Pretending Problems Don't Exist Won't Make Them Disappear
On the Asian turn to the Republican Party
This fall, Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the peculiar vigilante group known as the Guardian Angels, ran for mayor of New York City as a Republican. Sliwa was less threatening than liberals made him out to be—he never supported Donald Trump and he used to be an amusing NY1 talking head—but he undoubtedly, on a host of issues, carried the banner of the GOP in the race against Eric Adams.
Sliwa strained to outflank Adams, a former police captain, on the issue of crime. He raised relatively little money while Adams behaved like the June Democratic primary was the last race he needed to win. Adams wasn’t wrong—in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, he was assured victory—but it was notable how few public appearances he made in the run-up to Election Day. Sliwa was more famous than the last two Republicans to run for mayor, Nicole Malliotakis and Joe Lhota, but he was arguably much less credible. Malliotakis, now a congresswoman, was then a rising member of the State Assembly. Lhota was a former deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani. For large stretches of the race, Sliwa’s campaign felt like a stunt, and most coverage revolved around the sheer number of cats he kept in his wife’s studio apartment.
Sliwa did lose and it was not particularly close. Following a primary that saw a near-record number of Democrats show up to vote, turnout cratered in the non-competitive general election. Many Democrats, either unenthused by Adams or assuming the race was over, didn’t vote at all. In certain neighborhoods where voters overwhelmingly backed the top two Adams rivals in the primary, Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley, the sheer number of votes hardly increased at all from the primary to the general. Usually, general elections produce bigger raw vote totals.
Given the dismal national environment for Democrats, it was not so surprising that Adams ran behind Bill de Blasio’s 2013 performance, when he was first elected mayor. De Blasio won 73 percent of the vote against Lhota, but Adams only garnered about 67 percent. Down the ballot, Republicans made gains, growing their number in the City Council to five. Democrats still overwhelmingly dominate the 51-member body, so there is no danger of any GOP takeover.
The real shock, for Democrats and left-leaning observers at least, came in a select few neighborhoods of New York City. For the second November in a row, a nonwhite demographic swung hard toward the Republican Party. In 2020, Latinos nationally voted in greater numbers for Trump than they did in 2016. The story was no different in the five boroughs, where Spanish-speaking neighborhoods cast votes for Trump at a much higher rate than four years prior.
What came to the fore last month was how Asian voters, particularly Chinese and Korean voters, had migrated to the Republican Party. Though Sliwa lost the race, he won areas that had in earlier elections backed the Democratic standard bearer. In the 40th Assembly District, which ropes in the Asian-majority Queens neighborhood of Flushing, Sliwa beat Adams outright. A year ago, Biden had won almost 62 percent of the vote there. Hillary Clinton, in 2016, broke 67 percent. De Blasio won Flushing too. Sliwa’s performance there got some media attention, given Flushing’s position as one of the largest hubs for Asian immigrants in the United States.
The improved Republican performance was not limited to Flushing. In the nearby 25th Assembly District, which takes in several eastern Queens neighborhoods with large Asian populations, Sliwa won 51 percent of the vote to Adams’ 45 percent. In the 26th Assembly District, which ropes in both whiter suburban neighborhoods like Douglaston and the increasingly Asian Bayside, Sliwa ran up the score, netting about 58 percent of the vote.
All of this was notable—Biden won 57 percent of the vote in the 26th AD and a whopping 62 percent in the 25th. Another place where the Asian movement to the GOP was pronounced was in my own backyard in southern Brooklyn. In 2018, when I ran for State Senate, I spent a lot of time in Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Gravesend, which are all home to a large percentage of Chinese voters that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates in two particular Assembly Districts—the 47th and the 49th. These districts, it should be noted, also include a declining population of older white residents who vote Republican consistently.
In 2020, Biden won both with some room to spare. He won about 52 percent of the vote in the 47th and 57 percent in the 49th. A year later, diminished Democratic turnout combined with some anger at the Democratic brand turned both districts blood-red. Sliwa won 61 percent of the vote in the 47th AD and 60 percent in the 49th. (De Blasio had also lost these ADs in 2017, though in 2013 he easily beat Lhota in the 47th and 49th.)
