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The Asian American presidential nominee who blazed a path for Nikki Haley

What the differences between Hiram Fong and Nikki Haley tell us about changes to the GOP

Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, seen in 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
8 min

Nikki Haley has broken new ground as the first Asian American woman to seek the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Yet this milestone has gone mostly unnoticed.

The impact of Haley’s heritage on her politics, as the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India, has always been ambiguous. She has discussed experiences of racism growing up in South Carolina. Yet, as Haley has argued, she succeeded despite those barriers, which she claims proves that “America is not a racist country.”

Haley’s political career embodies the narrative of the Asian American model minority. This stereotype claims that Asian Americans have been able to overcome racism through cultural values like hard work and perseverance, and that their success proves that America is a colorblind meritocracy. This is a myth that ignores Asian Americans’ socioeconomic diversity, defends existing structures of inequality and has been used as a wedge between Asians and other people of color. Nonetheless, many Asian Americans and others continue to embrace it.

The first Asian American nominated for president — in fact, the first person of color to be nominated by a major party in the 20th century — also embraced the model minority image. Hiram Fong was a Republican Senator from Hawai’i who was nominated in 1964. Yet a closer look at his story shows just how much the GOP — and the political implications of the model minority myth — have changed in the last 50 years.

Fong’s life bridged two distinct periods in the history of American attitudes toward Asia and Asian Americans. He was born in Honolulu in 1906 to Sau Howe Fong and Lum Shee Fong, illiterate immigrants from southern China. The country’s first significant immigration restriction law, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, had just been extended indefinitely and expanded to U.S. territories like Hawai’i. It would culminate with the complete exclusion of all immigrants from Asia in the Immigration Act of 1924.

Fong grew up under the shadow of exclusion, racism and crushing poverty, deeply conscious of the significance that his individual success would have for the Chinese American community as a whole. He began working at age 4, picking algarroba beans to sell for cattle feed. He worked his way through school — with additional funds from Chinese American friends in Honolulu who “picked him to succeed” for their community — and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School in 1935. In 1938, he was elected to the territorial House of Representatives as a Republican, running on the theme of “local boy makes good.” His Horatio Alger story endeared him to voters, helping him net the second-highest number of votes in the district.

The Republican Party, which had a stranglehold on territory of Hawai’i, was controlled by the White men who dominated the islands’ plantation-based economy. Yet Fong immediately became known for his willingness to challenge the GOP leadership. Perhaps his most dramatic rejection of the party line was his cultivation of close ties with the powerful International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union, which gave him a significant crossover vote.

A new era of American attitudes on race dawned with the start of the Cold War. Although the United States sought to promote democracy abroad, Soviet propagandists condemned American hypocrisy by pointing to the violent racism that minorities faced at home. To counter international criticism, Americans began to push for changes that would demonstrate the country’s ability to make progress on racial equality.

This context shaped Hawaiian statehood in 1959, as well as Fong’s election as a U.S. senator that year. In the past, American opponents of statehood had cited the state’s large Native Hawaiian and Asian populations as a problem. Now, they became assets that signaled the harmonious diversity of a multiracial America. President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared Fong’s election “a very fine example for democracy at work.” Fong was no longer just a bootstrapping Horatio Alger — now, he was a global symbol of Asian American success and U.S. progress over racism.

As a senator, Fong was a fiscal and foreign policy conservative but a social liberal. Despite early doubts about his commitment to civil rights, he voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Equal Rights Amendment, like many of his Republican peers. He wrote an important amendment in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that authorized poll watchers to guarantee the safety and fairness of election procedures. He was an unyielding supporter of the Vietnam War — but he fought for the admission of the refugees whose lives it uprooted.

In 1964, his fellow Hawai’i Republicans nominated Fong as a “favorite son” candidate for president in a celebration of the state’s diversity and its global significance. Hawai’i State Sen. Toshio Ansai, a veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, delivered the nominating speech, calling Fong a “shining symbol of the American success story” and a “Man of the Pacific.” Emma Smith, a delegate of Native Hawaiian ancestry, seconded the nomination.

While Fong never had a real shot at winning the nomination, the esteem of his peers raised his profile as a symbol of America’s diversity — a striking contrast to the eventual Republican choice, conservative Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide, but Fong was easily reelected to the Senate, running a record-breaking 32 points ahead of his party’s nominee.

Sitting on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Fong fought to dismantle the infrastructure of Asian exclusion. In urging the Senate to support what would become the 1965 Immigration Act, he declared, “Our tenets of equality irrespective of race, creed, or color have inspired freedom-loving people everywhere to look to America as a beacon in their struggle to win freedom and independence. Our opportunity is to live up to these ideals.” Asian Americans, he noted, had a particularly unique role as “bridges of understanding” across the Pacific to share “their messages of good will, democratic freedom and individual dignity.”

The 1965 Immigration Act ended Asian exclusion and created a new system with preferences for families and skilled workers. This allowed highly educated Asians to immigrate in significant numbers, further contributing to the image of Asian Americans as model minorities. Among these newcomers were Nikki Haley’s parents: Ajit Singh Randhawa, a PhD from the University of British Columbia, and Raj Kaur Randhawa, who received her law degree from the University of Delhi.

The world in which Hiram Fong lived has changed dramatically in the years since he helped to remake it. As the Republican Party shifted further to the right, moderate Republicans like Fong, who retired from office in 1977, became an artifact of the past. The GOP’s commitments to civil rights, voting rights, immigrants, refugees and global engagement have been supplanted by nativist concerns that openly target people of color — including Asian Americans — as potential threats to the nation.

Fong used his model minority image to represent multiracial America to the world, and he worked to make those democratic ideals real. Fong was proud of his role as the first senator of Asian descent and embraced Asian Americans nationwide, explaining, “I feel sometimes they think I am their senator. I try to interpret America to them and to interpret them to America.” The laws that he helped pass broke down racial barriers that transformed lives and enriched communities.

The success story that Haley embraces to justify her conservative vision, in contrast, deliberately misleads. There is no denying her family’s struggle against racism. But claims that her parents arrived with nothing more than “$8 in cash and a strong work ethic” intentionally ignore the socioeconomic value of an advanced education that gave her a head start. This omission allows Haley to portray her origins as a generic American immigrant family, without recognizing the specific historical context that has shaped her Asian American experience.

Fong probably would have agreed with Haley when she said, “America is a story that’s a work in progress,” but he would not have recognized the GOP of today. If Haley seeks the Republican nomination as a symbol of American opportunity, she might do well to remember the history that made her candidacy possible.