The Asian-American community and the U.S. political system
March 21, 1997
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What has been the result of the campaign fundraising investigations? How do Asian Americans fare politically compared to Jewish groups and others? Will African Americans run into these same problems? How does the ethnic and racial composition of newsrooms affect the reporting? Additional questions and comments . Peter Schuck of Encino, CA, asks:
Granted the current cause célèbre has focused on certain prominent East Asian institutions and individuals with links to a number of influencial Asian-Americans who indeed may have crossed the legal threshold in their campaign fund raising activities, but there are some bad apples in every bunch. I have seen only factual reporting concering this issue from the media; I have not seen what can be construed as racial bias. Yet the wailing among some Asian-American circles persists. Where is the hard evidence that Asian-Americans are being universally disparaged by the media?
Mark Hosenball of Newsweek Magazine responds:
It is true that much of the investigative coverage of the Democratic Party fundraising scandals has focussed on Asian-Americans. That's because Asian-American fundraisers -- namely John Huang, Charlie Trie and Johnny Chung -- brought in most of the political contributions which the Democratic Party has been forced to return due to questions about their provenance. The fact that the Democratic Party felt compelled to return the contributions raises reasonable grounds for suspicion that those contributions were illegal, and also raises grounds to investigate how and why prominent Asian-American fundraisers brought in these particular contributions. None of this is to exclude the possibility that similarly suspicious contributions might have been brought in from other ethnic -- or non-ethnic sources. Indeed, Washington is in an uproar this week over the fact that a Lebanese-American Democratic Party contributor, Roger Tamraz, managed to get to talk to President Clinton about one of his foreign investments even though the National Security Council tried to keep him away. I don't think any of the media coverage has been driven by racial bias.
The accusation of racial bias against the press is largely a red herring spread by White House and Democratic Party spin-doctors. Documents released by the DNC from John Huang's files indicate that the Democratic Party even drafted talking points for its officials to use in which reporting on the fundraising scandal was to be linked to bias against Asian-Americans. Asian-Americans may be getting a disproportionate amount of coverage in scandal reporting but undoubtedly other ethnic groups will come in later for their fair share of the same.
Frank Wu of Howard University responds:
At the outset, let me say this: it is right to investigate John Huang. At the same time, most of us can agree on this principle: it is wrong to assume that because an individual is guilty of wrongdoing that other persons of the same racial group also are likely to commit the same crime. Likewise, we can work toward real campaign finance reform without singling out Asian Americans because they may be becoming more politically powerful.
Now, think about the title of the controversy: "the Asian connection." Imagine the reaction – we would be at least troubled, and rightly so – if a few individuals who were Jewish were implicated in a scandal and it were dubbed "the Jewish connection" or "the Israel connection" or "the Zionist connection." Think about the failure to follow up on the non-Asian Americans implicated in the scandal.
Or consider the now infamous National Review cover with caricatures of President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton as Asians with slant eyes and buck teeth. Of course, we should have a sense of humor. By itself, the cover isn't the worst stereotype ever offered in popular culture. However, suppose an African American were at the center of a scandal, and a major magazine ran a picture of political leaders depicted in offensive stereotypes of blacks: with grotesque lips, blackface, and watermelons. Moreover, consider the context of the illustration: it reinforces the belief that it is the Asian-ness of the persons implicated that has caused the problem.
Asian Americans know but the general public may not be aware that major media outlets aggressively called donors (using federal election records) who had what they believed were "Asian" names. The overwhelming majority of these persons supported the parties and candidates of their choice, like anyone else, for many legal reasons. But the assumption was that someone with an "Asian" name – even someone who was a United States citizen, a fifth-generation Californian, with no connection to Huang, somehow was suspect. If your name was Huang, Wang, Wong, or something else that sounded funny to a reporter, your privacy was invaded. If someone named Smith were alleged to be a lawbreaker, nobody in their right mind would decide to look into the activities of every other Smith.
Unfortunately, some of the more obvious racial remarks were not reported. Last fall, Reform Party billionaire populist Ross Perot referred to John Huang, and asked, "Wouldn't you like to have someone out there named O'Reilly? Out there hard at work. You know, so far we haven't found an American name." Perot later described individuals named Middleton and Wood as being people Americans can identify with. Neither his competition nor major media outlets criticized or even pointed out his offensive statements.
This goes beyond partisan politics. Republican leaders referred repeatedly to Asian Americans as "foreign influence." The Democratic Party audit focused primarily on Asian Americans, not on genuine campaign finance abuses.
Many articles also failed to distinguish between United States citizens of Asian ancestry, entitled to participate in our political process, and foreign nationals who happen to be Asian. Other articles suggested that everyone who is Asian is automatically foreign. Overall, because the press never previously bothered to cover Asian American political participation, and fail to follow up on non-Asian American angles to this story, people make the mistake of believing that a handful of individuals represent a racial group.