The Future of Leadership Symposium

Changing the World in 2020 and Beyond

What it Takes to Be a Racial Minority Leader?

Rocky An

Among our racial minority groups, Asians are the most unequal. They are unequal because they have the highest wealth inequality among themselves. Black Americans have the second highest. Of all the few people of color who are financially successful, most of them are Asian. Why have wealthy Asians, many of whom sit in ivory towers talking for racial equality and activism, left poor Asians and other minorities behind?

Asian Americans do face discrimination, but not nearly as much as 400 years of it towards Black people. Asian Americans did not create the country’s historic institution of racism, but they also have not done much in the struggle against it. They are independent and indifferent, with most of the discourse in this country being white-vs-black. There is not much they can do—Asians hold hardly any positions of power in government and public offices. Either they do not want to work to improve the lives of people of color, or they do not have the popular support to become political leaders, or both.

The amount of money and power required to run for these offices makes it so that the only non-white people that can run are already massively successful. These candidates may have already forgotten about the plight of wealth inequality among their own race. Good minority leaders should have a strong political and financial backing to win a government position and they should have the compassion to use their authority to uplift the disadvantaged people within their race and all other races too.
Consider Former President Barack Obama. His father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas, and he was raised in Hawaii, a state with extraordinarily diverse populations of Asian and Pacific Islander minorities. He did not live in a Black neighborhood and could surely not understand the hardships that Black people encounter (as his critics have said: “not Black-enough”). So how did he get popular enough to win the presidency? His career campaigning in Chicago’s predominantly black South Side proved that he could be a leader and a community activist. Popularity alone is not enough though; his campaign in 2007-08 was financially backed by wealthy connections he made through working in Illinois. He was a racial minority leader because he gained the support of his Black constituents and made alliances with white politicians. Whether Obama as president achieved enough for people of color is a whole debate within itself.

Now consider the 2020 race, with most racially diverse presidential candidates ever. The Black candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both have withstood against racism and have achieved impressive careers in politics but ran out of funding to continue campaigning. They were unpopular because they could not beat the powerful name recognition Sanders and Biden attained.
Andrew Yang is an opposite example. His proposal for a universal basic income would definitely improve wealth inequality across the board. No doubt, he has had a successful campaign, but he is an entrepreneur who has no political experience to prove he could lead the country. He got millions of dollars in funding, but all the funding in the world could not make him more popular (Mike Bloomberg, who spent $1 billion on his campaign, is another good example).

Although Yang’s unexpectedly successful campaign paved a path for Asian Americans to the presidency, it might not be the right path. The notion that an Asian candidate must first become a successful businessman to run for office distances him even further from minority voters who are at the bottom of the wealth gap. Simply put, successful Asian candidates needs to prove their loyalty to all minorities from all economic backgrounds.

People of color voting for president is not everything; it’s more symbolic than effectual, but the policies proposed by the presidential candidates are really part of a larger reform movement to reduce racism and improve the lives of minority racial groups. The true importance lies in the policies, including but not limited to loans, welfare programs, and police reform. Opponents against such policies commonly argue: 1) Asians are wealthier than other people of color because of culture, 2) providing aid only to certain racial groups is hypocritically racist, and 3) that government money should be spent boosting the economy instead of providing welfare. A racial minority leader should clearly explain why these opinions are false, advocate for people of color, and take action once in office.

1. Culture comes from community. If people come from communities in poverty—where schools and streets are not supported with funding, where city smog and police sirens pollute neighborhoods daily—then they will experience a culture of misfortunate circumstance. Current misfortunes in cities include crowded households where coronavirus has spread rapidly, and police killings, unjust arrests, discriminatory incarcerations, etc.

2. Opponents would likely cite successful Black Americans as a reason why Blacks do not need support. They would think of those who lifted themselves up through the cracks of poverty, like Ben Carson—the only African American on Trump’s Cabinet and an advocate of personal responsibility for Black people. In the same way that white people enjoyed new wealth and economic prosperity in the 20th century from suburban homeownership and loans distributed to predominantly white neighborhoods, our government can give aid to neighborhoods with racial minority populations.

3. The continued rise of wealth inequality in the United States is caused by economic stimulus packages, like our last one which gave billions of dollars to corporations and $1200 to the poor.

The lesson learned from these past elections is that political connections, a strong financial backing, name recognition, and the combined support of all of America’s minorities are the most crucial factors that minority leaders need to become elected to public offices. But when they become elected, they must keep it the highest priority to close the racial wealth gap with good policy. Otherwise, their administrations will only be remembered as more of the same.

Rocky An is an APAPA-Albany intern who lives in Albany, NY and Los Alamos, NM. He just finished his first year at Cornell University studying Mechanical Engineering and Biological Engineering.

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