[Soundbite: Student broadcast at Lowell High School]
Student anchor: Good morning Lowell High School, it’s a beautiful day from the fifth floor pool …
Sarah Mizes-Tan, Host: In 2021, something pretty surprising happened with parents at a high school called Lowell in San Francisco.
[Soundbite: Student broadcast at Lowell High School]
Sarah: It’s one of the most prestigious public schools in the city and its student population is majority Asian. It’s a school where Asian American parents could offer their children more opportunity at no extra cost, a proverbial feeder school to places like UC Berkeley or Stanford.
Historically, all that was needed for entrance was to pass an admissions test. But school board members suggested doing away with the test in favor of a lottery system. They thought this would create more equity among students of color.
Asian-American parents weren’t happy. They felt like they had found a path to greater opportunity and then the rules were changed.
So they took a stand and pushed for a recall of some of the San Francisco School Board.
[Theme music begins and fades under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Lowell was a moment where Asian-American parents organized and took the Democratic process into their own hands, and it became a national story. Because for Asian Americans, finding where we fit in politics historically has been difficult. Asian Americans don’t usually associate with one specific political party. And there’s an overwhelming stereotype that Asian Americans just don’t speak out.
Today … that’s changing. And now we need to ask ourselves “Who are we as voters … and what happens now that we have greater visibility?”
[Theme music swells and fades under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan, you’re listening to “Mid Pacific,” a podcast exploring what it means to be Asian American — this time through the lens of politics and democracy. We’ll be right back.
[Theme music swells and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
[Soundbite: Lowell news clip]
News anchor: San Francisco today holding its first recall election in nearly 40 years after parents helped launch a campaign to unseat 3 school board members they accused of failing to reopen schools.
Sarah: I wanted to start this episode focusing on Lowell High School in San Francisco, because it’s this very particular example of Asian Americans coming together to recall elected officials. As an Asian American myself, I don’t often think of Asian-American parents as mobilizing for elections. I could never think of my parents doing this, the whole ethos of my upbringing was to keep my head down and just keep on working.
Lowell is about 56 percent Asian — and it’s known among Asian parents in the city as being an excellent public school that anyone can attend, as long as they could pass an admissions exam. And for Asian American parents, like Cyn Wang, this was the ultimate equalizer.
Cyn Wang: Since I was very young I was acutely aware that for our community, public education is the pathway for upward mobility and I’m a very strong believer in public education.
Sarah: You know the drill — Asian Americans studied and prepped really hard for this entrance exam, and they soon became the majority at the school.
But all wasn’t well under the surface at Lowell, there had been a history of racism at the school, one that pre-dated its Asian student majority. The school board felt it needed to do something about this — and their solution was to take away the admissions test. They thought it was keeping out Black and Latino students.
But for Cyn, she felt that the school board’s solution erased Asian American students. And it was pitting Black and Latino students against Asian students for no reason. This is a dynamic we’ve seen throughout history unfortunately.
Cyn Wang: I think that API students comprise more than a third of our school district and they were being overlooked. And as a result of our community finally galvanizing, getting organized and getting involved in the recall, our voices are now being heard and we have meaningful representation on the board that's looking after our community's interests.
Sarah: We’re not going to get too deep into the specifics of what happened with Lowell High School right now. We know it’s messy, and we’re going to spend a future episode looking at Asian-American identity and solidarity with other people of color.
But I wanted to bring up Lowell because just the fact that it happened represents a spark for us to talk about who Asian-American voters are, and how our recognition blends into politics.
[Transition music begins and fades under narration, “Crisper”]
Sarah: For a long time, even the idea of the Asian-American voter didn’t exist — we were invisible in politics. But with small organizing efforts, including this one that happened around Lowell High School, Asian Americans aren’t being ignored anymore.
In San Francisco, Chinese and Chinese American parents reached out to friends and family on WeChat and campaigned door-to-door, urging the city’s Asian community to support a school board recall. And yeah … in that particular moment, they won.
[Transition music out, “Crisper”]
David Lee: It was really historic in the sense that,
Sarah: That’s David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State University
David Lee: Asian Americans not only were critical in the passage of the recall of all three school board members, which had never happened in modern San Francisco political history before
Sarah: He studied the demographics of the school board recall election last year. These elections garner pretty low voter turnout rates, usually just around a third of city residents will vote in a School Board election. But for census tracts that were majority Asian American, the voter turnout was over 40 percent.
David Lee: The recall school board recall campaign, shows that they can be a potent political force, even though they are not aligned, by and large, with one party or another.
