The Diversity Deficit in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich's Pearl Harbor, and Danny Chen

December 29, 2011 2:53 PM

I've always thought it strange that the two bellwether states that really begin the political season are Iowa and New Hampshire.

Bellwether for what? Certainly not diversity.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, it may as well be America in the 1950s, impregnable to immigration and minorities. It is pre-America as we know it.

Look at the numbers. Iowa is 91.3 percent white (a slightly more modest 88.7 percent when you apply the "white Hispanic" discount). Compare that to the rest of the country overall with white non-Hispanics at 63.7 percent.

New Hampshire is at 92.3 percent, and that's with the "white Hispanic" discount. 

Meanwhile, Blacks are at just 2.9 percent in Iowa, 1.1 percent in New Hampshire. Compare that to 12.6 percent nationwide.

Hispanics don't fare much better, with 5 percent in Iowa and 2.8 percent in New Hampshire.

But the nation is 16.3 percent Hispanic.

Asian Americans, oddly, do better than all groups as a percentage. Iowa is 1.7 percent Asian American, and New Hampshire 2.2 percent. Both are closer to the five percent national Asian American population.

And when you consider our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander group, Iowa has .1 percent vs. the national total of .2 percent. Progress!

Different story in New Hampshire, where you'd be hard-pressed to find one Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

So you see why it's hard to get excited about the kick-off to the primary season. None of the candidates are really talking to us, even though if any of these candidates win, they sure will be leading us. 

What's more revealing is that they still talk as if we're not here, which is probably how they talk most of the time anyway. It all makes Iowa and New Hampshire so comforting for a candidate wanting to speak past us to "just the right folks."

Most ethnic groups do tend to vote Democratic, but that doesn't mean there aren't Republicans and Independents among us interested in the winnowing process. They're likely more moderate, or certainly to the left of, say, Rick Santorum, who has just seen a rise in polls to third-place, eclipsing Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich is another matter altogether. The Newt appears to be too flamboyant for Iowans. If you heard his Pearl Harbor remark this week, where he compared his failure to qualify for the Virginia primary to the "Day of Infamy," you've got to be at least slightly bothered.

His deployment of the Pearl Harbor metaphor for his campaign's failure deserves some analysis. Sure, it may just be the megalomaniac putting his snafu on a grand level. But he's also using an event that strikes different chords within different groups.

To all Americans, Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack that engendered patriotic fervor. But it was also an attack by the Japanese that brings up the kind of xenophobic feelings that led to outlandish public racism and the internment of Japanese Americans.

To Asian Americans in general, Pearl Harbor ushered in the beginning of the worst period of anti-Asian American racism ever, most of it perpetrated by our government. 

When you're behind in the polls and sinking like Gingrich, you need to use hot button language in your communication to rile up the electorate. That's much easier to do if your universe of voters is all-white. A little harder if you have to think about the rest of us.

DANNY CHEN
I'd give Gingrich the benefit of the doubt on his Pearl Harbor comments (though if he thinks Palestinians are an "invented" people, you know he must have a jaundiced view of Asian Americans).

His utterance, however, did happen to coincide with the Army charging eight soldiers in connection with the death of Pvt. Danny Chen in Afghanistan.

The 19-year-old from New York's Chinatown was allegedly hazed and bullied by soldiers of his battalion, which led Army prosecutors to believe Chen's death was the result of "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound" to the head. But was it suicide or a case of manslaughter or negligent homicide at the hands of a fellow battalion member?

One hopes that the Army's investigation will be honest and thorough. 

But I have little faith that we'll get to the real truth. Just my gut feeling. There are already rules against hazing in the Army. The Army doesn't need new rules. It needs a new culture with new people who won't see an Asian American in uniform and think "weak link." Or worse, see the "enemy."

Is diversity a problem in the military? It is when you count Asian Americans, where our numbers fail to reflect our five percent of the nation.

Of course, there are Asian Americans who have performed valiantly in the military. Sen. Daniel Inouye was in WWII's 442. Tammy Duckworth, the former Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Veteran Affairs, and now running for Congress, lost both her legs in the Iraq War.

But some people still don't get the message. We keep having to prove ourselves. Especially in the Army.

Because of that, we'll likely wind up with an official truth the Army can stomach. But I doubt we'll ever have a sense of the personal terror Chen felt.

Chen documented his experience and wrote about the anti-Chinese, anti-Asian jokes he was subjected to. His nickname was "Jackie Chen."

We've all been there. During my first visit to New York's Upper West Side in 1973, some kid called me Bruce Lee.

All of this is residual hate and ignorance passed down from "Yellow Peril" fears in the 19th century, then modernized after Pearl Harbor.

Bigots are too dumb to break us down by ethnicity. They like the one-stop shop of Asian American racism. Chinese? Japanese? Filipino? Sure there are differences, but what does it matter?  In Detroit, Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by an auto worker after being mistaken for Japanese. Seen one, seen them all.

The Danny Chen case just reminds us that in spite of all our progress and achievements, the legacy of anti-Asian American hate continues to pass on through generations in our country.

Chen's experience should only help us to bond even more as an Asian American community, supportive and strong.

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Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.

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