It’s important to make clear that Sliwa’s strong performance in the Asian community transcends his campaign. Sliwa was not a well-known figure there; Adams, a former state senator who had strong ties to the Asian community in Sunset Park, was not exactly a disliked figure in those neighborhoods, and had made a pitch to more conservative voters that, in theory, should have been successful. Sliwa’s campaign did do outreach—several people sent me pictures of incendiary fliers that were going around on Election Day—but I’m hesitant to ascribe too much to a campaign that just wasn’t that well-funded or sophisticated. The Trump 2020 effort, conversely, was—the campaign tailored law-and-order messaging for a receptive Latino electorate, and engaged in canvassing efforts while Democrats, more Covid-cautious, retreated.
What happened in New York? A few factors appear to be in play, some local in scope, others not. A spate of anti-Asian hate crimes that intensified during the pandemic led many in the community to believe politicians, largely the Democrats in power, were not doing enough to keep New Yorkers safe. While progressive Democrats have been critical of police overreach, older Chinese and Korean voters tend to have a more favorable view of the NYPD. The Defund the Police movement, which did draw in a lot of young Asian organizers, appeared to have a profound disconnect with Chinese and Korean voters on the ground. While New York has not experienced the same historic surge in homicides seen in Philadelphia and several other cities since the start of 2020, the murder rate is still up from the pre-pandemic years. If we are nowhere near the bloodbaths of the early 1990s, the uptick is still troubling enough for largely pro-law enforcement communities to choose the political party that will speak most immediately to their concerns, even if police on the beat can’t magically make all crime disappear.
In addition to crime, education played an enormous role in the Asian turn to the Republican Party. Here, the local and national intersect. Within New York City, there are nine specialized high schools that require a single standardized test, known as the SHSAT, for entry. These schools are regarded as the most coveted in the city, though there are plenty of very good high schools that do not use these admissions criteria. The three most famous among them are Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech, and the Bronx High School of Science. Their alumni rolls boast Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and various elites. Competition for seats is incredibly fierce.
In addition to the SHSAT schools, there are so-called gifted and talented programs in city elementary schools. A test was given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, which offers accelerated learning for a select number of very young students. For the parents who can get their children into the programs, gifted and talented is obviously a celebrated concept.
Both approaches—gifted and talented and SHSAT—have contributed to the stubborn racial segregation in public elementary, middle, and high schools. New York is an incredibly diverse city with neighborhoods that are increasingly integrated. Beyond a few particular pockets, like Breezy Point and Brownsville, many neighborhoods are now a mix of at least two or three races and ethnicities. Yet ambitious city parents are constantly trying to enroll their children into certain select programs or schools that, inevitably, do not reflect the diversity of the city. Black and Latino students are badly under-represented in specialized high schools and gifted and talented programs. For SHSAT schools, this was not always the case. To rectify the issue, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed abolishing both the SHSAT and the gifted and talented programs.
White, American-born parents in the city tend to be middle or upper middle-class, investing time and money into their children so they can pass the proper tests or have the means to enroll their children in private school. Asian parents—statistically far poorer, many of them first-generation—do so as well, channeling much of their limited resources into the middle and high school educations of their children. Tutoring programs are common in Asian neighborhoods. Extensive study for entrance exams is a part of the culture in the outer borough enclaves where they live. When writing about this reality, certain commentators tend to lump the two groups together. The New York Times does this often. The image conveyed is simple—one of whiter, wealthier students, in tandem with Asians, filling most slots at the specialized high schools.
This is not really true, but it is a convenient narrative for the SHSAT critics. If whites are taking seats far out of proportion of their population, it is an easier problem to attack. End the SHSAT to stop whites from gaming the system fits easily into the left-leaning activist’s argument against the test. The challenge with this is that whites are not over-represented at the top schools at all. More than half of the admitted students to specialized high schools in 2021 were Asian. Nearly 28 percent were white, which sounds a bit scandalous until you learn the city’s white population, as of the recent census, is about 31 percent. (Even that “white” category is misleading—that designation often can include Middle Eastern students who do not easily fit the four major categories.) Asians, the fastest growing demographic in the city, now make up close to 16 percent of the city. The Latino or Hispanic population is 28 percent and the Black population, having fallen, is at 20 percent.
