Conditions that Prompt Asian Immigrants to Participate in Formal Politics

Awarded Scholars:
Mae Lee, DeAnza College
Project Date:
May 2008
Award Amount:
Project Programs:

Political competition with whites often occurs at the local level in medium to smaller sized suburban cities. Santa Clara County/Silicon Valley, for instance, is second only to San Francisco in concentration of Asians in the continental United States. In the fifteen cities of Santa Clara County, twelve Asian Americans occupy seats on city councils and another twenty-five are members of thirty-three public school boards. The increasing presence and visibility of Asian Americans in formal politics in suburban locations, such as the city of Cupertino in Santa Clara County, raises questions about the extent of their assimilation and racial/ethnic identities.


Forty years of immigration from Latin America and Asia has complicated the traditional black-white framework historically used for racial categorization in the United States, and a number of scholars note what appears to be the position of certain Asian groups as “almost white” within the racial system. Many sociological studies suggest that Asian Americans are “well assimilated” by historical standards, based on cross-group comparisons. It is not clear, however, what “almost-white” means, and how it is understood by Asian Americans themselves. Is the political participation of Asian Americans welcomed as a model of immigrant incorporation? What are the conditions that prompt Asian immigrants to participate in electoral politics in their local communities? To what extent and in what ways do matters of race and ethnicity affect the manner in which they are received by those communities?


Anthropologist Mae Lee will examine Asian American political participation on the local level and how race and ethnicity affect Asian American politicians in Santa Clara County. With this award, Lee will conduct interviews with the thirty-seven Asian American elected officials in Santa Clara County as well as non-Asian current and former elected officials from Cupertino, a suburban city in Santa Clara County. These interviews will yield the analytic categories and theoretical direction for a more in-depth ethnography of Cupertino, a city which elected its first Asian American mayor in 1999. Through her contacts with the former mayor and professional relationships with numerous city leaders, Lee will conduct participant observations at city council and school board meetings, community and group gatherings, city-sponsored events, and multicultural discussion forums held by local residents. Lee’s research will result in two articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals as well as presentations of her findings at professional academic conferences.


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