Politics

Ed Case Shows How Not to Reach Out to Your Nonwhite Constituents

What an ill-considered joke about being “an Asian trapped in a white body” tells us about the difficulties facing white candidates in majority-minority districts.

Ed Case and his wife, both wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis.
Hawaiian Rep. Ed Case and his wife.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Case for Congress.

Hillary Clinton said that she kept hot sauce in her bag when she was interviewed on black talk radio in April 2016.

Jeb Bush released a Spanish-language Cinco de Mayo ad to celebrate the holiday in 2015 and sold a $75 branded “guaca bowle” on his campaign website during the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

And last week, at an event honoring Asian American members of the 116th Congress in Washington, Hawaii Rep. Ed Case told a crowd of more than 500 Asian American community members, Capitol Hill staff, and journalists, “I’m an Asian trapped in a white body.”

Just before, Case had talked about his relationship to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and to the Asian American community as a whole. Perhaps Case’s remark was just a clumsy offhand remark or joke, an attempt to find common ground with the mostly Asian American audience. He clearly didn’t mean it literally, after all. But the response was overwhelmingly negative.

John Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, one of the largest Asian American civil rights groups, was “surprised and disappointed” by the remarks, he told me in a written statement. “This misstep clearly shows the need to engage more closely with Rep. Case on diversity issues and whitewashing sensitivities facing the AAPI community.”

Others in the audience reacted even more strongly.

“I remember everyone around me being flabbergasted after hearing that. The person standing next to me immediately said, ‘We need to primary this guy in 2020,’ ” said Dorothy He.

After I originally posted the quote on the night of Jan. 15, the reaction from Twitter was furious.

“I keep reading this quote wondering if I’m misreading this. This actually happened. In public,” wrote CNN’s Kyung Lah.

“No, Ed. No,” tweeted Angry Asian Man (aka Phil Yu).

Case’s office put out a statement the next day saying that the line was a reference to something the congressman’s Japanese American wife sometimes says about him. The statement explained that Case’s remarks intended to convey the idea that he could serve as an advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander residents of Hawaii because “like so many others from Hawaii who treasure our multicultural heritage, I have absorbed and live the values of our many cultures.”

Case expressed “regret if my specific remarks to the national API community on my full absorption of their concerns caused any offense.”

APIAVote, the hosts of the event, accepted the apology and looked to the future. “We look forward to working with all the members of CAPAC in the 116th Congress on issues impacting AAPI communities, including protecting our right to vote,” said Christine Chen, the organization’s executive director.

But the incident hints at something deeper. Case’s comments come at a time of deep soul-searching within the Democratic Party and American politics at large about the politics of representation as the country accelerates its change toward becoming a majority-minority country. The United States will likely be “minority white” by 2045, according to census estimates. And the country’s elected representatives will have to adapt to that new reality.

The latest midterm elections gave vivid demonstrations of the risks posed to white politicians representing majority-minority districts. During the Democratic primaries, Ayanna Pressley beat Michael Capuano, a longtime incumbent of the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. They had virtually identical political platforms, but the sole major difference was race. Pressley is black. Capuano is white. The district is majority-minority. Joe Crowley, the next in line to succeed Nancy Pelosi, also befell the same fate when he lost his seat last year in an upset to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the largely Latino 14th District of New York.

Case also faces the challenge of representing a majority-minority district during these changing times. His current constituency, Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, composed of the city of Honolulu and its suburbs, is the only congressional district in the United States with a majority-Asian population. In his past stints in Congress, Case made some efforts to lead on Asian American issues. For example, he introduced legislation to reinstate Filipino World War II veterans’ benefits, as well as legislation to give immigration preference to the children of Filipino World War II veterans. Case went on to serve as the whip of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in the 108th Congress.

He did downplay his own racial identity, though, telling Honolulu Civil Beat in June, “The voter wants to feel an initial bond deeper than issue agreement, a similarity, an emotional bonding. We all are conscious of our ethnicity, but I have never believed it to be a finishing point for a voter, just a starting point.”

Case went on to win the Democratic nomination for his seat in 2018, having defeated six Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian candidates by winning a plurality in the 1st District’s primary.

Hawaii is one of the few majority-minority states in the country and the only one in which Asian Americans are the largest ethnic group. It has a long tradition of elevating Asian Americans to the top levels of governmental power, having sent the first Asian American to the Senate (Hiram Fong, in 1959) and the first nonwhite woman to Congress (Patsy Mink, in 1965.)

The problem with Case’s comments, especially in the context of his district’s demographics, is that they effectively conflated Asians and whites, explained Pawan Dhingra, professor of American studies at Amherst College. “Race still shapes Asians’ lives whether it be a glass ceiling, access to political representation, cultural discourses on being seen as perpetual foreigners, or threats to the U.S., or how Homeland Security will target mosques. These are real racial experiences that his sentence denied.”

Dhingra continued: “This kind of pandering by a white politician to an Asian audience is different than what the same politician would do to a black or Latino audience. I can’t imagine a white politician saying, ‘I’m a black person in a white body.’ ”

Moving forward, Case, and other politicians in his situation, will have to rely on what political theorists call “substantive representation,” when representatives advocate for their constituencies based on shared ideology, rather than “descriptive representation,” in which representatives ostensibly match the descriptive characteristics of their constituents, such as race or socioeconomic status. Unfortunately for them, the current trend in the Democratic Party seems to be a desire for descriptive representation.

That said, some white candidates have successfully engaged minority communities and constituencies and appealed to them on a much deeper level. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won re-election in Ohio with a commanding share of the minority vote and is now emphasizing what he calls the “dignity of work”—policies that will support all workers, in his view, as he edges closer to a presidential run. Although Ohio is a whiter state than many, Brown made concerted efforts to reach out to black voters, even highlighting a specific plank on his campaign website about “Supporting the African American Community,” with “Fighting for Economic Justice” and “Standing Up for Civil Rights” as the top two issues. Brown’s deliberate outreach might have helped create his margin of victory in the latest election, even as other Democratic candidates faltered in Ohio.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, came within 3 percentage points of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s election, in part boosted by higher minority turnout in Texas.

Christian Grose, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who has conducted research on the racial dynamics of congressional representation, argued that the success of candidates in majority-minority districts depended on their ability to successfully build a coalition among the ethnic minority community. Thus, Case’s electoral future would probably depend on how much support he would get from Asian American constituents in the district—perhaps something intuitive, but given Case only won the primary with 40 percent of the vote, he’ll have to expand his original electoral coalition.

According to Grose, the real obstacle to Case’s re-election might come from an Asian American candidate who could organize the district’s constituents into an electoral coalition in a future primary.

“There are so few Asian American members of Congress, and there are many white members of Congress,” continued Grose. “So, even for symbolic reasons, the election of an Asian American in that district might be a decent chance.”