Sunday, November 11, 2012

Asians and the Republicans

In all the ruminating over the scope and nature of this past election, one thing that most commentators have agreed on is that the Republicans have badly damaged their brand when it comes to groups traditionally viewed as "minorities":  Blacks, Latinos, Asians and the majority-minority, women.  David Brooks and others have suggested that Asians, the smallest but fastest-growing of these blocs, are natural Republican constituents (industrious, self-reliant, with strong families and respect for elders) but that we may not identify with the GOP's rugged-individualism meme because we come from societies with a "collectivist" view of progress.  I think this misses the mark.  As anyone knows who is of Asian descent or who spends as much time in China as I do, the Chinese, despite the "socialist" label on their government, are not in their hearts collectivist.  And some vague notion of collectivism does not explain the vehemence with which we rejected the Republicans.

The reason many of us rejected the Republicans comes down to one major issue: Education.  Most of us are one or a few generations removed from abject poverty.  For those of us who have made it, education was our ladder.  For those still struggling, education is their hope.  The Asian "model minority" stereotype is too simplistic, and ignores the real struggles many Asians face in finding upward mobility, but it contains more than a grain of truth.  There is a reason why Asian kids so handily top the test scores and grading curves in our schools.  It is because they come from homes where there is no option but to do your best in school.  Many Asian kids pay a price: Just as happened a generation ago, Asians continue to be bullied and taunted as "nerds" and "geeks".  Asian boys face especially tough odds in a culture where learning is seen as a "sissy" activity.  The fact that they persist is a testament to grit and determination. 

So when we are confronted with a political party which scorns academic achievement, glorifies ignorance, and demonizes intellectuals, we are horrified.  And when we hear public schools dismissed as a giveaway to "takers", we are offended.  All the industriousness in the world matters not if there is no school available to teach your kids.  None my friends and colleagues grew up in families that could have afforded private schools, even if their parents had believed in them.  We are not takers.  We believe education is something we all owe our children, and incidentally, it helps them become "makers".

But the issue runs broader than this.  Education is closely tied up with science and rationality.  This was the gift of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is the one great contribution of Western civilization most appreciated by the Asian immigrants to this country.  So when the party that wants to destroy the public schools also denies the theory of evolution, and insists in the face of all evidence that climate change is a hoax, we see something more than horrifying ignorance.  We see a frightening nihilism, a willingness to destroy our country and the world simply to make a point.  Irrationality can be cute when when it concerns the trivial.  It is not acceptable when our world may be at stake.

The Democratic party is far from perfect on education.  One of its pillars, the teachers' unions, long ago went astray, giving us seniority systems that protect bad teachers, locking our pedagogy into a narrow template based on their pet theories of teaching, and ignoring subject-matter expertise as a criterion for teacher qualification.  This has hurt the many great teachers who try to work within the system, and has hurt our kids.  But the solution is not to destroy the unions.  It is to fix them.  Ironically, Obama, this president who has been demonized as a socialist and union stooge, is the first major politician to take on the teachers' unions in a way that might actually bring constructive change.  He has talked of doubling teacher pay in exchange for their willingness to give up the current tenure system.  That would be a wonderful start.

And so, not only do the Republicans present a wholly unacceptable front on matters of education and science, but we happen to have in Obama the first national political leader who seems to "get it".  For a voting bloc that cares about education, far more than we worry about our tax bill, doesn't it seem obvious why we went 3:1 for the Democrats?

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