Academics & Faculty

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

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Inthe 1980s and 1990s, Hispanics were considered the "sleeping giant" in California politicsbecause of their growing numbers. Now Asian Americans are at a point whereHispanics were about two decades ago, according to an analysis conducted by theUCLA Asian American Studies Centerand the UC Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Initiative.

Theanalysis uses data from the 2005 American Community Survey recently released bythe U.S. Census Bureau, along with previously released data.

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

"Thisgrowth has contributed to the increasing number of Asian American state andelected officials in California,"said Don Nakanishi, director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center. "TheAsian American political infrastructure of voters, donors, politicians andcommunity groups also has undergone remarkable growth and maturation, and willlikely have an increasingly significant impact on state and national politics."

Twofactors behind the emergence of the new "sleeping giant" are the overallincrease in the total Asian American population and the higher rate ofcitizenship, researchers said. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of AsianAmericans residing in California's householdsincreased from 3.8 million to 4.7 million, accounting for 38 percent of the netgain of 2.2 million persons in California'spopulation.

Alongwith population growth, Asian Americans experienced an increase in their citizenshiprate: 71 percent of Asian Americans adults are U.S. citizens by birth ornaturalization, representing an increase from 67 percent in 2000, researcherssaid. These figures show that Asian Americans have become fully integrated intoAmerican society through citizenship.

Thegrowth in the potential Asian American electorate over the last five years is acontinuation of a pattern that began in the 1990s. In 1990, there were slightlymore than 1 million Asian American adult citizens, comprising about 6 percentof all adult citizens in the state. If recent trends continue, there will beover 3 million Asian American adults by the end of the current decade, makingup about 14 percent of all Californians eligible to register to vote.

Thegrowth in the absolute number of Asian Americans and those eligible to becomevoters can have political ramifications.

"Theincredible growth of Asian Americans in Californiaand in the United Statesbrings as much opportunity as it does challenges," said Assemblywoman Judy Chu,D-Monterey Park. "Asian Americans continue tocontribute to the cultural diversity and economic success of this nation, butthe growing population also means that public services and elected representativeswill need to grow to accommodate the unique needs of our community."

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

VivianHuang, legislative advocate for Asian Americans for Civil Rights &Equality, said that with increasing population growth, Asian Americans "arepoised to dramatically escalate their political representation and power inpolitics and highlight key issues important to the community, such as civilrights, immigrant rights and access to language assistance."

Thisopinion is widely shared by other community leaders, including Lisa Hasegawa,executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific AmericanCommunity Development; JD Hokoyama, president andchief executive officer of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics,Inc., and Elena Ong, former member of the CaliforniaWomen's Commission.

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

"Thechallenge is to convert the growing numbers of Asian American citizens intovoters," said Paul Ong, a professor with UCLA's School of Public Affairs.

Forthe upcoming November elections, community activists have focused on voterregistration and voter-turnout drives.

"Ourbilingual voter registration efforts are yielding record numbers of AsianAmerican voters in the immigrant community," said David Lee, executive directorof the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. Many Asian Americanregistered voters, as a result of work schedules or other obligations, don't goto the polls on election days. But increasingly, they are registering to voteby absentee ballot.

"Thanksto absentee ballots, Asian American voter turnout has been growing rapidly,"Lee said.

LeadingAsian American scholars believe that Asian Americans can become an effectivevoting bloc by formulating a common political agenda both among Asian Americansand across racial lines. The Asian American population is culturally,linguistically and economically diverse. For instance, Asian Americans speak atleast half-dozen major languages and practice various religions, and there arewide income gaps among subgroups.

YenLe Espiritu, a professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, noted that despitethese divisions, "History has shown that Asian Americans can overcomedifferences to build viable pan-Asian political coalitions to promote andprotect 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 othergroups.

"Differentracial and ethnic groups will increasingly see the necessity of defining areasof common political concern and mobilizing significant voter bloc to wieldpolitical power," Omi said.

Graphsof the researcher's analysis are available on the center's Web site,www.aasc.ucla.edu.

About the center and theinitiative

TheUCLA Asian American Studies Center is the nation's leading research center inthe field of Asian American Studies and houses a Census Information Center, which willcontinue to analyze data from the American Community Survey as it becomesavailable.

TheUC Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Initiative bringstogether University of California researchersand community organizations to conduct research focusing on the policy concernsof the Asian American/Pacific Islander community.

AboutUCLA 

California's largest university, UCLA enrollsapproximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA Collegeof Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varieddisciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities andcolleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving morethan $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants andcontracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the universitygenerates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billioneconomic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health carenetwork treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 facultyand staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five NobelPrize recipients.

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