Asian-American Political Participation: The Paradox of The “Model Minority”

Asian-Americans are typically perceived by the general public as a “model minority.” Based on the Equality Indicators data, in NYC the median household income of Asians ($37,000) exceeds that of Hispanics ($34,000) and blacks ($35,000), but falls behind whites ($56,200). In higher degree attainment, 64.2% of Asians in NYC hold a Bachelor’s degree (versus 64.7% of whites, 38.1% of blacks, and 36.7% of Hispanics). However, nationally, Asian-Americans outperform all other groups in attaining bachelor’s degrees (49% vs. 31% for whites, 18% for blacks, and 13% for Hispanics) and lead all other groups in median household income ($66,000 vs. $54,000 for whites, $40,000 for Hispanics, and $ 33,300 for blacks). But a puzzling aspect of Asian-Americans is their low rates of civic and political participation given their higher levels of education and income.

For other groups, high rates of education and income go hand in hand with higher-than-average rates of political participation. Education has been found to be a strong predictor of important civic activities like voting, donating to political parties, and engaging in community activities and political protest.

It is troubling that Asian-Americans are almost invisible in the political system. For example, only 2.4% of members of the 113th Congress and fewer than 2% of state legislators are Asian-Americans, in contrast to their 5.8% share of the total U.S. population. In New York, they are particularly underrepresented, where there is just one Asian-American Assemblyman (Democrat, Ron Kim). This is despite the fact that 8% of New York State residents are Asian American.

Why the low political participation?

It could be because the majority of Asian-American adults (nearly 74%) are immigrants. Three in ten (30%) Asian-American adults are non-U.S. citizens.

Citizenship is a prerequisite for formal participation in the U.S. political system. Lack of citizenship results in lower rates of voter eligibility among Asian-Americans which can partly explain low rates of political participation. However, still, 70% of Asian Americans are U.S. citizens.

Assimilation and racialization processes also can explain lack of political participation. In addition to education, other factors (such as nativity, length of time in the United States, racial identity, and party identification) also can play a role in explaining why Asian-Americans don’t vote. As one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the U.S., Asian-Americans have a lot at stake if they do not engage in political participation. Their voices may get lost.