Critics of the specialized high schools are correct to argue that an ideal school system would not be so aggressively sorting kids and creating an outcome where only 9 percent of seats are being offered to Black and Latino students. I don’t particularly care for the SHSAT and I’m not sure it’s even all that wise for so many parents to stress about pumping their children into specialized high schools. I knew many alumni of Brooklyn Tech, the Bronx High School of Science, and Stuyvesant that were burnt-out by the time they reached college, where I was at SUNY Stony Brook. They had been taking tests their whole lives and were ruined by the pressure. College did not mean liberation for them; it was the breaking point. Test-prep can be a miserable way to spend a childhood.
While tests are usually predicative of future academic success, they can’t tell the complete story. Other measurements must matter too. Were I schools chancellor, I would propose somethng equitable but unpopular: a return to the 20th century tradition of sending kids to their neighborhood schools. With New York’s neighborhoods now sufficiently integrated, this is bound to create more diversity than the current byzantine system of screens and specialized tests and two-hour school commutes. My mother grew up in Flatbush and attended Erasmus Hall High School, as did Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. My father, living in Queens, went to Jamaica High School with Michael Savage. Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller graduated from Lincoln High School. James Baldwin came out of DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx. Norman Mailer and Tommy Davis, the two-time Dodgers batting champ, were out of the old Boys High School. Bernie Sanders and Carole King and Chuck Schumer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course, graduated from Madison High School. The great Willie Randolph was a star at Samuel Tilden in Canarsie. Simon and Garfunkel were classmates at Forest Hills High School.
Those who want to scrap the SHSAT or specialized high schools altogether, though, must be honest about what they are trying to do. Their problem is with Asian overachievement, because those are the students consistently passing the test and graduating from the specialized schools now. If they seek to end this unequal system, they do it, quite simply, at the expense of Asian students, many of them either the children of poor immigrants or immigrants themselves. The arguments for the benefits of the SHSAT might be wrong—admission to top colleges is fickle, and you may be better off being valedictorian of a small town in the middle of nowhere if it fits some hazy demographic quota—but it’s become an important issue in some communities. And now it’s being reflected in votes.
De Blasio announced in 2018 he wanted to end the SHSAT. Eric Adams, as Brooklyn borough president, immediately supported him. The backlash was fierce. That summer, I was running for office myself, competing for votes in Asian neighborhoods, and the SHSAT was all any voter or community leader wanted to talk about. Asian leaders staged a massive march across the Brooklyn Bridge to save the test. They viewed de Blasio’s effort as a direct attack on them. Adams, reading the tea leaves, quickly reversed himself. As mayor in January, he is not going to scrap gifted and talented or the SHSAT. He may expand these programs—more specialized schools, perhaps—or leave them alone. State approval is needed to remove the test at the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant. The legislature won’t move on that anytime soon and Adams isn’t implying he is going to push them.
On the national level, this debate has manifested at the elite colleges. The highly competitive University of California system is eliminating the SAT requirement. Famous private schools like Harvard are beginning to emphasize other metrics for entry and are moving, whenever possible, to de-emphasize testing. On one hand, all of these changes are a well-intentioned bid to increase the number of Black and Latino students. Tests are an ugly business. I personally disliked the SAT.
But again, let’s be honest here—the “problem” as discussed by news organizations like the New York Times isn’t merely the beneficiaries of white privilege clogging up top public universities and the Ivy Leagues. Twelve percent of K–12 students in California are Asian or Pacific Islander, compared with 34 percent of UC undergraduates. Any admissions change is going to directly fall on them. Scrapping the SATs and moving to a system that prioritizes GPAs, extracurriculars, admissions interviews, and various character assessments is not necessarily going to do what colleges, in theory at least, want to accomplish: admit more working-class kids of color from across America. Instead, admissions officers will be empowered to use highly subjective criteria that benefit those with money, checking boxes for trips abroad, violin lessons, and lacrosse camps. GPAs at private schools can be gamed. Would a kid from Flushing or Bensonhurst, with two parents earning the minimum wage, gain from this system at all? It does not seem likely. Standardized tests do not necessarily create inequality so much as measure it. They are like thermometers. Socioeconomic and racial divides won’t be fixed when a test is banished from existence.
