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Asian American Politics: Tennessee's Congressional Candidates Showcase a Stark Divide

Dr. Manish Sethi and Dr. Kiran Sreepada: far-right conservative and left-wing democrat, running for different seats in Congress as representatives from Tennessee this fall.

Kiran Sreepada, PhD

Credit: DemCast

Sreepada is a liberal Democrat running for the U.S. House to represent Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District. He presents himself as a voice for youth and marginalized groups, and his positions on healthcare, immigration, reproductive rights, and education reflect those of the young liberal population. With a future-oriented outlook, Sreepada’s overall platform is one of unity and progress, as demonstrated by this quote from his website:

“In this time of extreme division, our leaders should be working to unite us and lead us to a vision of a brighter tomorrow. Instead, our elected officials and media only want to feed a dangerous fire and talk about personalities instead of policies. I look at my children and wonder, what will they think of all of us when they are our leaders?”

Dr. Manish Sethi

Sethi is quite the opposite, and he represents a very different side of Asian American politics. A candidate for the U.S. Senate, he is an avid supporter of President Trump, which would seem uncommon for an Indian American, given Trump’s frequent generalizations and fiery berations against the Indian American community. With strong stances against reproductive rights and gun regulation, as well as strong support of Trump’s border wall, Sethi’s positions align with those of far-right Republicans. A self-made surgeon, he goes by “Dr. Manny,” and he plays to a base of conservative white voters, which pokes at the idea of the model minority myth’s role in Asian American politics and the motif of Asian subordination to white men. In contrast to Sreepada’s platform, Sethi expresses a divisive message and a nostalgic vision for America’s former glory, as demonstrated by this quote from his website:

“The American Dream I have lived is in great peril and I want to fight and keep it alive. For too long career politicians in Washington have said one thing and done the other while people in places like Coffee County, and the rest of Tennessee pay the price for a government that is out of touch with its own citizens... I believe President Trump needs a trauma surgeon in the Senate who can act decisively for his patient, the people of Tennessee.”

Though it may seem shocking that a first generation Asian American like Sethi expresses such conservative views, his ideas are actually nothing new for the Asian American immigrant community, particularly high-earning Indian Americans. Bobby Jindal’s platform in the 2016 presidential election is a direct example. Glorification of the American Dream and denunciation of “liberal” ideas were integral parts of Jindal’s campaign; he famously accused former President Barack Obama of turning "the American dream into the European nightmare.” Phrases like “we came here legally” reflect a sentiment that is quite common among Asian American adult immigrants. This is another direct implication of the model minority myth; it twists immigration narratives made possible by selective policies in the 1950s and 1960s. Asian American adults whose families immigrated after the 1960s, like Jindal and Sethi, tend to compare their families’ hardships and immigration stories to those of other minority groups without acknowledging the existing systemic oppression in this country and the selective circumstances through which their families came to America. Unlike many other minorities, they were brought here to succeed, but they view their situation in a different light.

At the same time, however, other groups of Asian Americans across the country seem to favor opposite views. National Asian American organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) have shown public support for DACA, and many have also launched campaigns and movements to assist families and children being held in detainment centers at the Mexican border. They demonstrate different views on other issues as well. Recently, as Americans have united in support of Black Lives Matter and the fight against systemic injustice, many Asian Americans have enthusiastically supported the movement. Asian American liberal activism has grown in recent years, and it demonstrates a clear break from the conservative viewpoint shared by many other Asian Americans. Other issues dividing the Asian American community include healthcare and equitable education policies, but they are less prominent, possibly because they are less personal or because they align more directly with party lines.

The opposition between these two candidates is representative of how divided the Asian American community is on major issues. It prompts some questions: is this divide based on age, income, location, or other factors? It’s hard to pinpoint definite answers, because nationally, Asian American adults have a low voter turnout at around 49% in 2016. Tennessee’s average voter turnout in 2018 was around 61%, and only 33.4% of Asian Americans in Tennessee were registered to vote. However, one thing is clear: there is a stark divide in the Asian American community surrounding political stances, and it is based on the deep-rooted ideas of what it means to be an immigrant.


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