First: A word about racial categories in research

Achieve researchers seek to match the subsets of a population we study as closely to the larger population’s demographics as possible. For race/ethnicity, we ask participants to self-identify or select from two other options: Other and Prefer Not to Answer.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the country, due largely to increases in its immigrant populations. (This one racial category covers people from at least 20 countries.)[1] Still, they represent just 5.7 percent of the country’s population – and are the smallest of the four largest racial/ethnic categories (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish and Asians).

They’re also the group with the lowest percentage of voter turnout, including among Asian American millennials. This is despite the fact that in the 2016 presidential election, the racial/ethnic category had its largest upswing in new voters of all ages since the Bush/Gore race in 2000.[2] No other such group saw an increase in voters in 2016.[3]

More troubling, however, is the other half of the equation: For Asian Americans, not voting is a strong predictor of remaining uninvolved in all social issues, including causes intended to improve people’s lives.

And most troubling of all: Less than a year after Donald Trump took office, researchers at Achieve discovered that among self-identified Asian American millennials – those born 1980-2000 – this low propensity to actively work to improve society through the ballot box or social causes among Asian Americans had degraded even further.

Achieve’s findings are part of its research for Phase 2 of the 2017 Millennial Impact Report, The Power of Voice: A New Era of Cause Activation and Social Issue Adoption. Though Achieve’s sample was relatively small, Asian Americans made up 5.5 percent of the research sample, close to the 5.7 percent of Asian Americans comprising the wider American population in November 2016.[4]

Asian Americans had plenty of reasons for not voting

Asian American millennials cast about twice as many votes for Hillary Clinton (54%) as Donald Trump (26%). Of those who did not vote, the top two reasons given were similar: “ineligible” (25%) and “unable to vote” (22%). This is strikingly different from the No. 1 reason for not voting given by the other three racial/ethnic categories, which was “didn’t like either candidate.” For Asian American millennials, this was just the third-highest reason for not voting (20%).

Since the difference in reasons for not voting appears to have to do with roadblocks, it begs the question: If more Asians would have been eligible or could have gotten to the polls – thereby eliminating reasons No. 1 and 2 for not voting – would they have gone to the polls and cast a vote? Or, even if those roadblocks had been eliminated, would they still not have voted because reason No. 3, candidate dislike, would have become this group’s primary reason for not voting, too?

Old-fashioned barriers to voting still exist

Only 31 states had online registration in 2016,[5] and nationally, Asian Americans were less likely than white/Caucasian or black/African American constituents to be contacted by political parties.[6] Just two years prior to the presidential election, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund received more than 340 voting-related complaints that included unlawfully being required to prove their U.S. citizenship and having their names listed incorrectly in voter registration databases (English speakers entering information from forms into databases are often uncertain which is the first name and which the last).

By 2016, there had been little evidence these problems had been remedied. Moreover, one in three Asian Americans speaks limited English, which not only makes understanding how to vote more difficult – it makes educating oneself about the issues and candidates equally so.[7]

Even if millennial Asian Americans spoke English more easily than their older relatives – which seemed to be the case with those our researchers spoke with directly – they undoubtedly have witnessed or heard of similar situations, if not experienced them firsthand.

If voting is this challenging for so many Asian Americans, is it any wonder that millennials appear to have little faith in their power to create change?

Voting behavior predicts attitudes toward social change

Since 2009, Achieve focuses its research on millennials’ attitudes and behaviors relevant to social causes. For the past year, we’ve been examining what influence, if any, a presidential election would have on these attitudes.

For Asian Americans, the effect has been to make negative perceptions worse.

When compared to the other self-identified racial/ethnic categories already mentioned (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish), Asian American millennials who voted in the 2016 presidential election tended to:

  • be the least active in social causes (based on behavior),
  • perceive themselves to be less active than others (outside of friends and family),
  • be the least confident in organizations’ ability to bring about social change and
  • be far less confident in their own ability to create change.

No action, no change. We asked millennials to rank the behaviors they’d most typically take in relation to a social cause they were interested in. Prior to the election, Asian Americans said the action they’d take most often was, in fact, no action at all. A year later, when asked to report the degree to which their cause-related behaviors had changed since the election, this group had more answers of “no change” than any other racial/ethnic category.

Less active than others. People tend to see themselves in relation to others, so we asked millennials how active they were in social causes as compared to others. Asian millennials saw themselves as just slightly more active than family members, about as active as their friends, and less active than people they don’t know. Every other racial/ethnic group saw themselves as more active than all three of those groups.

Less confident in organizations and themselves. Asian Americans were not nearly as confident in the actions of organizations to bring about change as were other groups. But confidence in their own abilities turned out to be the measure in which cultural influences may be most apparent.

Asian Americans were almost evenly split in confidence in their own actions to bring about social change: 51 percent had some level of confidence that their actions would lead to improvements, while 49 percent did not.

Digging deeper, though, Achieve researchers offered three positive rankings of self-confidence: Very confident, somewhat confident and confident. While the majority of Asian Americans expressed some confidence in themselves (28% were “somewhat confident” and 41% were “confident”), only 9 percent were willing to apply the highest ranking of “very confident.”

That final figure may have skewed the total results: When combining all positive levels of confidence (somewhat confident + confident + very confident), Asians ended up at the bottom of the racial/ethnic categories in their confidence they could create social change: black/African Americans 84%, white/Caucasian 81%, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish 80%, Asian 78%. One Asian American millennial said the unwillingness to admit to a high level of confidence could be the inculcation of modesty by older generations.

Millennials agree with each other more than by race/ethnicity

The concerns of Asian American millennials more closely matched the those of millennials of all races/ethnicities than of Asian Americans nationally – particularly employment and racial discrimination.

In Achieve’s research, millennials of all races were most concerned with civil rights/racial discrimination, employment/job creation and healthcare; Asian American millennials were most concerned with climate change, employment/job creation and civil rights/racial discrimination. Within the adult Asian American community nationally, the NAAS survey[8] found the top issues of serious concern to be college affordability, cost of medical care and elderly care.

Hope (and opportunity) for the future?

Further research is needed to see if Asian Americans will continue to turn out more new voters each year, and what age group they come from. The very youngest millennials will be 20 years old in the next presidential election (2020), which means the entire generation will be of voting age – the largest living generation in American history. Those who would treat millennials as a monolithic bloc are in danger of falling far behind in knowing what this group can do for their cause or issue.

If the trend toward more highly educated Asian American voters continues, if perceived or actual racial discrimination at the polls declines, and if political parties and cause organizers realize they have the opportunity to galvanize a well-educated segment of the population who by and large is just waiting for attention … then the power of Asian American millennials to influence candidate selection and raise specific cause issues into the national consciousness could grow into a force for good.