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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

August 31, 2005

Written by C.N.

New Little League Champs from Hawaii

Congratulations to the new Little League World Champions: Team USA from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, who won the championship on a dramatic walk-off two-run home run by Michael Memea.

You might recall that Hawaii has the largest proportion of Asian Americans of any U.S. state — around two-thirds of the state’s population has Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. I’m not sure how many players on the Little League team are Asian American, but judging from the pictures, it looks like it’s in line with the state’s proportions.

Hats off to the champions and let’s hope that as many of them make it all the way to the Major Leagues as possible.

August 29, 2005

Written by C.N.

Asian Names: Americanize or Not?

AlterNet has an interesting article written by a young Vietnamese woman on her struggles about what name she should go by — her given Vietnamese name or an “Americanized” one that is easier for Americans to pronounce. This article isn’t exactly a news item, but it is a common issue that many Asian Americans inevitably face at one time or another:

In school, I would see girls named Linda, Anne or Susie whom I know weren’t called that by their mothers. I respect their decision to make their names into something easier for others to pronounce and understand. A name is an important thing, and being able to create your own is powerful. It means you can choose your own identity over the one your parents chose for you. But I made a different choice. . . .

Even though the schools I went to were filled with Vietnamese students, I had to Americanize my name for the teachers in order for them to pronounce it. Even then, I’d have to come up with a story to help them remember my name. I’d tell them to use the “Bingo” song:” clap, clap, N-G-O, clap , clap, N-G-O, and Thuy Ngo was her name-0.” When you think about it, it’s kind of sad to have to go through all of that trouble just so your teacher will remember your name.

I can personally relate to this article because as I’ve explained to many friends, colleagues, and students, I also used the American name “Sean” throughout high school and college but eventually decided that it did not really reflect my “rediscovered” Asian- and Vietnamese-American identity any longer after I began studying sociology and eventually realizing that my ancestral roots are a source of pride and inspiration, not of shame or embarrassment.

I wanted to go back to using my given name “Cuong” but didn’t want people to constantly mispronounce it. Ultimately, I compromised and decided to just go by my first and middle initials “C.N.” The author of the article poignantly describes how the choice of names is so often fraught with anxieties and mixed reactions from both Asians and non-Asians.

But in the end, as she notes, it is a something that you have control over so it should be one that is meaningful to you, not necessarily anyone else.

August 26, 2005

Written by C.N.

New White House Chef is a Filipina

The Associated Press reports that after a six-month search to find a new Executive Chef at the White House, the winner is Cristeta “Cris” Comerford, who was an assistant chef at the White House under the previous executive chef:

A naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines, she will be the first woman and first minority to hold the post. . . . [Former executive chef Walter Scheib] said Sunday that Comerford was hands down the best assistant he has had in his 30-year career. She is a great cook with an artistic eye and a calm demeanor that can handle the pressure cooker that is the White House kitchen, he said.

On the one hand, I congratulate Cristeta and am happy that an Asian American woman has risen to such a relatively prominent position at the White House. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel a little cautious about the image that her appointment potentially represents.

In other words, does her promotion to White House Executive Chef in some way reinforce the perptuate the patriarchal and stereotypical image of Asian women as household servants? Hmmm . . .

August 24, 2005

Written by C.N.

Voting Rights and Asian Americans

A few recent articles in the news highlight the importance of voting among communities of color in general, and within the Asian American community specifically. First, several news organizations report that as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act that finally removed all the legalistic barriers to voting, there is debate in Congress about whether the act needs to be renewed or whether it’s no longer necessary:

In the weekly Democratic radio address, [U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia] said his party is committed to strengthening the sections of the law that are set to expire at the end of next year. Conservatives are pushing for modification of two provisions. One requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing voting rules. The other requires election officials to provide voting material in the native language to immigrant voters who don’t speak English.

Similarly, as reported by the New CA Media, a coalition of Asian American legal rights organizations released a report titled “Sound Barriers: Asian Americans and Language Access in Election 2004” that details several instances in which Asian American voters were not provided with the rights and opportunities for voting that the Voting Rights Act supposedly guarantees. This is just an excerpt of some of the issues encountered:

Among the common problems encountered by Asian American voters with limited English proficiency (LEP) in these polling sites were:

Poll workers were frequently reluctant to help, were unaware of how to help, or were suspicious of bilingual poll workers and LEP voters. In Los Angeles County, CA, a poll worker sent an Asian American voter to the back of the line for “causing too much trouble” due to the voter’s limited English proficiency.

About 46 percent of the polling sites monitored had multilingual materials but these were inaccessible to those who needed them. In 96 polling stations, there were no instructions in other languages on how to use the voting machines, the sample ballots or even directional signs. Many poll workers did not understand why multilingual materials were necessary. In Cook County, IL, one election judge who could not understand a voter said that the voter should learn to speak English.

