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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.1 (2002) 51-72

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Public Resistance to Electing Asian Americans in Southern California

pei-te lien


The transformation of regional politics is a likely consequence of the resurgence of new Asian immigration since the mid-1960s into Southern California. Unlike immigrants from other parts of the world, recent Asian immigrants often come with education, skills, and, in many cases, family assets. Asian Americans are not only the fastest growing minority according to the 1990 Census, but they also possess socioeconomic levels, rates of naturalization, and voter turnout that are either comparable to or exceed those of non-Hispanic Whites. 1 These group-specific resources are fundamental to the acquisition of political power in electoral politics. Although Asian Americans in the aggregate still vote less than Blacks or Whites, more Asian Americans have been elected or appointed to local, state, and federal offices in recent years than in any other period of the group's 150 years in America. 2 For instance, in 1992, a newly created congressional district in Southern California elected Jay Kim, who became the first Korean-born person ever elected to the House. The same year also saw the election of Tony Lam, a Vietnamese refugee, who pioneered the entry of his ethnic group into electoral politics with his election to the city council of Westminster, California. In the 1996 election, Gary Locke, son of Chinese immigrants, became the first Asian American governor of a mainland state (Washington).

Perhaps one of the best indicators of Asian American political ascendance in Southern California in the early 1990s was the mayoral [End Page 51] campaign of Michael Woo, a former Los Angeles City councilman who was the frontrunner in a field of twenty-four candidates during the April 1993 primary election in Los Angeles. Although Richard Riordan, a White businessman, subsequently defeated Woo in the run-off election, the possibility of an Asian American leading the nation's second largest and most ethnically diverse city was enough to generate endless speculations about the political empowerment of Asian Americans in the region. This election raises several questions. How much are non-Asian residents of Southern California ready to embrace a political leader who is neither Black nor White? 3 What are the sources of opposition within the public towards the election of an Asian American? How can one predict public response to the political empowerment of the fastest growing racial minority group in America? These are empirical questions that may be best answered through survey research.

This article first briefly summarizes the major theories on public resistance to racial political changes and then compares publicly perceived fears of Asian American versus Black politicians. Hypotheses regarding the perception of Asian American politicians are tested using a Los Angeles Times survey of Southern Californians conducted two months after the 1993 mayoral election. The results provide evidence of multiracial tensions arising from political, economic, and socio-cultural differences in the region. They also lend support to theories that attribute public resistance towards minority candidates to perceived intergroup conflict and limited interpersonal contact, but fail to support theories that minority residential concentration is a factor in predicting public resistance. There are however important differences among Whites, Hispanics and Blacks in their attitudes towards electing an Asian American candidate.

Racial Context and Political Change between Blacks and Whites

Past discussions of the sources of racial tension and its impact on politics have been cast almost entirely in terms of the relationships between Blacks and Whites. 4 Three major theoretical perspectives have dominated these discussions. One major theory postulates that the racial composition or the share of the nonwhite population in any given geographic area or unit directly affects public opinion toward racial minority candidates and [End Page 52] civil rights issues. High Black population density is negatively related to White support for a Black candidate and for racial integration and fairness issues, while positively related to White support for a racist candidate. 5 Many scholars believe that a high proportion of Blacks in the population...


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