Why Asian Americans Should Vote Bernie SandersPosted: February 21, 2016
As an Asian American, I’m used to being dismissed from the “minority” tag, at least in general and political rhetoric regarding minorities in the U.S. Why? Because Asian Americans are considered the “model minority”; the immigrants who come here with fairly high levels of education, and whose kids are generally quiet, obedient, studious, and high-achieving in school. We’re the group that assumes semi-powerful positions in the professional world in the fields of medicine, finance, law, or engineering, which explains why Asian Americans lead all other groups in the U.S. in median household income. We’re the group that has achieved some version of the “American Dream”, more or less, and we’re the group that’s been successfully assimilated and accepted into the mainstream [read: White American] society, for all these reasons.
The status quo works for us, and so we’re generally averse to rocking the boat. It’s easier to sit in complacency in our homes in the suburbs, working our upper middle class, 9-5 jobs, raising kids and trying to precariously balance both our heritage and our fragile image as “the good immigrants” in American society, than it is to recognize the misfortune, the poverty, the injustice that exists every day outside our fortified walls for Blacks and Latinos minorities (and even working class white Americans), who are being shot or incarcerated in disproportionate amounts, and who are losing their homes and assets to banks that offer loans with interest rates through the roof. Furthermore, because of the favorable stereotype Asian Americans generally enjoy, it’s easier for us to pass off as “White” (socially, I mean) and there’s generally an urge to distinguish ourselves from Blacks and Latinos to maintain this image, until we’re hit with the reality that we are not, in fact, White (just check out this NYT article about the protests in the conviction of Peter Liang).
But I’ve come to understand through this presidential election that our six-figure salaries won’t save us anymore either; not with the absurdly high cost of healthcare premiums, nor the increasing cuts to social security, nor with the cost of college tuition inching higher and higher every year. Even before I’d heard of Bernie Sanders I was fretting about how I was going to put myself through 6 years of graduate school and pay for my own health insurance when I turned 26 and then save enough money to buy a house once I became a psychologist. I live in San Francisco and work in education now, and I pay almost half my salary in rent; I know how difficult it is to save money in this laissez faire economy as a middle class American. And I know that most of us Asian Americans, though we look to those $150,000/year jobs as the gold standard, are actually aiming to put ourselves squarely in the middle class as well, because we don’t understand that the real power lies with the millionaires and billionaires of the 1%.
The bottom line is that the status quo isn’t working for us any more than it’s working for the Americans whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. Just look at the anti-establishment sentiment that’s brought out both Trump and Sanders supporters in copious numbers.
In fact, this zero-sum, winner-takes-all capitalist system is now trickling down into our schools and into the minds of our children, who are suffering in unprecedented amounts from anxiety and depression because it’s not working for them either. This is unsurprising given how our public schools have increasingly become a means to an end for feeding workers into the capitalist structure, instead of a place for identity development, learning by exploration, and creativity.
I experienced the intensity of this pressure to “succeed” and make enough money to “survive” during high school, which was a microcosm of the capitalist game. I came from a community that was 40% first-generation Asian American, financially privileged, and high-achieving. We’ve had Asian American valedictorians for the past five years at least, and many of our students gain admission into schools like Princeton, Yale, UPenn, and MIT every year. This may sound like a good school, but ultimately the culture of cutthroat competition and the pressure to excel academically caught up to the school district this past fall when student hospitalizations and suicidal ideations were reaching alarming highs. We began to be compared to Palo Alto (“Paly”) High School, also with a large population of Asian Americans and the same high-pressure environment, now notorious for its suicide clusters. I can only guess what kinds of messages were being internalized by the students at Paly, but I bet they were similar to the kinds of things I used to hear in school that, not coincidentally, echoed the principles of free-market capitalism a la the United States.
Firstly, capitalism is a zero-sum game, where the winner takes all. In the Palo Alto article I linked above, researchers found that students strongly identified with the statement, “If someone does a task at work/school better than I, then I feel like I failed the whole task.” There’s no spectrum; there’s no metric for improvement in the way students are evaluated and evaluate themselves. I would often hear students wailing that they would never get into college over a B or a C on a test, or I’d hear students who took regular courses instead of honors or AP courses being told “good luck at Mercer” (the community college in my neighborhood), as if it were the end of their professional career. And I know firsthand how equating your self-worth to your academic “wins” (which had to be perfect to be legitimate at all) leads to self-destructive thoughts.
