The resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki means that for the first time since the Clinton administration that there will be no Asian-American members of the Cabinet, a marked shift for a minority community that was once disproportionately overrepresented.
It’s a shift that might have prompted an outpouring of concern if it had occurred to any other minority group, but has been in this case been greeted with nonchalance within the Asian-American community.
This reaction speaks to the very notion of how Asian-Americans view themselves in the 21st century—having largely scorned racial identity politics. Shinseki himself was not known for involvement in Asian-American groups, and by all accounts did not seem to pay particular interest to them.
The uninterest in the issue also demonstrates the lack of Asian-American political power in 2014. Though they represent roughly 6 percent of the country's population, the community is dispersed across a series of different ethnicities, languages and cultures.
The underrepresentation of Asians in Congress and now the highest rungs of the Obama administration reflects the failure of Asian-Americans to more aggressively demand that their seat at the table be held by someone who looks like them. Asian-American groups have not tended to demand representation on the basis of race.
"I'm hesitant to [call for the president to] appoint them because of their race,” said Susan Allen, the president of the US Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce. “There are [non-Asian] politicians who are very good to Asian-Americans, particularly those who have lived in Asia.”
In 2009, Asian-Americans in the Cabinet included Shinseki, Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke. At that point, Christopher Lu held the position of Cabinet secretary, a senior position that involves coordinating between Cabinet members and the White House.
Chu left the administration in 2013, Locke went on to become Ambassador to China, and then resigned this year. Lu was confirmed to be the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Labor in April.
There are still high-ranking Asian-Americans in the president’s administration: Lu remains a senior agency official, and the First Lady’s chief of staff, Tina Chen, is Asian-American. Rhea Suh, another member of the community, is the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Department of the Interior.
According to the order of precedence, a formal protocol list meant to establish ceremonial hierarchies in the government, Shinseki’s departure means that Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who was elected in 2012 after serving three terms in the House of Representatives, is now the highest-ranking Asian-American public official in the United States.
Hirono is followed on that list by Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and then by a number of Asian-American U.S. representatives.
Among the many names being flung around Washington, D.C., as candidates for Shinseki’s replacement, only one Asian-American is a plausible choice: Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a veteran who was the former Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs. As a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, she lost both of her legs in combat during the Iraq War.
Shinseki’s resignation over a scandal involving VA hospital wait times didn’t involve race, and there is little interest among Asian-American activists in politicizing that issue.
“Regardless of ethnicity, I think the president needs to find someone who can address the situation at the VA and do right by all veterans,” said Jason Chung, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee on Asian-American community engagement. “Otherwise it's going to be on the president, and that has nothing to do with whether he appoints an Asian-American, African-American or Latino to the post.”
For the Asian-American community today, the appointment of a Cabinet official of their ethnic background is useful less as an accomplishment to cite, and more as a safeguard against those who might not take the community seriously.
“I would like to see an Asian-American in the Cabinet—but one who is qualified, and who can say, ‘I am firstly an American who happens to have Asian heritage,’” Allen said. “It has symbolic value, because there are still narrow-minded people who will look down on us if they don’t see someone like us in a position of power.”