Asian Americans Called the New ‘Sleeping Giant’ in California Politics

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Posted on September 07, 2006
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hispanics were considered the “sleeping giant” in California politics because of their growing numbers. Now Asian Americans are at a point where Hispanics were about two decades ago, according to an analysis conducted by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the UC Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Initiative.

The analysis uses data from the 2005 American Community Survey recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, along with previously released data.

Asian Americans have significantly increased their potential power at the polls in California, according to the analysis. The number of Asian Americans in California eligible to register to vote — that is, citizens who are 18 and older — climbed by over half a million between 2000 and 2005, from 2 million to 2.5 million. That boosted their share from 10 percent to 12 percent of the state’s population of eligible voters.

“This growth has contributed to the increasing number of Asian American state and elected officials in California,” said Don Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. “The Asian American political infrastructure of voters, donors, politicians and community groups also has undergone remarkable growth and maturation, and will likely have an increasingly significant impact on state and national politics.”

Two factors behind the emergence of the new “sleeping giant” are the overall increase in the total Asian American population and the higher rate of citizenship, researchers said. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Asian Americans residing in California’s households increased from 3.8 million to 4.7 million, accounting for 38 percent of the net gain of 2.2 million persons in California’s population.

Along with population growth, Asian Americans experienced an increase in their citizenship rate: 71 percent of Asian Americans adults are U.S. citizens by birth or naturalization, representing an increase from 67 percent in 2000, researchers said. These figures show that Asian Americans have become fully integrated into American society through citizenship.

The growth in the potential Asian American electorate over the last five years is a continuation of a pattern that began in the 1990s. In 1990, there were slightly more than 1 million Asian American adult citizens, comprising about 6 percent of all adult citizens in the state. If recent trends continue, there will be over 3 million Asian American adults by the end of the current decade, making up about 14 percent of all Californians eligible to register to vote.

The growth in the absolute number of Asian Americans and those eligible to become voters can have political ramifications.

“The incredible growth of Asian Americans in California and in the United States brings as much opportunity as it does challenges,” said Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park. “Asian Americans continue to contribute to the cultural diversity and economic success of this nation, but the growing population also means that public services and elected representatives will need to grow to accommodate the unique needs of our community.”

Community leaders pointed to the potential impact on a number of public policy issues.

Vivian Huang, legislative advocate for Asian Americans for Civil Rights & Equality, said that with increasing population growth, Asian Americans “are poised to dramatically escalate their political representation and power in politics and highlight key issues important to the community, such as civil rights, immigrant rights and access to language assistance.”

This opinion is widely shared by other community leaders, including Lisa Hasegawa, executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development; JD Hokoyama, president and chief executive officer of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc., and Elena Ong, former member of the California Women’s Commission.

However, there are still barriers to fully translating the population numbers into voting power. Previous research and data show that Asian Americans are less likely to register and vote than non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.

“The challenge is to convert the growing numbers of Asian American citizens into voters,” said Paul Ong, a professor with UCLA’s School of Public Affairs.

For the upcoming November elections, community activists have focused on voter registration and voter-turnout drives.

“Our bilingual voter registration efforts are yielding record numbers of Asian American voters in the immigrant community,” said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. Many Asian American registered voters, as a result of work schedules or other obligations, don’t go to the polls on election days. But increasingly, they are registering to vote by absentee ballot.

“Thanks to absentee ballots, Asian American voter turnout has been growing rapidly,” Lee said.

Leading Asian American scholars believe that Asian Americans can become an effective voting bloc by formulating a common political agenda both among Asian Americans and across racial lines. The Asian American population is culturally, linguistically and economically diverse. For instance, Asian Americans speak at least half-dozen major languages and practice various religions, and there are wide income gaps among subgroups.

Yen Le Espiritu, a professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, noted that despite these divisions, “History has shown that Asian Americans can overcome differences to build viable pan-Asian political coalitions to promote and protect both their individual and their united interests.”

Moreover, according to Michael Omi, associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, Asian Americans also can achieve greater clout by building alliances with other groups.

“Different racial and ethnic groups will increasingly see the necessity of defining areas of common political concern and mobilizing significant voter bloc to wield political power,” Omi said.

Graphs of the researcher’s analysis are available on the center’s Web site,

About the center and the initiative

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is the nation’s leading research center in the field of Asian American Studies and houses a Census Information Center, which will continue to analyze data from the American Community Survey as it becomes available.

The UC Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Initiative brings together University of California researchers and community organizations to conduct research focusing on the policy concerns of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community.

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