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Identity Politics and Our Local Elections

By October 21, 2021November 1st, 2021No Comments

Red vs. Blue, Elites vs. Deplorables, millennials vs. boomers, anti-vaxxers vs. the enthusiastically vaccinated – elections in America today have shifted to a complicated venn diagram of us vs. them groups as Virginians go to cast their ballots now through Election Day.

As an Asian American organization, with roots specifically in Korean American communities, our Asian American identity is central to our work. We at NAKASEC Action Fund strive to promote and increase civic participation of Asian Americans of all ages and backgrounds. We advocate for equity, fair representation, and opportunities for Asian Americans across Virginia. We take very seriously the lack of Asian Americans in government. Representation of and for Asian Americans is important, especially today as Asian American families across America continue to face elevated levels of racist verbal and physical assaults.

But what does it mean in a representative democracy to vote for a candidate solely based on their racial or ethnic background? This became much more than a theoretical question to our volunteers and staff while talking to Asian Americans voters at their doors in the 40th House District. A Korean American voter shared with us a story of an interaction they had with Harold Pyon, the Republican candidate running for a House Delegate seat. This voter, whose name and address we promised to protect, recounted, “[Pyon] told me that because he was an Asian, I should vote for him … I said I probably would not vote for him because his beliefs didn’t speak to me … [He] literally clasped his hands and begged, ‘please please you HAVE to vote for me,.’ When I continued to say ‘no,’ he defeatedly said, “Ok if you’re not going to vote for me, then just don’t vote at all.’” Another shared that Pyon threw an accusation at the voter that the voter “isn’t really Korean American” because they were not going to vote for Pyon.

While tapping into a shared background can create solidarity among people who feel isolated and alone, or help under-represented communities gain visibility and equity, these comments and campaign tactics clearly display the limits of identity politics driven by a narrow vision.

These words and actions are unacceptable for any candidate running for office in our democracy and seeking to represent diverse communities. Encouraging all eligible voters to vote for who they believe will best represent their values is a core principle of our democracy.

Representation in democracy is not just about electing someone who looks like you, talks like you, or happens to share the same ethnic or racial background. It may seem that a vote for an Asian American candidate would lead to better Asian American representation in government. But it’s clear that a Korean American candidate can be a terrible choice for Korean Americans when that candidate displays little regard for the fundamental values of democracy and uses identity to actively divide our communities rather than connecting with voters on issues in a meaningful way.

State and local elections may not generate as much attention as national elections, but the people elected to state and local offices have more influence on our day-to-day lives than the President of the United States. These election results will have an impact that lasts far beyond the next couple years, with the potential to either make historical progress, or reverse much of the recent headway we’ve all made in Virginia. Early voting has already begun and Election Day is Nov 2. Tell your friends and family to research the candidates running for office and choose leaders who will move all our communities and our democracy forward, not backward.

Read this post in Korean (한국어)