Asian-Americans Carve Out A Place In Politics

For years, activists and scholars have lamented the lack of involvement of Asians-Americans in the American political landscape. But, the group has become an increasingly visible force in the political scene. As Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage month draws to a close, Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat from California, and political activist Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, discuss the evolving role of Asian-Americans in politics.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, Host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up the historic Supreme Court appointment and Illinois Senator Roland Burris said what the Barbershop guys review the week. That's next on TELL ME MORE. But first it's Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. For years scholars and activists have lamented the Asian-American communities lack of civic engagement. But that's changing. According to UCLA's Asian-American Study Center. Nationwide there are more than 2000 Asian-American and Pacific Islander elected and appointed representatives. Joining us now to talk about the state of Asian-American politics is Democratic California congressman and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee Mike Honda. And also with us, Naomi Tacuyan Underwood. She's deputy director of the nonpartisan group Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. Welcome to both of you.

MIKE HONDA: Thank you.

NAOMI TACUYAN UNDERWOOD: Thank you Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Congressman Honda, can I ask you first. Asian-Americans are sometimes portrayed as not engaged in American politics. You got involved back in the '80s. What motivated you then?

HONDA: I was going to college and I realized that I wasn't ready to leave. And I dropped out of school with one year to go and joined Peace Corps and in Peace Corps I found my own values. And when I came back I sought out the need to look for a niche for myself and I as an Asian-American spoke Spanish, it was a rare thing at that time. And I got involved in student activism and civil rights movement, and civil rights organizations and found that I had something to say and something to offer and it felt good.

LUDDEN: Were your concerns specifically about the Asian-American community or just your own interest in social affairs.

HONDA: I was a little bit upset that we were not taught more about our own communities, about camps.

LUDDEN: Internment camps. You - you spent time as a toddler in one in Colorado during World War II.

HONDA: Right, and all I heard about internment was from my parents, my mom. And even though my dad was told not to talk about it because he belonged to the military intelligence service, he did. And he taught me that you know this country made a big mistake in sending us to camp, set aside our constitutional rights. And by the time I became a young adult, kind of put that together and understanding that this country has part of about ourselves and our contribution and that we have to be there and present in order to make any changes. And about that time was when the Black Panthers were pretty active and the saying was if you're not part of the solution you're going to be part of the problem. And I just decided that I'm going to be part of the solution. And I found out that politics is not a spectator sport. It's a participatory sport and that's what the founding fathers expected, and that's what the constitution required.

LUDDEN: Naomi, you're 28 years old. What motivated you to get involved in politics?

TACUYAN UNDERWOOD: I think it started, my family migrated, actually, from the Philippines to Guam in the early 80s. I think it started for me as a toddler watching the Philippine Revolution on TV and thinking that this is a part of history, and this is my history as a Filipino and carrying that with me to high school where I went to school where there was nothing about being Filipino- American or Asian-American. And finally being able to satiate my curiosity and being involved on a college level, where I, unlike Congressman Honda was fortunate enough to have Asian-American and Pacific Islander studies. And I actually was able to volunteer for a White House initiative on API's Town Hall Meeting. And that, basically, was the catalyst for everything. I moved to DC after college and I got involved with community development organizations - everything that could relate back to my experience as a Filipino, as a Pacific Islander living on Guam, as an immigrant woman living in the United States, as a young immigrant woman.

LUDDEN: I'm curious now, Congressman Honda. You've served for a couple of decades now and it's your second term as chair of the congressional Asian, Pacific American Caucus. So what are the major issues today for that caucus?

HONDA: A lot of it is not much different from anybody else. They need to look at us as input also. And when they talk about race relations or they talk about civil rights or change, they always talk about African-Americans and Latinos, but never include Asian-Americans as to their rhetoric. And so you know CAPAC as it is known today has couple of missions. One is to being inclusive but also to be included and in this last go around in terms of the election of Obama, I just wanted to make sure that CAPAC was a player and Asian-Americans were counted in the effort.

LUDDEN: Well you talk about representing people like mind, but Naomi are there common interest among people from as diverse places as India, Afghanistan, the Philippines and many other countries?

TACUYAN UNDERWOOD: Well we're very heterogeneous in the fact that we migrate from different places. I believe that when we do get here we have common issues that we face at the kitchen table. And that's economic issues, health care access, and health care costs, educational issues. So while there are differences, I think, the opportunity and the challenge is finding the common ground with those issues that we have with the rest of the American people.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Asian-Americans in U.S. politics. Joining us are Naomi Tacuyan Underwood from Asian-American Pacific Islander Vote and California Congressman Mike Honda.