Sarah: Before the recall, just one school board member was Asian American. This recall put 2 more Asian Americans on the board, and the president is also now Asian American.
Lee says Asian American voters in San Francisco were often not considered, both due to stereotypes that Asians are meek, and that many Asian voters in San Francisco actually do not select a political affiliation on voter forms — and this leads them to be overlooked by local campaigns.
But he says the recall election last year showed the power of this voting block if they can coalesce around an issue.
David Lee: I think any politician who is thinking about running for office in San Francisco needs to consider the Asian-American community as a potent political force. Any party, including the Democratic Party, needs to consider the hopes and desires and wishes of Asian-American voters and the Asian-American community.
[Transition music begins and fades under narration, “Crisper”]
Sarah: Asian Americans and AAPI voters have the unique challenge of being a group that doesn’t fall firmly in one political party or another. With San Francisco’s recall, parents in some ways went up against the Democratic Party, while in Orange County, a historically Republican area is now turning purple because of its growing Asian-American community.
I spoke with Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at UC Riverside and the founder of AAPI Data, an organization that looks at issues as they relate to Asian American and Pacific Islanders.
He proposes that Asian American voters weren’t taken seriously. They were ignored. And for years they were viewed as a political group divided instead of a community united by racial identity.
[Transition music out, “Crisper”]
Karthick Ramakrishnan: Within the Asian category, you have tremendous diversity. Diversity by religion. Diversity by language. Diversity by the way people came to the United States, either as refugees, asylum seekers on employer-sponsored visas or family-sponsored visas. When you see socioeconomic data that present the average finding for Asians, often it masks tremendous diversity and disadvantage, really.
Sarah: Yes, he says we need to acknowledge that these voters aren’t a monolith, but he also doesn’t mean to say that we can’t have policy or politicians speak to Asian-American voters at large.
Karthick Ramakrishnan: Even though you see so much diversity within the community by religion, by socioeconomic status, language spoken, etc., you see a remarkable amount of solidarity when it comes to public opinion on important policy issues. You know, what that shows is the powerful role that race plays in America. Even as you have these class differences and religious differences and the like.
Sarah: What we’ve learned in the past few years is that Asian Americans are able to find political solidarity. Unfortunately, it’s rooted in a shared sense of discrimination and othering.
Karthick Ramakrishnan: And it's not to say that Asian Americans or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced racism in the same way. They absolutely do not. But they still have this experience of being the other.
Sarah: So what happens when you lean into your Asian Americanness and run for office? Up next, we’ll hear from a politician who did just that. Stick with us.
Sarah: Welcome back, I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan and this is “Mid Pacific.”
Sheng Thao was running for the mayor of Oakland in 2022. She went on to win — it was a surprise victory that disrupted the establishment — and now she’s the first Hmong-American woman to hold this position in the city. I got a chance to speak with her before she won, about her journey to politics.
Sheng Thao: I identify myself as Hmong American.
Sarah: And post-pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate, she embraced a campaign that leans into identity politics.
Sheng Thao: I do identify myself as first generation to have a formal education here in the United States. I identify also as a daughter of refugees. And so these are all things that I go by. It's really embedded as part of my identity. So it's huge as part of my campaign.
Sarah: But she says that identifying not just as Hmong American, but also as an Asian American politician has been important.
Sheng Thao: In politics, people don't see me as a Southeast Asian woman. They don't see me as Hmong American. They see me as Asian-American. And it's not so much about how people are labeling me as to how I identify myself, but it's about the kind of shared experience that we receive from outside society, if that makes sense.
Sarah: Sheng tapped into that feeling of uniting Asian Americans around their shared experience of being othered. And she says there is power in just seeing someone who looks like you holding office.
Sheng Thao: My parents' generation, they are barely now just understanding why their voice matters and why their votes matter, because they're seeing us getting into office. They're like, well, this isn't a sham after all, right?
[Transition music begins and fades under narration, “Dusting”]
Sarah: And it’s not just Sheng Thao who’s been leaning into the political power of being Asian American.
[Transition music fades out, “Dusting”]
[Soundbite: Assembly office, California Capitol building in Sacramento]
Alex Lee: Hi, nice to meet you …
Sarah: Alex Lee is one of the youngest legislators in California. He’s 27 years old, and he’s a Democratic state assemblymember representing San Jose.
Alex Lee: Yeah, so I grew up in Milpitas. I also live in San Jose as well, a very Asian-American city, in a very Asian-American region. In fact, my Assembly District is the most Asian-American district in the entire state of California. And my congressional district is the most Asian-American district in the continental United States.
