Origins and Futures of Conservatism in Asian America
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
The Trump leaning conservative crowd at last week's conservative political action conference we're not particularly warm toward former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, [crowd noise] but Haley seemed unruffled. Undoubtedly, she knows the pathway to the presidency is likely to be a challenging one for her. After all, she's the first Asian American woman to ever run for the Republican nomination for president.
Nikki Haley: I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants, and my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Haley's parents immigrated from India and raised her in the Sikh faith. She's just one of a handful of rising stars in the Republican party of Asian heritage, including two of the first ever Korean American women elected to Congress, California representatives Michelle Steel and Young Kim. Here's Representative Kim speaking to CNN.
Young Kim: Asian Americans are Americans. As an Asian American and a member of Congress, I feel a duty to speak out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These are conservatives who often foreground their Asian American identity as an inextricable part of their conservative identity.
Michelle Steel: Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet many Asian American conservatives face an assumption about their authenticity that is sometimes unspoken. One that former Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal, once addressed head on.
Bobby Jindal: Maybe I'm not what they think a conservative should look like.
Jane Hong: We really wanted to challenge what has become a very prevalent assumption that when people of color support conservative causes or identify as conservative, that somehow it's because they're either dupes who are trying to be white. perhaps they're sellouts or opportunists who want to claim the benefits of whiteness. My name is Jane Hong, and I'm an associate professor of history at Occidental College.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Empirically, Asian American voters are as a whole more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans, but within the collective identity of Asian American are folks with heritages from dozens of countries. Countries with complicated histories and relationships with one another and with the US and they don't all vote the same way.
Adrian De Leon: Any sort of articulation that we have about an Asian American political history or a political science needs to be transnational, needs to be international, needs to really wrestle with the relationships that the United States might have with places, for example, in colonial spaces like the Philippines, like Vietnam, like the Koreas, like China, and like Japan. My name is Adrian De Leon. I'm an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane Hong and Adrian De Leon are co-editors of a current special issue of the UCLA’s Amerasia Journal. It's a publication dedicated to research in Asian American and Pacific Islander studies. They've devoted this issue as its title goes to Conservatisms and Fascisms in Asian America. For both Jane and Adrian, this matter isn't just academic, it's part of their lived experiences as Asian Americans.
Jane Hong: One of the memories that sticks out to me is just driving to my grandmother's funeral in 2017, and my uncle, who's a pastor, was sitting in the front seat and the hearse driver, this is in Queens's, New York. The hearse driver was an Italian American guy from Queens. They were basically both talking about how Donald Trump's been incredibly misunderstood and why he's so good for the United States, so good for the country. These are two very different men coming from two very different backgrounds, and for them to get to the same page, it's much more complex than a story of my uncle doesn't want to be white. I would never describe him that way. Thinking about these kind of flattened explanations of why it is that so many Asian American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and even again in 2020, like I knew these weren't fully accurate.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane's work explores the rising influence of Asian American evangelicals revealing that white evangelicals don't have a monopoly on Christian nationalism. Indeed, recent data from the Public Religion Research Institute show that a majority of Asian American protestants are supporters or sympathizers too. Adrian points out that this is not a phenomenon of Asian American communities adopting a foreign ideology, but the organic development of Christian nationalist and conservative tendencies rooted in transnational history.
Adrian De Leon: I grew up in a very fundamentalist right wing Filipino Catholic community on the east side of Toronto. For folks who are not familiar with the broader histories of the Philippines, it's roughly 90% to 95% Catholic, and that stems all the way back from the earliest moments of Spanish colonization on the islands. One of the reasons why the Catholic Church today is such an influential force in the making of transnational Filipino communities is that we often think of the people power revolution in the 1986. Though the one that overthrew the first Marcos regime as left-wing, revolutionary and anti-colonial. Certainly had a possibility to do that, but what ended up coming in instead was a Christian nationalist presidency. Indeed, the Catholic Church came in and stepped up its influence. It took over a lot of the political life of the islands.
It certainly took up a lot of the political life of the diaspora, especially a diaspora like my family. In Canada, unlike the United States context, where there is a long and rich tradition of Asian American organizing, in the Canadian context, all we had was a church. The moment that really haunts me and I think really drives not just a lot of my scholarly work, but the way that I politically position my scholarly work as atonement for that history and that personal and family history is one day I was in graduate school at the University of Toronto and I was crossing the street. There are always these activists across the Catholic Youth Center, the ones holding up the doctored photos of fetuses and advocating against abortion and handing up pamphlets, yelling at counter protestors and the like.
