Asian-American diversity

December 09, 1997|By William Wong

OAKLAND, Calif. -- When John Huang solicited wealthy Asian Americans and Asian legal immigrants for contributions to the Democratic Party in 1996, do you suppose they wanted to help poor Asian Americans get their problems on the national political agenda?

One could suspend disbelief long enough to say, of course they did. The truth is, rich donors wanted to hobnob with President Clinton and to grease the skids for big business deals for themselves and their associates.

An agonizing time

For more than a year, some Asian Americans have agonized over the political fund-raising scandal. The controversy largely has been framed in racial terms. I have no doubt that race was an element in the focus of daily press reports and politically expedient congressional hearings led by ambitious Republicans.

But socioeconomic considerations largely have been ignored. Professor Ling-chi Wang of the University of California at Berkeley's ethnic studies department has been an exception. He has been steadfast in criticizing self-aggrandizing wealthy Asian Americans, promoting the idea of genuine campaign finance reform and denouncing racialization of the issue.

Mr. Wang organized a national conference last month in San Francisco to analyze the Asian-American role in the scandal and to renew calls for cleaning up the campaign financing system.

Professor Peter Kwong of City University of New York/Hunter College said that in New York, well-to-do Asian-American business leaders contribute generously to local and state candidates to protect their own economic interests. The politicians honor these so-called community leaders despite the fact some have criminal records or have been found guilty of labor abuses.

Working-class immigrants are an essential part of the U.S. economy, said Mr. Kwong.

Many Asian-American leaders do not want to get involved in helping lower-class Asian immigrants. Professor Aihwa Ong, an anthropologist at Berkeley who studies ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, put a global perspective on the wealthy Asian-American and Asian legal immigrant political donors.

The post-World War II rise of Asian economies has increased the global visibility of Asian transnational capitalists, Ms. Ong noted.

In an American context, some wealthy Asian immigrants have inserted themselves quickly into U.S. politics, giving generously to both major parties. They have, in effect, pushed aside grass-roots Asian-American activists, creating resentment among the lower and middle classes.

Rich Asian Americans and Asian legal immigrant donors are the ones who have access to President Clinton, whom they hope to lobby about trade policies and the like. Yet, these contributors find they can't convert their economic capital into cultural capital.

The outsiders

In other words, she said, they are resented by the white American middle class, who see them as moral invaders to the prevailing political, social and economic order.

The irony is that Asian-American Democratic Party brokers wanted to help the downtrodden but were forced to turn to the well-to-do in their community to raise the kind of money Mr. Clinton needed to win re-election. What's more, contributions from Asian Americans totaled only a small amount of the party take.

That fact doesn't obscure a rather old American political lesson -- the rich, not the poor, own the policy-makers.

William Wong wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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