This zero-sum attitude is surely the reason for the widely held American belief that those who suffer have earned their suffering somehow, because they lost at the game, and they are losers. Just take a look at this open letter to Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco by tech CEO Justin Keller to get an idea of how the privileged view the downtrodden in our society (for those of you who don’t know, San Francisco’s housing crisis and absurdly high costs of living are directly impacted by the growth of the tech industry and exacerbated by the tax breaks that the city offers to keep companies here).
Keller’s attitude brings me to my next point, which is that political rhetoric most often decries the poor and labels them deserved. Our current conservatism completely fails to acknowledge systemic oppression; that we do not all start out on equal footing, especially not if you’re poor, or Black, or mentally ill, or a veteran, or undocumented. The Republican party, since Ronald Reagan, has been painting poor Americans as lowly moochers who were too stupid to “go out, get an education, work hard, and earn it”, in Keller’s words. Sadly, I’m now realizing that these were the same conservative sentiments I heard expressed in high school about teachers, social workers, nurses, and other professions earning middle class salaries. We see how our greedy, capitalist system treats those who can’t afford to pay for their healthcare costs or their mortgages and, in our desperate attempt to end up on the other side of that divide, we internalize the belief that those people just didn’t work hard enough, they weren’t talented enough, but we’re better than that because we work ourselves to death. Just this past fall, one of my good [Asian American] friends from high school, who is passionate about social justice, butted heads with her more conservative colleagues about the blatant racism on Yale’s campus on Halloween. When she told her father that they scoffed at her, he told her she should “show them” by earning a six-figure salary and driving by in her future Mercedes. And this is just one example of how deeply we as a society have internalized the link between money and power.
The focus on accelerated math, the lauding of professions like investment banking and engineering, the dismissal of art, creativity, and emotional finesse; not only are these highly gendered condescensions, they are also pervasive attitudes that mimic what is rewarded and what is not in free-market America. And they fail to acknowledge the fact that, in order to function, our society needs the teachers and the nurses and the janitors and the senior center workers and the therapists and the waiters and waitresses and cashiers. We simply cannot function without them, and yet, more often than not, we treat them like scum.
This past fall, the superintendent of my school district began to address stress levels on students by attempting to make structural changes to our academic system. It was met with extreme opposition, mostly by Asian American parents who were fearful of the consequences of moving testing into accelerated math up to 6th grade instead of 4th grade. I wrote a letter to my school in support of his vision about how we can definitely afford to reduce the culture of toxic competition and promote more community and inclusivity for a healthier, happier student body. Often, I would hear the response “the world is competitive, and we have to prepare our children for that reality” from parents who believed the district was “coddling” their children by trying to reduce stress. It was another clear indicator to me of how deeply we had ingrained the belief that we deserved so little, no matter how hard we worked.
This is why Bernie Sanders absolutely deserves the Asian American vote. Our current brand of capitalism does not work for the 99%, in which we are included, no matter how relatively privileged and educated we might be. While we slave away to the point of suicide in our studies, our tax money goes to a defense budget that exceeds spending on medicare, social security, education, veterans’ benefits, clean energy, and science research combined. While we struggle to save up and pay for our cars, our homes, or our student loans, Wall Street is potentially gambling with our hard-earned money. While the tycoons like the Koch brothers or the Walton family of Wal-Mart hoard billions of dollars in profits for themselves and their workers starve on food stamps subsidized by us, we blame and vilify the victims instead of fighting against the real bad guys. And, while we race and stumble over each other for those few Ivy League seats, we turn a blind eye to our Black, Latino, and Native American brothers and sisters who have faced unimaginable horrors from police brutality to historic, system racism; at least, until they indict one of our own.
Bernie Sanders is advocating for solidarity and inclusion. He is fighting for socialist, equitable policies because he knows how hard middle class Americans work and how little they are getting in return. He is acknowledging our inherent need for all kinds of minds, and all kinds of occupations to create a functional and enriched society. He is educating us about hard truths regarding a system we have complacently accepted, and tried to fit into, for too long. He is demanding that we organize and fight back, because that’s how real change comes about, and nothing worth fighting for is ever easily won. And, if at age 74 and after 34 years of a career in politics, Bernie Sanders still believes, we have zero excuse not to join him.
Are you ready to join the revolution?