Every immigrant arrives in this country with an implied debt. This country was nice enough to let you in, handed you a bag of rights, and will now leave you alone to make your fortune. Left and right might disagree on how many people to let into the country or how to treat them when they’re here, but both sides expect a return on their good will.
They agree that America is enough — as long as you meet opportunity with hard work, you can secure ownership in this country. In exchange, both sides expect loyalty, whether complaint-free allegiance to the country’s ideals or the acknowledgment that very open-minded and generous people worked hard to fight off the racists and the xenophobes and that you, downtrodden immigrant, should never forget those who protect your freedom to pursue the American dream.
In the wake of the election, there has been a concerted call to stop treating Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans as a monolith. Such a reckoning is long overdue and certainly necessary. It’s fundamentally true that a Cuban-American in South Florida shares very little in common with a Guatemalan fishery worker in New Bedford, Mass. — who, in turn, does not identify in any real way with fifth-generation Texans along the Rio Grande Valley.
Similarly, former Vietnamese refugees in Orange County, Calif., will have a different level of sensitivity toward charges of “Communism” than a second-generation Ivy League-educated Indian-American just up the freeway in suburban Los Angeles. Though the full picture of the electorate is not yet clear, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of these populations ended up ignoring or even championing the xenophobia of the first Trump administration while others found it abhorrent and against their particular interests.
This should be fairly obvious — different people from different parts of the world think differently, especially across generations — but the quintessentially American idea of the immigrant’s debt flattens all immigrants down into fixed categories. Those categories might help organize data, but they do not capture any meaningful insights into why people are voting the way they are.
It’s why the right does not understand why a group of castoffs from “shithole countries” would ever complain about America. It’s why progressives, the people who place “Immigrants Are Welcome Here” signs in their coffee shops and who appreciate all the nuances of immigrants’ native cuisines, cannot understand why those same castoffs would ever vote against their self-appointed protectors. The debt is the monolith.
The 2020 election promises to be an awakening from all this miscategorization. Exit polls and pre-election surveys have shown a dramatic, albeit seemingly localized, shift toward the Republican Party among immigrant populations, most notably in parts of South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley; Asian-American voters also seem to have shifted right. The data is still preliminary, messy and difficult to responsibly quantify at this date, especially when one considers the unprecedented number of people who voted by mail, but there seems to be no evidence that President Trump’s cruel immigration policies and his constant refrains of the “China virus” set off a blue wave.
Though these results showed up in early polling, the perception of a rightward shift in immigrant votes has shocked many in the Democratic Party and led to the usual theorizing about what, exactly, should be done about it. Sixty-five percent of Latinos and 61 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Biden, but the party cannot afford to slip with either demographic. The easiest and perhaps most logical move would be to disaggregate “Latinos” and “Asian-Americans” — and stop treating them as a coherent population whose voting preferences can be explained through the language of polling averages and who can be reached through big-picture Democratic messaging.
This seems like a prudent and necessary first step, one that’s already been taken in several local and statewide elections across the country. A recent New Yorker article by Hua Hsu explained how in 2018 Gil Cisneros — a Latino Democratic representative running against Young Kim, a Korean-American Republican, in a California congressional district evenly split between whites, Latinos and Asians — employed a digital campaign strategy that targeted immigrant populations through the social media apps they used. Chinese voters were reached through WeChat, the community’s dominant method of communication, while Koreans were reached through KakaoTalk, the ubiquitous messaging app that connects the Korean diaspora to their relatives back home.
Mr. Cisneros did not tailor a separate message for each group — simply reaching out to them in their language on their apps helped him cause an upset, winning the seat by three points. (As perhaps more evidence of a rightward shift in the immigrant vote, in this year’s rematch election Ms. Kim defeated Mr. Cisneros, in a close race.)
Part of the Republican Party’s success in South Florida and South Texas can also be attributed to this disaggregated approach. Aggressive anti-Communist messaging on Spanish language radio stations and disinformation social media campaigns started up in South Florida in the weeks before the election. These were not just aimed at Cuban-Americans who have historically leaned rightward, but also specifically at more recent Nicaraguan and Venezuelan immigrants. These efforts were never effectively addressed by Democrats, according to Chuck Rocha, the strategist behind Senator Bernie Sanders’s successful courting of Latino voters during the primary season.