As further proof of the barriers that many Asian American voters still face, the Boston Globe reports on several more instances of voter discrimination:

Voters at 11 polling stations in Boston, Quincy, and Lowell encountered ”multiple barriers” similar to those experienced by some black and Latino voters in Florida in 2000. City and state elections officials said yesterday the problems had been addressed since the group sent its letters in March.

The letters, however, provide new details of the allegations facing the city of Boston and show that other cities also experienced similar problems. The group sent its findings to the US Justice Department before the department filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city of Boston last month.

In Boston, home to about 19,000 Chinese-American and 10,000 Vietnamese-American voters, poll watchers interviewed about 500 Asian-Americans as they left five polling stations in Chinatown, Mission Hill, and Dorchester last November.

The survey found 10 voters who said they had been turned away because their names were not on the rolls and who were not offered provisional ballots as required by law. About 100 voters told interviewers that the polling stations lacked Chinese and Vietnamese ballot guides. And 62 voters had to show identification, a practice that raised questions about racial discrimination,

Personally, I still find it absolutely mind-boggling how completely screwed up the U.S. voting system is. The 2000 debacle in Florida finally exposed just how utterly incompetent and fundamentally flawed our voting system is, even 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Supposedly, it’s illegal to discriminate against voters of color and immigrant voters but these incidents still happen time and time again, against all non-White groups.

The irony is that the U.S. likes to pound its chest and forcefully show the world that it has the best democracy in the world. If that’s not the height of hypocrisy, I don’t know what is. But as long as these “voting irregularities” end up helping those in power stay in power, I predict that not much is going to change at all.

Absolutely incredible.

August 22, 2005

Written by C.N.

NYC Mayor & Chinese Food

The New York Times reports that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is cutting back on Chinese food, apparently because he believes it is not good for his health. Needless to say, when news of this reached NYC’s Chinese community, they weren’t exactly smitten by the idea:

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, 63, mentioned last week that he was cutting back on Chinese food, as part of an attempt to lose weight for the home stretch of his re-election campaign, the news hit the Chinese restaurants and landed splat in the duck sauce.

“He is making big mistake,” [Raymond Wong, 45, a manager at Joe’s Shanghai, on Pell Street in Chinatown] said. . . . Mr. Wong pointed to a photograph in the newspaper showing Mr. Bloomberg eating a piece of fried chicken. “Does he think that fried chicken is healthier than Chinese food?” . . .

[Bloomberh spokesman] Mr. Skyler said that far from denigrating Chinese food, the mayor was such a big fan that he was eating too much of it. . . . “Having shared a lot of meals with him over the years, I can assure owners of Chinese restaurants across the city that this is a mayor who has and will continue to deeply love Chinese food,” Mr. Skyler said. He added that his boss enjoyed a good relationship with New York’s Chinese community and had recently been endorsed by Sing Tao, a local Chinese-language daily newspaper.

Mayor Bloomberg may think that he has a good relationship with the Chinese American community in NYC, but with comments like this, he only shows that he still has a few cultural blindspots and insensitive stereotypes that he needs to be more aware of, if he wants to maintain his “good relations” with Chinese Americans in NYC.

August 19, 2005

Written by C.N.

China Democratizing? Yeah Right

Earlier I had an entry about how Time Magazine (reflecting the sentiments of many observers and analysts) asked the question of whether the 21st century would be dominated not by the U.S. but by China, as it continues its economic, political, and cultural emergence as a true world superpower. Well, the Associated Press reports that China has just announced new restrictions and censorship guidelines on foreign media:

China will bar new foreign television channels and step up censorship of imported programming, the Culture Ministry announced, adding to a sweeping effort to tighten the communist government’s control over popular culture. In an effort to “safeguard national cultural safety,” the government also will tighten controls over the 31 foreign television satellite broadcasters that hold licenses to operate in China.

The government also will ban new licenses for companies to import newspapers and magazines, electronic publications, audiovisual products and children’s cartoons, the ministry said. It said new limits will be imposed on the number of foreign copyrighted products that Chinese companies are allowed to publish. . . .

The measures are a dramatic step back from more liberal rules unveiled late last year to open China’s media market. . . . communist leaders are reluctant to give Chinese broadcasters free rein to form foreign ties, concerned it might erode official controls over what censors refer to as “political standards” of broadcasts. Regulators frequently cite foreign culture as a source of unwholesome influences in Chinese broadcasting.

Unfortunately, this is further proof that China is still dominated and tightly controlled by a totalitarian regime and therefore not even close to resembling anything like a democracy. It also means that China still has a long, long way to go before people like me will legitimately consider it to be a true world superpower.

August 17, 2005

Written by C.N.

