Home > Spotlight Analysis > PRRI Speaks with Janelle Wong about Asian Americans’ Impact on Politics and Religion
PRRI Speaks with Janelle Wong about Asian Americans’ Impact on Politics and Religion
Darcy Cohan,

Janelle Wong is an associate professor of American Studies and the director of Asian American Studies at University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on race, immigration, and political mobilization. Dr. Wong is the author of Democracy’s Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions (2006, University of Michigan Press) and co-author of two books on Asian American politics. She is currently working on a book about the impact Asian American and Latino evangelical Christians will have on the traditional conservative Christian movement and immigrant political participation. Recently, PRRI had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Wong in depth about some of the 2014 American Values Survey’s findings on Asian Americans.


Looking at PRRI’s 2014 American Values Survey, Asian Americans stand out from the general population in that 40 percent say the economy has gotten better in the last two years while 30 percent of all Americans feel the same way. Additionally, Asian Americans seem to have lower rates of economic insecurity than other racial/ethnic cohorts. What do you make of the fact that this cohort has a more optimistic outlook and experience about the economy than most Americans?

I am not surprised that Asian Americans have a positive outlook on the economy compared to other Americans. The fact is, due to U.S. immigration policies that help to recruit high skilled workers from Asia, the Asian American population demonstrates higher levels of education and income when compared to other demographics in the U.S. These high levels of resources are likely to translate into more positive views of the economy. At the same time, a striking finding in the 2014 American Values Survey is that although Asian Americans look more like whites in terms of their education and income, they look more like Latinos and African Americans when it comes their strong belief that some Americans have more of a chance in life than others. This suggests to me that although Asian Americans may be experiencing economic security, race still matters and affects attitudes about inequality. In addition, although PRRI should be applauded for including a sample of Asian Americans in the survey, the sample size is still too small to break out specific Asian American groups. We know that some Asian American groups are not experiencing economic security. Southeast Asian American groups like Cambodians, Hmong, and some South Asian American groups, such as Bhutanese Americans, are characterized by higher rates of poverty than any other major racial group in the U.S.

Asian Americans tend to vote Democratic and 67 percent currently approve of how President Obama is handling his job. Why does Obama get such high marks from this community when his approval rating is so low with other racial and ethnic cohorts?

Asian Americans have been trending toward the Democrats in presidential elections since the early 1990s. In fact, they show the sharpest growth in support for the Democratic Party over the past 20 years of any major racial group. President Obama has benefited from this strong trend. In addition, the majority of Asian Americans are immigrants who arrived on or after 1990. Because it takes at least five years—and usually longer—to become a citizen and register to vote, many Asian Americans have come of political age during the Obama years. Obama made a positive impression on them, particularly because Asian Americans tend to agree with him on policy issues such as a strong role for a social safety net and stricter gun control laws. Asian Americans also love the Affordable Care Act. They have been strong supporters of government-sponsored health care since Day One.

Fifty-two percent of Asian Americans said they were probably or absolutely planning to vote in the 2014 midterm election vs. 72 percent of all Americans. What role did Asian Americans play in the 2014 midterm elections?

Asian Americans make-up about six percent of the U.S. population and about three percent of voters in the national electorate, so their power and impact is somewhat limited and their political force is still in development.  Plus, there were not that many competitive midterm races, and, in the states where congressional races were competitive, Asian Americans were not likely to provide a winning margin. The exception to this is likely Virginia. Asian Americans now make up a strong constituency in that state and probably did help push Democrat Mark Warner toward victory. Surveys show they heavily favored Warner over Republican Gillespie and Asian Americans now constitute a critical mass (at least 10 percent) of voters in some Virginia counties.

More than one-quarter (26 percent) of Asian Americans report being religiously unaffiliated. What would you say does, or doesn’t, account for the choice to disaffiliate in the APA community?

This is a slightly higher proportion of religiously unaffiliated than the general U.S. population. If one digs deeper, it’s clear that the relatively large proportion of Asian Americans who identify as “unaffiliated” is driven in large part by Chinese Americans, who constitute the largest national-origin group in Asian America. In others studies, more than 50 percent of Chinese identify as religiously unaffiliated. This is partly due to national-origin context and China’s policies around religious freedom. It is also because Asian Americans are subject to the same forces as other Americans and the unaffiliated category is growing in the U.S. more generally. 

Tell us a little bit about the new book you’re working on.

I am working on a project that examines the growing numbers of evangelical and born-again Asian Americans and Latinos and how they are changing both the traditional Religious Right and traditional civil rights groups. It’s been a really fun project that draws not only on survey data, but also on 80 interviews with white, black, Latino, and Asian American evangelicals in Los Angeles and Houston. I’m really interested in how trends we tend to examine in isolation, related to immigration and religion, impact one another and the political landscape.

What impact do you think President Obama’s executive action will have on immigration in the Hispanic and Asian American communities in the U.S.? 

This is an important step forward and will improve the lives of many, including the 1-in-8 Asian Americans who are in the U.S. and undocumented today. However, the action still leaves the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action program in a very precarious position since it does not provide a path to citizenship. It is heartbreaking to me that this action can’t improve the situation of the parents of many children with DACA-status.