Washington Welcome

Record Number of Asian Americans in White House

January 31, 2010

Working in the White House is a dream come true for Chris Lu. Photography by Bao Nguyen

Hope. Change.

As the platform on which Barack Obama built his campaign, the two words came to mean different things for different communities.

For a nation weary of war, they held the possibility of a new direction. For African Americans, they offered the historic possibility of seeing one of their own lead the nation.

For the small but fast-growing Asian American community, the words signaled an opportunity to play a greater role in shaping their destiny, with stronger representation in the corridors of power and a chance to make issues that matter to the community heard.

Some of those dreams have now come true. There are more Asian American officials in the highest ranks of the Obama administration than in any other presidency. Three of the 15 members of the president’s Cabinet — Nobel Prize winner and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke — are Asian American. And more Asian Americans work in part- and full-time capacities in this administration than ever before.

“My parents were immigrants to the country and it is the immigrant dream to have one of your children in the White House,” says Chris Lu, assistant to the president and Cabinet secretary. “It’s a dream that has come true for me.”

Lu, who is one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in the White House, was Obama’s classmate at Harvard Law School. In 2005, he moved to Washington, D.C., when Obama became a first-time senator for Illinois.

Now, Lu is the president’s liaison to his Cabinet, and his high-profile position has far-reaching significance, community experts say.

“The Obama administration has set historic markers in terms of appointment of Asian Americans in the Cabinet and the White House,” says Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization. “It’s an extremely important advancement because that’s where the action is.”

The nation’s demographics reflect the need for a strong voice. At about 16 million, Asian Americans make up 5 percent of the total US population. Their numbers are expected to multiply by more than 2 1/2 times that in 2050 to 41 million, according to US Census estimates.

Obama’s campaign shrewdly tapped into this emerging powerhouse by galvanizing the community like never before. According to exit polls from the 2008 election, 62 percent of Asian voters picked Obama for president compared with 35 percent who chose Sen. John McCain. With strong community participation and organization, Asian Americans were, for the first time, seen as a “deciding factor” during the elections in some of the swing states.


A rising tide

Bringing Asian Americans to play a greater role in the administration is not just about lip service to a burgeoning minority group.

“You need diversity in top leadership for people to feel comfortable with their government and included,” says Parag Mehta, a political consultant based in Washington, D.C., and a former member of the Obama-Biden transition team.

Despite being the third largest and among the fastest-growing minority groups in the country, the Asian American community has been an invisible group for decades.

“Most people think of Asian Americans as a small, wealthy, well-educated group and that the community doesn’t need a lot of help,” Mehta says. 

Indeed, Asian Americans have largely been left out of the conversation, says Helen Zia, a prominent community activist and author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.

“So much of the racial dialogue in the past has been binary — black or white,” she says. “It does not take into account the huge numbers of people who aren’t either.” The first ripples of change came during Bill Clinton’s presidency.  In 1999, Clinton created the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, an advisory commission that would also help coordinate federal government efforts to improve quality of life for the community. The initiative, which was reinstituted by Obama in October, focused on concerns in areas such as: health, education, housing, labor, and economic and community development.

Clinton also nominated Norman Mineta as Secretary of Commerce — the first Asian American to serve in a Cabinet post.

Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, may have had little in common with his predecessor’s policies or ideas. But he understood the value of the Asian American community. The Bush administration had two Asian American Cabinet secretaries — Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Transportation Mineta. Bush is also estimated to have appointed more than 400 Asian Americans for part- and full-time positions in the administration.  

Now, with three Cabinet secretaries under Obama, the community’s brightest stars are more visible than ever. And in the White House, finding someone of Asian origin is getting easier and easier. Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra, two Indian Americans, serve as the nation’s chief information officer and chief technology officer, respectively. Korean American brothers Harold and Howard Koh lead in senior positions, with Harold as legal adviser for the State Department and Howard as assistant health secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The greatest thing that has happened is that it has been a period of tremendous growth, regardless of who is in power,” Mehta says. “Having three of the 15 Cabinet secretaries as Asian Americans is pretty amazing progress considering that 10 years ago we didn’t have any.” 

There have been some unusual picks, too. Remember Kumar from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? Or Dr. Lawrence Kutner from the TV show House? Kal Penn, the Indian American actor who played both roles, took a sabbatical from a promising career in Hollywood to step into politics. Penn is now the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.  

“We have Asian Americans like Gary Locke and Kal Penn, who in their previous work have been very proud of their culture,” Zia says. “Our hope is that they can translate that cultural pride into ideas that will make a difference to the community.” 

