Last weekend, The San Jose Mercury News did a very interesting and somewhat controversial story on the state of local government representation in Silicon Valley; reading the comments on the article thread has been somewhat thought provoking for me. As you can imagine, there are a lot of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley but like in the boardroom and upper management, there are not very many Asian Americans or other ethnic minorities represented in local government:
“Silicon Valley may have the most dynamic, multiracial society on earth, but you wouldn’t know it at city hall. With the 2010 census in, minorities now outnumber whites almost 2-to-1 in Santa Clara County. Yet non-Hispanic whites hold the vast majority of local city council seats, as well as every city manager’s office in Santa Clara County’s 15 towns and cities.”
However, I would have to say that living in Silicon Valley for over ten years, this is not due to any blatant discriminatory practices by citizens or by local governments but based on many other factors. I would have to agree with my friend, former Sunnyvale, California mayor and current city council member Otto Lee regarding the idea around “pipeline development”:
“One believer is Otto Lee, a Chinese-American and the only minority on the Sunnyvale City Council. The at-large system in Sunnyvale has been more open in practice than Santa Clara’s. He and another Asian were elected in 2003, three short years after Sunnyvale became a minority-majority city. Lee said he believes district elections might get one Latino elected, but he’d rather recruit and groom minority candidates on local boards and commissions — a pipeline to the City Council — where they can learn how to appeal to all voters, not just minorities. That would deliver racial parity at City Hall sooner, Lee said.”
I’m not necessarily a big believer in quotas and that if a city, county or state’s population is X% Asian American that X% should be representative on a city council, county board or state seats. I do think that a disparity is an indicator of a lack of political maturity amongst the Asian American community. I’m in the same line of thought with Lee that if you have a pipeline of groomed and qualified candidates, then statistically, representation should take care of itself. 50% of the population is female, and that if there are enough qualified and motivated woman, there should be, by the nature of basic statistics, 50% female representation would occur in most roles of society (minus a certain percentage that decide to either be full-time mothers or those roles where physical demands may potentially favor men, such as potentially construction, the military, etc).
I would say that in general, the lack of Asian American representation in local government is partially generational. At least with my parents who were from Taiwan, they grew up in very repressive political systems at the time (same goes with South Korea, Philippines, China, etc), and when they immigrate to the U.S., they are more concerned with raising and supporting a family, etc. Immigration for Asians was only reformed in the mid-1960s. I had read some statistics that 60% of all Asian Americans in the United States were born overseas.
The last thing on immigrant minds is to stand out. For Japanese Americans, my personal belief is that the scars of World War II internment helped shape the political belief of “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” and that only in a rare instance, will a Fred Korematsu arise.
As for “our” generation’s involvement – generally, the way you get involved is if you know someone else who is involved. If the parents aren’t exactly involved, then you get that from your friends. Unless you are super motivated, I don’t know too many high school students who are politically interested because kids can’t vote until they legally turn into adults at age 18. So the best time probably is to get Asian American college students interested and involved.
Certainly, there were racist past practices in the United States such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the previously mentioned Japanese internment during World War II. But such acts have not created any structural reasons as to why there is not decent Asian American representation in public office in Silicon Valley reflective of its population as far as I can tell.
Within any mainstream society in a country – whether it be the United States or elsewhere – there are social norms, customs, practices, institutions, etc. that any immigrant or second generation American will have to adjust to. That is still happening with Asian Americans, especially when it comes to civic involvement.
For me, I became more involved in 2004 after I could not imagine another four years of President George W. Bush. Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, I was also very familiar with Senator John Kerry and supported his nomination as the Democratic presidential nominee as well as his run for president. That is when I realized that although the San Francisco Bay Area had a large percentage of Asian Americans – from 20% to 35% in some cities, I was part of a handful of Asian American volunteers who were politically involved. Thus, I have an interest in blogging and highlighting Asian American candidates, those in office and policy issues that effect the Asian American community. Back in 2004, I only knew of one other Asian American involved in politics – and that was my brother’s college classmate and friend, Sophia. I think she grew up being involved because her mother was a politician – in Taiwan.
President Lincoln once said that the United States is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” How we vote is not solely determined by our ethnicity or race. Certainly, there are concerns of ethnic minorities, as well as traditionally in the past, majority white population, that are specific to any one demographic. When a majority white population expressed a particular concern however, this was never called upon as a “special interest.” As Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area, California and the United States increasingly becomes more diverse, what is seen as a “special interest” is just more reflective of the demographic changes and needs of the overall population as a whole.
Parents are more concerned about the quality of the school system than single young adults. The elderly are more interested in services focused on their needs, such as public transportation, health care, Social Security, accessibility and resources for the elderly. Asian Americans, especially those who have immigrated to the U.S. recently, may be concerned for voting materials available in their native language and their concern about education – which we already know, thanks to Tiger Moms and other Asian American stereotypes.
Greater diversity in Silicon Valley town halls is inevitable as Asian Americans become more assimilated into society. I encourage all Americans to be more politically involved, and certainly encourage Asian Americans since we are under-represented – but mostly, that is our own fault. There is a political awakening occurring, especially up in San Francisco and in Oakland.
It has been a long time coming since both San Francisco (which has the largest % of Asian Americans of any U.S. mainland city at over 33%) and Oakland recently swore in two new mayors, both of whom are the first Asian American mayors of their respective cities. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was appointed mayor, but there are many viable Asian American candidates this fall for one to be elected.
On the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which there are a total of eleven elected members, there are four Asian Americans, including Board President David Chiu, Jane Kim, Eric Mar and Carmen Chu. 4/11 = 36% – pretty close to reflecting the overall (in fact maybe slightly more) the Asian American population in San Francisco. And these supervisors represent all of their constituents and did not run as “the Asian American” candidate (Carmen Chu was initially appointed, but was re-elected). I personally know David Chiu and Jane Kim (and to a lesser extent, Eric Mar) and think they are extremely qualified and would support them regardless of their race.
I think voting for a candidate solely on race is not rationale but as I recalled President Bill Clinton mentioning, you can’t tell people why they should vote for someone; it’s a personal decision. I primarily base my vote on where a candidate stands on the issues, along with a candidate’s experience and qualifications. I know a friend who votes for the candidate based on what they perceive that candidates’ values are (which then would drive on issues). I know some women who supported Hillary Clinton because she was a woman; I initially supported her over Obama because I thought she was more qualified, not because she was a woman.
So fellow Asian American, especially those of you in Silicon Valley, get out there and get involved. Support a candidate, join a planning committee, run for city council. Run for mayor. Run for state assembly, state senate. Run for Congress. Run for president!