Being able to ask an elected representative for help is a core part of democracy. But not all constituents are treated equally when they contact legislators. In new research, Yat To Yeung examines how state legislators respond to Asian constituents with different national origins. Examining the email responses of over 2,400 state legislators, he finds that while Asian constituents were as likely as white constituents to receive a response, Republican legislators were less likely to respond in a friendly way, especially to Korean constituents. He writes that the reason for this discrimination remains an open question.
COVID-19 has spurred the growth of racism towards Asians, with one-fifth of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reporting experiencing a hate incident in 2020. Former president Trump has repeatedly tweeted messages that promote xenophobia, and both presidential candidates in the 2020 election received criticism from Asian American activists due to the xenophobic messages in their campaign advertisements. In addition, during the campaign politicians from the Republican Party increased their mention of China in social media, often linking China with words such as “Chinese virus,” “trade war,” “propaganda,” and “spy.”
Given the anti-Asian atmosphere, it’s worth asking if the hostile attitudes of elected officials have affected their responsiveness to the Asian American constituents in their daily constituent services. Previously, a 2018 study found that Asian constituents were discriminated against by legislators of both parties. However, the study has a limitation – its analysis focused on Chinese constituents. The question remains as to whether other Asian constituents are being treated the same as the Chinese constituents, because an existing survey shows that there is a wide variation of experiences with discrimination for different subgroups.
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How do state legislators respond to Asian constituents with different national origins?
In order to examine how state legislators respond to Asians of different national origins in constituent services, I conducted a study where I sent emails from hypothetical constituents to the offices of more than 2,400 state legislators across the 15 states with the largest Asian American populations. The emails consisted of common questions that constituents ask and inquiries to access the services that the representatives frequently provided. I used 15 different names to signal important characteristics of the constituent – the individual’s national origin. In terms of responsiveness, I looked at whether the elected officials responded to the constituent and the way the response was being written.
I found that overall, Asian constituents were as likely as white constituents to receive a response from elected officials. However, as Figure 1 shows, they were less likely to receive a friendly response, mainly driven by the fact that Republican legislators were 13.8 percentage points less likely to respond in a friendly manner than their Democratic counterparts.
Figure 1 – Partisan difference in responses
Disaggregating Asians into four subgroups, there is no evidence that any subgroup, Chinese, Korean, Indian, or Vietnamese, received a lower response rate than whites. However, as Figure 2 shows, I found that Korean constituents were about 12 percentage points less likely to receive a friendly response compared to white constituents, mainly driven by the low responsiveness from Republican legislators, as they were 15.2 percentage points less likely to give a friendly response than their Democratic counterparts. There was no partisan differential for any other Asian constituents regarding friendliness.
Figure 2 – Partisan Difference in Friendliness
Other than partisanship, the race/ethnicity of the legislators might influence their responsiveness as legislators are shown to be responsive to and advance the interests of those who share the same characteristics and discriminate against those who do not. I found that Asian legislators were no more likely to respond to Asian constituents, regardless of their national origin. Meanwhile, Black legislators were more likely to respond to Chinese in a friendly manner and Latino legislators were more likely to send Chinese and Koreans friendly responses, even though they both appeared to be less friendly and Black legislators appeared to be less responsive to all groups, including whites. A plausible reason might be that Latino and Black legislators prioritized serving constituents who share the same characteristics as theirs, though my study did not investigate this.
Unpacking potential reasons for discrimination in constituent communication
Although I also investigated whether discrimination was caused by partisanship, race/ethnicity of the legislators, perceptions of the subgroups, and state-level professionalization, none of these factors could precisely and confidently explain my findings. In addition, despite the experiment being conducted in a way that imitated the daily legislator-Asian constituent communication that takes place in real life, it is unclear if the officials could accurately identify the ethnicity of the constituents, even though they likely recognized them as Asians. Therefore, the reasons behind why Korean constituents received relatively low responsiveness remains an open question.
What did we learn from this study? Even with the anti-Asian atmosphere, Asian Americans received a response rate that was indistinguishable from white constituents, even though the quality of the responses was lower, driven by the fact that Korean constituents were less likely to receive a friendly response from Republican legislators. As the friendliness of the response affects the citizens’ evaluation of service responsiveness, we may speculate that Koreans have less satisfaction in their interactions with Republican elected officials. They may also be more likely to have unfavorable views of their elected officials compared to constituents who have received responses of good quality. By further investigating the cause of the pattern observed, we could potentially find a way to ensure a democracy that’s responsive to all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or gender.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘Beyond Pan-Ethnicity: Responsiveness of Elected Officials to Asian American Subgroups’, in American Politics Research
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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