Obama’s personal ties to the Asian American community run  as well. Born and raised in Hawaii, the only majority Asian state in the country, he also lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, for four years with his stepfather. Obama’s half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her Canadian husband, Konrad Ng, are both of Asian descent.

“We have a president who knows firsthand that Asian Americans exist and is deeply familiar with their culture,” Zia says.


The road ahead

For the community, though, greater political representation is only as good as the change it brings. And there’s plenty of work to be done there.

“Lip service is a start, but, of course, we don’t want it to stop at that,” Zia says. “We want [to] see policies that translate into some attention for the needs of the Asian American community.”

Kevin Liao, an assistant in the Department of Education and one of the few Asian Americans who works in the trenches, has already seen what impact Asian Americans can have by moving higher up in the political food chain.

Liao volunteered with Obama’s campaign, but he has also been part of the youth commission for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and he has noticed a world of difference between working in local versus federal government.

“The local environment is very self-serving. Things are very political and people have big personalities that you have to work with. It’s more like a small high school,” he says. “But at the federal level, the difference is huge. You are just part of a big system and the scale of what you do is entirely different.”

For instance, Liao is working for a team that is administering the $4.5 billion Race to the Top grant that offers states an incentive to reform their education system.

“Even for low-level political appointees like me, there isn’t time to think and talk about ideology,” he says. “There’s so much that needs to happen, and we have to make it happen.”

Other issues that administration officials — Asian or not — have to work on include: healthcare reform (which includes disparity in health care due to language barriers), employment discrimination, immigration issues and curbing race-related crimes.

Health-care reform should include a dialogue on how to offer quality care that takes into account language and cultural sensitivity, community experts say. Many Asian Americans, especially those of the first generation, hesitate to go to hospitals and are often intimidated by doctors because of their inability to speak English well. Offering language services and greater cultural sensitivity training to doctors could help the community significantly, Mehta says.

With immigration, the political debate might be focused on undocumented immigrants, but there are other issues, such as family unification, that are of greater interest to the Asian American community, Mehta says.

“As part of this debate on immigration, let’s not forget that there is this whole universe of legal immigrants who want the simple right to be with their family,” he says.  

Lu, Obama’s Cabinet secretary, says the administration isn’t about favoring one community over another, but wants to hear from people on all sides of the political spectrum.

“On the campaign, we always used to say we didn’t have a jobs plan or a healthcare plan or an education plan for Asian Americans. We have one for all Americans,” he says.

Ultimately, issues such as the economy, health insurance or affordability of higher education concern all Americans, Lu says.

That’s not to say the administration won’t focus its attention on Asian Americans when necessary. Community experts point out that despite the large number of Asian American lawyers, there’s never been an Asian American nominee for the Supreme Court. The Obama administration is trying to change that by nominating more AsianAmerican judges to the federal bench, putting them in a position to ultimately be contenders for a seat on the Supreme Court, says Narasaki of the Asian American Justice Center. 

“The administration has been in place for only eight months, but they have already nominated three Asian Americans to the federal bench, and we know that there are more in the works,” she says. “President Bush nominated only about four Asian Americans to the federal bench in his entire eight years.” 

Narasaki says she’s also seeing other subtle changes in how the White House has been interacting with Asian American groups. For instance, in a recent meeting on immigration issues, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano invited about 100 stakeholders, of which about 10 percent were organizations representing the Asian American community, Narasaki says. From a policymaking perspective, the access can be invaluable for organizations that look to get their views taken into account at the beginning of the process, where they can have greater impact.  

“The access that Asian American groups have now is great,” Narasaki says. “During the Bush administration, we were never included in any meetings until it was already too late. They had ongoing meetings with Latino leaders in the White House while we got one meeting at the end when everything had already been decided.”

Napolitano has also been open to the idea of discussing family unification as part of immigration reform, something that Bush officials were quick to squelch, Narasaki says.

Lu says the culture of transparency that the administration wants to bring to the White House, coupled with his heritage, means he’s directly involved with maintaining relationships with different Asian American organizations.

“It’s important to me personally, that I speak to Asian American groups as much as possible,” he says.

But having senior Asian Americans officials in the administration doesn’t always bring positive results, Zia says.

“Under Bush, we had John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, and Viet Dinh who wrote the Patriot Act,” she says. “They did things that were so harmful. So just having people with Asian faces is not enough. They need to have the right policies, too.”

Priya Ganapati is a reporter for Wired.com in San Francisco. This is her first article for Hyphen.