Greg Abbott, the current Republican governor of Texas, has aggressively courted Mexican-American voters in the Rio Grande since 2014 and laid down an infrastructure of community groups that turned into “Trump Trains” — caravans of trucks and cars that rolled through historically Democratic counties and picked up converts along the way.
The Biden campaign, by contrast, only made cursory and tardy efforts in South Texas and failed in their efforts to reach voters in South Florida. Though it’s a fool’s errand to suggest exactly why this happened or what the exact effect might have been at the polls, there were swings toward the G.O.P. in both areas that helped deliver Trump victories in both states.
I have little doubt that in the future Democrats will try their best to address these swings, both on the local and national levels. But as long as they believe Latinos, the second-largest voting demographic in this election, and Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing group in the country, will continue to vote down the Democratic Party line because they care deeply about racism and bigotry as defined by the left, they will continue to misdiagnose the complexities within these populations, neither of which primarily think of themselves as “Latino” or “Asian-American” at all.
Disaggregation and specific targeting within groups will certainly create a clearer picture for the Democrats, but it’s unclear whether that means the party should then automatically transition to hyper-focused mini-campaigns that try to address each demographic’s stated needs. The tools of diagnosis do not always double as the tools to fix the problem.
Earlier this year, I had a series of conversations — through a translator — with Zhou Ming, a delivery worker in New York City who had immigrated from China to the United States to start a small business. Things hadn’t worked out and he found himself in the one industry that would take a 54-year-old who didn’t speak any English. Like many immigrants, Mr. Zhou came to America with almost no real understanding of the racial dynamics of the country — he vaguely knew that Black Americans were treated badly and assumed that Chinese-Americans would act together and look after one another’s best interests.
His understanding of his new home came entirely through Chinese-language television and social media — after work, he would retire to his bed and take in a translation of what was happening around him through his phone. He knew that Mr. Trump was stoking anti-Chinese sentiment around the coronavirus, but he largely missed the antiracism campaigns that sprung up in response because they were mostly in English and catered toward Asian-Americans who had a more stable foothold in the country. The term “Asian-American,” in fact, meant nothing to him. If Chinese people in America couldn’t even act together as a coherent group, what hope would there ever be for “Asians?”
During the George Floyd protests in New York, Mr. Zhou, like many delivery workers, suffered from the citywide curfews handed down by the de Blasio administration. He had watched the video of George Floyd’s death and recognized that the killing had been unjust, but he could find no real reason to hoist up a picket sign. Mr. Floyd was not Chinese.
Mr. Zhou had his own run-ins with the police, but he did not feel like the problems of delivery workers had anything to do with what had happened to George Floyd. He did find the protests inspiring, mostly because he admired the way Black people would show up and protest injustice against their people, but he felt like that had nothing to do with him. Their fight was not his fight and broad Democratic messages around the police and antiracism were mostly lost on him, not only because he never came across them on Chinese-language media, but also because he did not feel any kinship as a fellow minority or person of color or whatever other category might consolidate Chinese and Black interests.
A pragmatist might look at a recent immigrant like Mr. Zhou and conclude that there is no way to reach someone who feels no real purchase in this country and does not consider his fate to be bound to America’s. But there are problems with this assumption: Mr. Zhou’s perspective is common among first-generation immigrants and although many of them tend to remain apolitical, there have been efforts in recent years to organize people like him, whether through the burgeoning anti-affirmative-action movement that thrives on Chinese social media apps or through grass-roots and labor organizing.
There’s evidence these efforts may have worked: Some preliminary data suggests that Asian-American and Latino voting turnout increased during this election. Mr. Zhou even dipped a toe into political activism during his time in America. In 2018, he attended a rally, met with Chinese organizers and marched with Black and Latino immigrant delivery workers to protest against the de Blasio administration’s crackdown on electric bicycles.
With his usual cynicism, Mr. Zhou said that this multiethnic movement had been inspired entirely by self-interest — if the Latino and Black immigrant delivery people had not also been affected by the proposed ban, they wouldn’t have shown up at a rally organized by Chinese workers, he said.
