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Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D. Headshot

An Asian-American Moment in U.S. Politics

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The death of Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii has deprived the nation not only of its longest-seated senator, but also the highest-ranking Asian American in history. As president pro tempore of the Senate since 2010, Inouye held one of just five positions created directly by the constitution, and was third in the line of succession to the presidency.

Still, the loss of Inouye should not obscure the larger reality that we are entering an Asian-American moment in U.S. politics.

The Asian-American population has grown the fastest of any group over the past 30 years, expanding nearly 400 percent since 1980. And since 2009 Asian immigration has outpaced that of Latinos. Granted, the overall numbers are still relatively small, with people of Asian (and Pacific Islander) descent constituting about 5.6 percent of the U.S. population and about 3 percent of voters, 4 percent of state governors, and 2 percent of the next Congress.

But the trends are unmistakable: Asian Americans were a 50 percent larger presence in this year's election than in 2008. With nearly three out of four voting for Obama, they are emerging as a core constituency of the new Democratic majority.

There were also three times as many Asian-American candidates for the House this year as in 2010, and the contingent of 10 Asian Americans (all Democrats) in the incoming House will be the largest ever. Remarkably, of all the Asian Americans ever elected as U.S. Representatives, nearly half have taken their seats just since 2005.

Other notable Asian-American "firsts" will also abound in the next Congress. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii will be the first Asian-American female Senator (and only the second woman of color in Senate history) as well as the first Buddhist Senator. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii will be the first Hindu and Mark Takano of California the first openly gay person of color in Congress. Gabbard and Thailand-born Tammy Duckworth of Illinois were also the only female veterans elected to the House this year. Collectively, they will bring a wealth of diversity to an institution historically dominated by white Christian men.

And, of course, we have just re-elected our first "Pacific" president, born in Hawaii and raised there and in Indonesia. Obama also had an Indonesian step-father, and his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng identifies as Buddhist and is married to a Chinese-Canadian.

It remains to be seen what collective impact Asian Americans will have on U.S. politics. The group is exceptionally diverse, originally hailing from many dozens of different ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. Asian Americans clearly lack the long, shared historical experience of African Americans and Native Americans or the relative linguistic and cultural cohesion of Latinos. But the many decades in which Asian Americans were a marginalized, overlooked, and even mistrusted minority are drawing to a close.