Having immigrant parents the way I do, you know, I think they understand my job more or less. But not all fully, you know, in-depth, as maybe some white Americans do understand how politics is. So I live at home. My mom would be complaining about how I'm never home when I am home. I was on phone calls. And I think somehow we got into talking about how much I made on my government salary. And my mom looked at that. She was like, I sent you to UC for four years and that's how much you make.
Sarah: He sees himself as a progressive democrat, but also as a bisexual Asian American, and he also sees himself as just someone who really knows the people he represents.
Alex Lee: I think that's just such a classic, like immigrant experience, immigrant family experience. It grounds me and, you know, most people in my district they’re descendants, like second-, third-generation descendants or immediate first-generation immigrants. And that's the experience of most of my constituents.
Sarah: He says especially in his district, pinning down who exactly the Asian-American voter is can be tricky. This is because on the one hand, especially for older generations or newer immigrants, many are actually reluctant to even say their politics are impacted by their race.
Alex Lee: I think Asian-American voters, broadly speaking, think of themselves as Americans. So they don't think of race first. They think of economics or health care or education first. Right. A lot of Asian-American voters obviously care about education first.
Sarah: And yet, he adds that with the pandemic, and with the anti-Asian attacks, these two events have brought the community together, and a lot of us now do want greater visibility.
Alex Lee: I don't think that you would ever get anyone like that to vocally say that out loud, that they're like, they voted for me because I'm Chinese and they're Chinese. But I think it's important, right? I think that when we say representation matters is if you have a positive that comes from your experience, that matters a lot, and you might not be able to vocalize and say why innately. But I think we know in our hearts.
Sarah: The interesting thing about Alex is he’s a progressive democrat, but that doesn’t necessarily matter to even the most conservative Asian Americans in his community. He won his seat — and he attributes part of that victory to the fact that he looked familiar to his community. Their kids knew him, and honestly, Alex Lee is just really the best physical representative of the district he serves — an Asian American with immigrant parents.
Alex Lee: And I think voters in a larger sense understand that having an Asian-American voter represent their Asian-American interests or the Asian-American families is probably for the best. And then they look at the subtle, the issues that come next to it. Right.
[Transition music begins, “Dusting”]
Alex Lee: And I do think it's also something that is unique about the Asian-American experience is, you know, we have for the history of Asian-Americans ever since we touched these shores, one way or the other, is like that, that we were punished for being different. Right? I mean, we were — Chinese-Americans — the only ones excluded by race in the law and other crazy things that happened in this state. In this state. But I think it's that drive to assimilate, to survive, and that proximity of whiteness has always been used against us to wedges against other communities of color. So I think that that experience manifests itself differently among Asian-American families. But I think that largely is why we don't think like to think that our experience is neutral. But in fact, there is an Asian-American coloring lens.
[Transition music up and fades out, “Dusting”]
[Theme music begins and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Asian Americans have really started to fight for visibility in many ways since the pandemic, and that visibility matters to us, more than we’d like to think.
We’re not a monolith. But there are issues where there’s alignment and where we can affect change as a group.
Asian-American parents at Lowell were worried about their kids losing an opportunity to go to a great school, and they came together.
And we’ve realized on some level that even if we don’t want to talk directly about race, having someone who looks like us in office really matters.
Just the idea of the Asian-American voter — it is Mid Pacific. They’re between political parties. Alex Lee had mentioned that, if you look Asian Americans in the California Legislature, it’s almost 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
To me, it seems like Asian Americans can come together when they can find common ground and we can affect change without having to do it on political party lines.
[Theme song swells and fades back under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: With more recognition of the Asian-American voter however, also comes responsibility to know how we’re seen by society.
In our next episode, we’re going to look at what it means to realize our identity as Asian Americans — and what this means in context of other races.
[Theme song swells and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
[Theme music starts in full, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: “Mid Pacific” is a CapRadio production, reported and hosted by me, Sarah Mizes Tan.
Our producer is Jen Picard. Associate Producer is Jireh Deng. Antonio Muniz mixed the sound.
We had editing help from Nick Miller and Shayne Nuesca. Sally Schilling is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to Alyssa Jeong Perry.
Chris Bruno is in charge of marketing. Our designs were created by Marisa Espiritu. Renee Thompson is our Digital Products Manager.
Our theme song is "Can’t Hold Us Back" by Polartropica. You can find it on iTunes or Spotify.
To make sure you don’t miss a single episode, be sure to subscribe, follow or add us to your podcast feed.
Thanks for listening to “Mid Pacific.”
[Theme music swells for chorus and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]