I usually just ignored them until one day I heard, "Oh, hi Adrian." It was an old friend of mine, it was an old friend of mine from my old religious youth group who then told me how much my work with the youth group, and this is something that I was raised in as a teenager and as a child really inspired him to become an activist. That haunts me till today because that is certainly not my particular politics. Yet when I came to the United States to be a professor of Asian American studies, we often sweep these narratives under the rug and in a lot of ways actually really dwelling on these painful histories and these political alignments are really critical for, I think, political and social change rather than just trying to advance a particular narrative about the given progressivism of the Asian American community and Asian American communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane and Adrian spoke with me about their scholarship on Asian American conservatism.
Jane Hong: For many ordinary Asian Americans, we really wanted to emphasize the indigenous factors that led people to embrace conservative causes, migration experiences, their histories in Asia, and the politics of migrant communities themselves that are specific to Asian Americans. I think by doing that, we want it in many ways to reclaim, I don't know if the word is agency, but to reclaim the fullness of Asian American conservatives and their humanity. This is not a rehabilitation project [laughter] but it's more of an attempt to really take seriously the fact that people are making choices.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Adrian, I want to let you in on this idea that somehow there are a set of ideologies that and particularly on the right of the spectrum conservatism typically even to fascism that somehow belongs to white folks in America. If marginalized communities have their own versions of it, that that is somehow an inauthentic political expression.
Adrian De Leon: I want to hang on to a word that you said, which is inauthentic. I think that's a really great way to describe some of the political impetus as to why we wanted to put this issue together, specifically around Asian American right-wing, right of center, or far right politics. There's a couple of things going on. Number one, especially in the North American, the United States context, we understand the political spectrum in ways that map neatly and take for granted the American electoral system and American political ideologies. Yet as transnational communities, Asian Americans, too, have to juggle.
Not just the way that they interact with American politics, but also the way that that may or may not, in surprising ways, refract the ways that they came to the United States with the political understandings that they might have had from "something like their home country."
Melissa Harris-Perry: This language of wrestling with transnationalism, is that simply reducing Asian American politics across its broadest and most complex spectrum to basically an immigrant story? There's something that is also perhaps uniquely developing as a result of experience within the US itself?
Adrian De Leon: I think it's a bit of both. It's also, I think the way that, for example, in the Filipino context, there are ways that, for example, in Filipino American communities particular groups or particular voters, or the electorate might lean towards a center or even center-left but also, have particular political sensibilities in the Philippines that might align much more with the right in the Philippines. For example, this is really reflective on the ways that Filipino communities wrestle with the legacy of the Ferdinand Marcos regime. Not just historical memory about the Marcos regime and its atrocities and its plunder has been erased across generations, but on the other hand too, how the so-called Return of the Marcoses with the election in 2022 was not just a project that took place in the Philippines, but really one that was really attentive to the diaspora.
The way the political information and misinformation, for example, that circulates and ferments really surprising political alignments across the Pacific.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Adrian, as I listened to you talk about a transnational diasporic Filipino set of experiences that include you as a Canadian, and Jane, you're reflecting on a set of multigenerational experiences from a Korean American family, I just also guess have to ask about even the notion of Asian American as a political category, if there's a way that we are imposing a sameness where perhaps there is much more diversity.
Jane Hong: There's so much good work by immigration historians who basically look at how the term initially was Asiatic, the racial term. The category was created by immigration restrictions or exclusion laws during World War I, 1920s. These laws, these Asian exclusion laws weren't overturned until really the 1960s, the 1965 Immigration Act. It was that category that Congress created in 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone, that's the category that really lumped East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and all these places where people themselves might not have necessarily identified with one another.
Sikh farmers in California might not have seen themselves having much in common with Chinese migrants on the ground. Even from within that category that legally constructed the category of exclusion, the seeds of solidarity and collective action were planted. That's I think where the Asian American Movement of the late 1960s-- To be fair, that movement was primarily led by Japanese and Chinese Americans, some Filipino Americans because they were the primary demographics who were here at the time. When folks were marching for ethnic studies at San Francisco State in Berkeley, it was a lot of those folks, US born Japanese, Chinese, Filipino Americans, and some others as well alongside.
That is the movement that really created and gave birth to Asian American Studies, so I think this whole field is indebted to the work of radical activists. Today, when I think about people like Nikki Haley, even when I think about Kamala Harris, thinking about South Asians, Indian Americans, how they fit and don't fit, in many ways, they fit uneasily within this category of Asian America. When you zoom out further to API, when you lump Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders together, you have an entirely different set of questions about like, "Do these categories even fit?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do the careers of politicians like Nikki Haley mean for the future of Asian American conservatism? That's next on The Takeaway. Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I've been talking with professors Jane Hong and Adrian De Leon. They're the co-editors of the new issue of UCLA’s Amerasia Journal, called Conservatism and Fascisms in Asian America.
They've taken us through some of the complex origins of political conservatism in Asian American communities, but I also wanted to think about some of the folks who represent the future of Asian American conservativism, like Former South Carolina Governor and Current Republican Presidential Candidate, Nikki Haley.
