on intersectionality and diaspora, and has an additional specialization in science, technology, and culture.  She is an Academic Specialist in Teaching and Curriculum Development in the College of Arts and Letters and the Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.