Obama and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders
December 13, 2008
There has been little discussion among mainstream media about Obama’s election and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). While I can’t provide a detailed analysis of AAPI party politics or voting patterns, I want to provide an account of a community forum held in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that I attended in mid-October. Sponsored by Pennsylvania Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Obama, the event featured NYC Councilman John Liu and two Asian American politicians from California: Congressman Mike Honda, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Chair of the Asian American Congressional Caucus, and Dr. Judy Chu. In attendance were several of the old guard Chinatown “community leaders” and a diverse group of AAPIs involved in local and regional politics, with translation provided for the former.
Three issues stood out. First, despite the tendency to perceive AAPIs as unconcerned or unwilling to talk about race, the topic was addressed many times at the event. This was unsurprising since the event was held to bring together a specific racial group. Also unsurprising but nevertheless troubling was how race was talked about. The rhetoric was consistent with most AAPI’s uneasiness dealing with racial hierarchies as well as Obama’s emphasis on being “NJB.” As described to me by one of my African American students at the University of Pennsylvania, some Black students there categorize other Black students as either “JB” or “NJB”: “just Black” or “not just Black,” with the latter being those who identify as African or Caribbean.
Such an approach to race was part of the sales pitch to AAPIs. For example, at the event people could pick up a brochure targeted at AAPIs (complete with a cover picture of an Asian American man talking to Obama). On the first page, above a photo of Obama sitting with Asian American school children, there is the following quote from Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “[I am] the child of a Black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian. . . America’s genius has always been its ability to absorb newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the disparate lot that arrived on our shores.”
Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro, along with her husband Konrad Ng, was repeatedly referenced during the forum. Indeed, they were not just mentioned, their ethnicities were cited. We were reminded several times that Soetoro is Indonesian and that Ng is Chinese. At one point, Dr. Chu said that if elected, Obama would be the first president to have Asian “blood” relatives. At another point in the speeches, someone (and I forget who—my notes from the meeting are unclear on this matter), actually said that Obama would be the “first Asian president.” What was revealed in these appeals was the belief that to win over the crowd, Obama had to be “NJB,” and more explicitly, had to be related (literally and figuratively) to Asian Americans “by blood.” Whether this was an effective strategy among the people in the room was unclear but it was a noticeable effort nevertheless.
The second and related issue was the attention given to Obama’s Hawaiian roots. At one point in his comments, Congressman Honda mentioned that Obama was a “native son of Hawaii” and had the appropriate “aloha” spirit to lead. According to Congressman Honda, the “aloha” spirit is characterized by openness and is exemplified in Obama’s willingness to work with and listen to others. Such comments are consistent with sound bites that Soetoro has given to newspapers. For example, an AP story has Soetoro saying about her brother: “Hawaii is the place that gave him the ability to. . . understand people from a wide array of backgrounds. . . People see themselves in him. . . because he himself contains multitudes.”
Such depictions of Hawaii are disturbing for a few reasons. First, while Asian Americans have a long history in Hawaii, that a Japanese-American congressman was able to claim Hawaii—to the point where he could determine who was a “native” son of the state—made me think of Native Hawaiians who don’t embrace Asians as fellow Hawaiians. As some Native Hawaiian critics point out, Asian national interests and labor have contributed to the trajectory of Native Hawaiians, which is marked by high incarceration and poverty rates and territorial and political disempowerment. Second, the notion that Hawaiians are an “open people” also reproduces sexualized racial fantasies of an open territory with happy natives warmly “receiving” outsiders—a perception that requires non-Hawaiians to imagine native Hawaiians as eager to provide visual, edible, and sexual pleasure to newcomers (think dancing, food, and sex here). In other words, colonialism is rearticulated as amalgamation.
The third and final issue was how AAPI ”concerns” were defined. Both in the brochures and speeches, AAPI issues were characterized as education, small business ownership, health care, and immigration. Along with these points, the issue of racial profiling was listed, noticeably at the bottom of different materials. The topic of immigration was discussed by many speakers. Immigration was always referenced in relationship to family ties. While the (not overwhelming) majority of AAPIs are foreign-born, unsurprisingly absent—at least for the hour that I was present—was how concerns regarding immigration may also be shaped by economic interests. Some of the people in the room were either business owners in Chinatown or part of organizations that worked with and benefitted from companies in the neighborhood. Given that many such businesses rely on immigrant labor, the issue of immigration reform is not simply driven by familial concerns (and this is not to say familial concerns are outside of the logic of capitalism).
Along with these three issues, the event had a few awkward moments. One that stands out is Congressman Honda leading the crowd in singing “This little light of mine,” presumably prompted by the name of Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine, a well known member of the Black clergy in Philadelphia, who had opened up the forum with a prayer. Or at least this is what the politician said when he burst into song. Looking at Dr. Shine, Congressman Honda said that he loved his name “Shine” because it reminded him of a tune. . . and so began the singing.