But they did show up. If the Democratic Party wants to disaggregate immigrant populations from one another, they must take a difficult, clear look at the dynamics between these groups and come up with a broad message that tries to find pockets of mutual interest. Broad anti-racist and anti-xenophobic messaging will not work for growing populations who mostly see themselves outside of America’s racial hierarchy or, in many cases, believe their interests align better with middle-class white voters.
The answer may lie in doing away with “Asian-American” and “Latino” altogether and replacing them with “immigrant.” In the past, anti-racist messages relied on categorizations like Asian-American, Latino and the umbrella of “people of color.” All three are abstractions that have little grounding in the everyday lives of immigrants. My uncle, who has lived in Los Angeles for 40 years, might now understand in a purely taxonomic sense that he is “Asian,” but he would laugh at the idea of “people of color.” His interactions with his fellow “people of color” have mostly come in kitchens where he works as a chef and speaks a hybrid Korean-Spanish with his Latino co-workers.
“The joke,” the political strategist David Shor said in a recent interview, “is that the G.O.P. is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of.” As someone who has spent years reporting in immigrant neighborhoods, I share Mr. Shor’s concerns. The Republican Party’s message of hard work, capitalism and freedom makes sense to large portions of the immigrant population — in fact, it’s why many of them, including my uncle and many of his fellow kitchen workers, chose to plant roots in the country.
Democrats must find a similarly broad platform that focuses on the needs of working-class immigrants for health care, access to quality education and other universal programs. If Democrats want to continue winning elections in states with sizable immigrant populations, which now include swing states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, they must find some coherent message that goes beyond “the other side is racist.” If such a message, immersed in the idea of immigrant debt, did not work after the Muslim ban, “China virus” and the inhumane treatment of families at the border, what hope does it have in the future?
While a term like “people of color” might ring hollow or even confused, immigrants across generations share — at the very least — the experience of building a life in a foreign country. They must, in other words, disaggregate and then reorganize into an even broader movement that could build on existing, like-minded grass-roots organizations, such as those that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign in Nevada or immigrant labor organizations throughout New York and California, and develop a spirit of solidarity that puts less weight on questions of belonging and citizenship for these nebulously and conditionally defined groups — and more on the experiences, as working-class immigrants, they share both in America and their homelands.
Too much of the messaging toward these groups is aimed at the upwardly ascendant second- and third-generation immigrants who worry about questions of representation within elite institutions. If Democrats want to combat charges of “socialism,” which are perhaps especially effective on immigrants who fled Communist or socialist countries, they must stop believing that an immigrant shows up in America and immediately begins worrying, say, about how many Asian or Latino actors have been cast in the latest comic book movie.
This, of course, does not mean that the Democratic Party should entirely abandon its anti-racist message. Part of the effort must include a much-needed clarification between the needs of Black Americans and Latino and Asian immigrants; that would end the confusing and harmful conflation between two groups whose interests and actions are often at odds with one another.
Nor should we succumb to the temptation to wipe away all distinctions. Some part of every immigrant will still identify with their home country, through language, food and culture. The path forward is to create coalitions that make sense, not only for the immigrants themselves but also in their relationships with both working-class Black and white Americans.
Such a strategy would require the upwardly mobile second-generation immigrants — the people most likely to be tasked with broadcasting this message out toward the public — to do something that might feel counterintuitive or even contradictory. But we must abandon the broad style of diversity politics that designates us as “people of color.” Those categories might help us navigate the academy and the workplace, but they only resonate with a small, generally wealthy portion of our population.
The late historian Noel Ignatiev argued that racism in America could only be solved when white people committed treason against the white race — when they recognized that the antagonists in their lives weren’t Black people, but rather the wealthy class that used racism to divide workers whose interests should be aligned.
In a similar spirit, those of us who have assimilated into the professional class must commit treason against “people of color” and help build a coalition of working-class immigrants, from Guatemalan workers in fish processing plants and Bangladeshi cabdrivers to Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant workers and Mexican farm workers.
If not for the future of the Democratic Party, we should do it for ourselves. Then we might finally feel like part of a broad, multiethnic movement that unapologetically speaks to the best interests of our families.
Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine.
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