Another uncomfortable fact for the identity-based left—the NGO and nonprofit leaders, the anti-racist activists, certain progressive power brokers—is that their language has systematically alienated working-class Asian voters. Language is not a cause of electoral loss, but it is a symptom of what these people and groups do not understand—and seem to not ever want to. The term BIPOC, for example, is exclusionary to both Latino and Asian people, elevating two particular groups—Black and Indigenous—over them. Anti-racist activists in the Ibram Kendi vein are right to argue that Black Americans have been uniquely oppressed in this country, victims of racist policies that have hampered generations. America has made some progress toward the dream of an equitable, multiracial democracy, but there is much still to do. What shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed, though, are the particular struggles of Asian immigrants—from their exploitation on the railroads of the 19th century to the internment camps of the 20th century to the racism that haunts their existence to this day—and how they now view this country. NGO activists, unwittingly or not, make the mistake of creating hierarchies of oppression that privilege some experiences over others. Morally and politically, this is a mistake.
Most damningly, perhaps, is how little this is all being discussed. Asian politicians in New York have been sounding the alarm. But the local Democratic Party organizations, the NGOs, the Working Families Party, and even the Democratic Socialists of America have all been, for the most part, silent. There have been no reports issued on how the Asian and Latino voters of New York can be brought back, fully, into the Democratic fold. The wheezing Democratic machines in Brooklyn and Queens are useless, and we can’t expect much from them. The New York State Democratic Party, led by Jay Jacobs, can hardly be said to exist at all. They will never admit there is a problem because they don’t have the capacity to do so.
But the WFP does. Their paid leaders constantly opine on the state of local and national politics. Make the Road and Citizens Action can form opinions and issue reports. DSA can consider whether its agenda is palatable to the working-class, first-generation voters they are trying to uplift. This doesn’t mean eschewing progress and becoming more “moderate” on various issues, or giving up a socialist or liberal project altogether. What it does mean, though, is accounting for reality, for how issues should be framed and discussed. It means the messaging around defunding the police is, from a political standpoint, a disaster, that a City Council candidate in Queens who embraced defund managed to run well behind Eric Adams while other Democrats in the city, distancing themselves from the movement, netted more votes than the future mayor in competitive districts. It means, finally, acknowledging that it’s not only white conservatives who are resistant to deep budget cuts to the NYPD; it’s some Asian, Latino, and Black working-class communities too.
Far-reaching reform must continue. The changes to the bail laws didn’t trigger the 2020 crime spike; the increase in murders was national in scope, likely tied to the pandemic, and happened in many cities where no legislative reforms were made at all. What’s interesting is that left-leaning Democrats, pre-2020, understood well enough how to talk about fixing policing—it was a matter of public safety, with police change pursued over blunt budget cutting. It’s not that the defunders are wrong, necessarily—I’ve long argued the NYPD is hyper-militarized and the post-9/11 build-up must be scaled back—but it’s that they need to understand that making the changes they seek requires wielding political power with popular majorities. The defunders argue, fairly, reform has not ended police brutality. Progress has not been swift. To make more progress, to radically overhaul the NYPD, politicians must be elected who will pursue these goals. Yet the next mayor of New York City is a former police captain. Defund advocates must consider how that came about.
Genuine outreach matters. DSA is one of the only mass-member organizations that knocks on doors for campaigns and keeps some kind of bond to a grassroot constituency through frequent engagement. The challenge for DSA is moving beyond educated, leftist circles and winning working-class votes in neighborhoods that have not experienced rapid gentrification. DSA should reckon with why Asian voters are choosing Republican candidates since their goal is ultimately to build a large, multiracial, working-class movement. Without Asians, such a coalition does not exist.
But it’s the Democratic Party, largely, that has much to answer for. In New York, it has offered no plan for winning Asians back. The push to abolish the SHSAT has been a failure on multiple fronts. Advocates for ending the test, like de Blasio and his allies, are probably further away from their goal than they were three years ago. A whole community is more enflamed than ever. Nothing was accomplished but plenty was lost. These are the kinds of setbacks that a healthy political party, with engaged local organizations, would be discussing regularly and attempting to rectify. Party leaders would be venturing into immigrant neighborhoods and explaining why Democrats are still the party of public education, the party that can deliver for you. An aspirational politics, a politics of uplift and universalism, can still work. If Democrats continue to bleed out support from working-class communities of color, Republicans won’t need gerrymandering alone or a rigged Senate to keep them in power. They will become, slowly but surely, a majority party.
And then all of this will get a lot more real.