Jane Hong: One thing that I've been struck by, and I've been reading a lot about Nikki Haley's candidacy, there's a way that people can use the child of immigrants narrative. There's so many ways you can actually use that narrative, and it's not limited to Asian Americans. That is a very common trope for Asian Americans on all sides of the political spectrum across history because that child of immigrants narrative, it's compelling, and it's also really palatable for folks on the right. I've been really struck by just how different candidates use that narrative over time.
Indian Americans, South Asian Americans have a distinct history in the United States that, again, has commonalities and overlaps with the lives of people like Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and others. There's also a different religious calculus with Indian Americans. I saw a great piece by Khyati Joshi in the Religion News Service about how Nikki Haley came to Christianity later. That was a different journey, versus people like Michelle Park Steel and Young Kim, they're evangelical Christian. At least one of them claims to have become Christian in Korea. Korea was the site of so much US evangelical missionary projects.
There were so many, the Billy Graham Crusade was on fire out there, Campus Crusade for Christ, Korea. I think the question of how these racial histories intersect with histories of Christianity and religious histories is another really interesting question that really play out when we think about these different candidates, these different conservatives who all identify as Asian American.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What I'd love to do is maybe walk through just, not only Nikki Haley, but a few other representatives. Have you all think through what does it mean, for example, to think about Nikki Haley or Former Governor Bobby Jindal or some other folk in light of both the insights of your own work and some of the insights of the work that emerge in this new journal?
Adrian De Leon: The Bobby Jindal case is one that's sticking very close to home because I think both in the Bobby Jindal and in the Nikki Haley case, nonetheless, there is a narrative about the desire to be proximate to whiteness. Bobby Jindal, in particular, is a particularly haunting one. I think about that portrait all the time. I think about the really haunting image around the fact that it reminds me of longer histories of the racial ambiguity of Indian Americans in the United States. There was the [unintelligible 00:16:30] case, I believe in the 1920s where Indian migrants needed to be ascertained. Are they white by virtue of historical Aryanness or are they Asiatic to Jane's point?
One of the arguments made in court was for whiteness, and of course, that lost out. I think the Bobby Jindal case does a little bit of different political work, which on one hand, for someone wanting to make a gubernatorial run or a presidential run, which is despite diversity to politics in the United States, you can't have somebody that looks anything that deviates from whiteness, which is ironic because we've just had a Black president before Trump.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane, you've also written about Young Kim and about Michelle Steel. Can you tell us a little bit about them and what their stories tell us about Asian American conservatism?
Jane Hong: These are two Korean American congresswomen, both Republican, elected from Orange County, California. In the last few years, I think there are folks who might be tempted to argue that their stories are specifically Orange County, California histories. Orange County, California, it has a really high Asian American population. They actually make up a large part of the electorate. Orange County, it's been the subject of so many history books because it really was in many places the birthplace of a particular kind of conservatism in the '60s and '70s and after.
Orange County was like 93% white in the 1960s, but then the 1970s onward, with post-'65 Asian migration, and with the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees after '75 coming from across Southeast Asia but particularly, Vietnam, the demographics of that entire place have been dramatically changed. It was a Republican bastion for a really long time. Then the question was could you flip it in 2018, 2020? A lot of Orange County has flipped blue, but Young Kim and Michelle Park Steel, they really were seen as these potential beacons [chuckles] toward a future of non-white conservatism. The thing about them is they're both Korean immigrants. They both have really interesting immigrant stories.
Young Kim has been active in local politics for decades. My mother-in-law, who's Korean American, she remembers Young Kim doing things in the Koreatown community in the '90s. Young Kim, she didn't just materialize in 2018. She has had a long history working among Korean American and Asian American communities. Michelle Park Steel has had a different path. She is married to Shawn Steel. He used to be the head of the California Republican Party. I think she's always had a direct connection. Both women style themselves as evangelical. They were some of the only California congresspeople to welcome and meet Donald Trump at the airport when he visited a few years ago during his presidency.
Their elections are part of a much broader strategy by the Republican Party, which has now begun opening voter centers in places like Orange County, but also in Texas, in Georgia. These voter centers are specifically meant to target Asian American, Latina, and other communities of color because I think people know this, Republican Party knows this from the [unintelligible 00:19:48] report in 2013. The future, they need to court these diverse communities of color.
I think, in some ways, Young Kim, Michelle Park Steel, and other candidates of color who've actually won using these diversity strategies on the Republican side, in some ways, they are now becoming the blueprint or playbook for how the Republican Party might try to do things going forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jane Hong is associate professor of history at Occidental College, and Adrian De Leon is an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Jane and Adrian, thank you so much for joining us.
Jane Hong: Thank you for having us.
Adrian De Leon: It's a real pleasure. Thank you.
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