Congressman Honda the - your Asian-American Caucus actually includes a number of non-Asians. I presume this is because they represent areas with a large Asian population and if that's so I'm wondering if you see this as a sign that there is the need for more Asian-Americans to run for office?

HONDA: Well, there's a need for more Asian-Americans to run for office in regards of where they come from and there's a great need of members to represent our communities in spite of who they are - whether they are males, females, and non-Asians that they respect our community enough to take the time and effort to be the voice for the communities in the district. And so you know we do have members from the Black Congressional Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and the Progressive Caucus.

LUDDEN: Congressman, we saw with the election of Barack Obama a black politician proved that nonblack voters in the U.S. can identify with and support him. Do you think Asian-American politicians have done that.

HONDA: Yeah. I don't think that we've done it at a national scale, such as Barack. And remember that we refer him as half black and he's also half white and he's also got family that's Asian. And so you know he didn't make that a secret, he spoke about himself. But he delivered who he was and the kind of skills that he was offering to this country and to the world, and so it caught on. Asian-Americans had a difficult time coming together in terms of coalitions at a presidential level when we're looking for support and raising money. When Barack stepped forward, that resistance melted and the willingness to come together for the benefit of winning with Barack as the president became the focal point.

LUDDEN: And we could say here that Asian-Americans I believe voted about three to one for Obama.

HONDA: Oh, yeah it is, it was something in the neighborhood of 68 percent.

LUDDEN: You know during the presidential elections we spoke with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang to talk about a column he wrote speculating that Barack Obama might be the first Asian-American president in the sense that we think of President Clinton as the first black president and here is a bit of what he told us.

JEFF YANG: When we look at what makes up Asian-American identity there are some really strong themes that define us. And many of those themes really are applicable in a lot of ways to Obama's personality, to his make up, to his mindset. He is somebody who has spent years abroad in Indonesia, with this stepfather, who was himself Indonesian. He was brought up in and around communities of Asian-Americans and immigrants in Hawaii, the only state in the nation which is actually majority Asian-American, and within his own family he has a half sister and a brother in law who are themselves Asian-American and very strongly proud of that fact and he is proud of that fact as well. So, he has a sort of mantle of Asian American-ness surrounding him.

LUDDEN: Congressman how would you rate President Obama so far on Asian-American issues.

HONDA: It's good and during the campaign he is the only candidate in the history of this country that has ever put out a blueprint for Asia Pacific islanders. And let me add something to Mr. Yang's comment, is that it's true what he said and those are characteristics - shared characteristics - with communities but there is also another aspect that - he had a mom that required him to be rigorous in his studies. Him being rigorous and studious and thoughtful sort of lends itself to that, I guess we call it Asianness. More than anything else, you know, when he spoke to our Asian group after he got the nomination, he stood before us and he shouted out. You know, he declared that, you know, I have a half-sister that's Indonesian. I've got a brother-in-law that's (unintelligible) Canadian. I guess that qualifies me to be with the family, with the neighborhood, you know. And having stated that gave the community a sense of presence and validation.

LUDDEN: Naomi, do you see a difference in the political concerns of your generation, younger Asian-Americans, compared to those of the parents and grandparents?

TACUYAN UNDERWOOD: Sure. I think Congressman Honda was talking about refugees and people who had suffered in internment camps and people who have come to this country under duress. They have different concerns from those of us who have grown up here, immigrated here at a young age, in a different generation.

But I think at the same time, we are also very aware of the experiences of our parents. And I believe that my generation have been kind of cultivated as natural advocates. We've actually been the ones who have been connecting our parents with direct services, with, you know, being civically engaged, with being educated about it in school. And then bringing back this knowledge and this information to our parents. I think naturally with our own concerns, we are also relating back to the issues that they face and that they're concerned about.

LUDDEN: Naomi Tacuyan Underwood is deputy director for the nonpartisan group Asian Pacific Islander American Vote. And Congressman Mike Honda has joined us by phone from his office in San Jose. Thank you so much to both of you.

TACUYAN UNDERWOOD: Thank you, Jennifer.

HONDA: Well, thank you for this opportunity, and some day, I would like to tell you more.

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