Whites in Texas Now a Minority

As the Associated Press is reporting, the U.S. Census Bureau has just announced that their latest population counts indicate that non-Hispanic Whites in Texas now comprise a minority in the state (they’re still the largest racial/ethnic group but they are now just 49.8% of the state):

Texas has become the fourth state to have a non-white majority population, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday, a trend driven by a surging number of Hispanics moving to the state. . . . Texas joins California, New Mexico and Hawaii as states with majority-minority populations with Hispanics the largest group in every state but Hawaii, where it is Asian-Americans.

Five other states Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, New York and Arizona aren’t far behind, with about 40 percent minorities. Public policy analysts said these states and the country as a whole need to bring minority education and professional achievement to the levels of whites. Otherwise, these areas risk becoming poorer and less competitive.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said lawmakers need to start with immigration reform, while striving to bring minorities’ education and salary levels in line with Anglos. “Immigration is good for the United States … it’s important for us to keep our doors open, but we need to keep an eye on the people coming in,” Frey said. “While initially it will be a state problem, eventually it will be a national issue, and education is the best way to deal with it.”

Professor Frey (a sociologist by the way) hits it right on the head — while the rapid influx of immigrants (yes, many of them are illegal) may cause short term growing pains in the states in which they settle, the most effective way for the U.S. to address their presence and to prevent these immigrants from becoming a national burden is to educate them and make them citizens.

Rather than trying to demunanize them into a pariah group on the fringes of society, integrating immigrants (legal and illegal) into the American mainstream allows them to become productive citizens who contribute to our nation’s economy and culture. In this case, the old adage is true — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

August 12, 2005

Written by C.N.

Racial Preferences at Native Hawaiian School

The Associated Press reports that a federal appeals court just ruled that the private Kamehameha Schools, designed to educate Native Hawaiians, cannot bar non-Native Hawaiians from attending, even though the school does not receive any public funds:

Overturning a lower court, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 2-1 Tuesday that the practice at the private school violates federal civil rights law even though the institution receives no federal funding. [Hawaiian] Gov. Linda Lingle called the decision “incredibly unfortunate,” saying it underscores the need for a bill, pending in the U.S. Senate, that would grant federal recognition to Native Hawaiians.

The Kamehameha Schools were established under the 1883 will of a Hawaiian princess to educate “the children of Hawaii.” The admission policy was created to remedy the disadvantages suffered by Hawaiians after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. But the appeals court judges said they “do not read that document to require the use of race as an admissions prerequisite.”

About 5,100 Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend the three campuses, which are partly funded by a trust now worth $6.2 billion. Admission is highly prized in Hawaii because of the quality of education and the relatively low cost. The case was brought by an unidentified non-Hawaiian student who was turned down for admission in 2003.

Obviously I am not a legal scholar or lawyer, but it does seem a little strange to me that (1) the Kamehameha Schools have to follow federal admissions guidelines even though they do not receive any public funding and (2) they cannot continue to operate solely for Native Hawaiians even though many girls-only schools have been judged as constitutional and legal.

I wrote earlier that there is currently a bill in Congress that will grant Native Hawaiians the same legal status and rights as Native Americans. As Hawai’i’s governor notes, this ruling underscores the need for the federal legislature to recognize the unique history and experiences of Native Hawaiians and the legality of their ethnic-specific programs.

August 10, 2005

Written by C.N.

Viet Nam War Reenactments

One of the regular participants on this site’s Discussion Forum, alias FEB, alerted me to a Washington Post article that describes the emergence of Viet Nam War reenactments in the U.S. Apparently, this strikes more than a few people as a little strange or even inappropriate, since unlike the War of American Independence, the Civil War, or World War II, the Viet Nam War was the only war that the U.S. lost.

On this weekend, about 20 people from North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia were doing “impressions” of Americans who fought in Vietnam. Several have military experience, including one Gulf War veteran. There are police officers, firefighters, a sheriff’s deputy and a district attorney. A pediatric therapist came to play medic along with his wife. One man, a chemist, cooked meals in an antique field kitchen.

This is a fledgling endeavor, with the first units starting about five years ago. Several hundred people reenact the Vietnam War, with about a dozen units listed on the Internet. Their events generally are private affairs, and some participants say they’re reluctant to tell too many outsiders for fear of stirring up the war’s raw emotions.

Even more strange are their efforts to recruit local Vietnamese to play the enemy (North Vietnamese or Viet Cong communist soldiers):

[Patrick] Hubble, an affable mortician and former Navy sailor from Lynchburg, Va., plays a North Vietnamese soldier because he figures somebody has to do it. . . . Hubble, who gave his age as “born in 1968, year of the Tet Offensive,” is always on the lookout for new recruits.

Several times, he visited a Vietnamese-owned grocery store to ask if he could borrow the family’s elder sons for a weekend. Hubble said the family always told him their sons were busy. This remark would be followed by laughter and chatter in Vietnamese. “They were probably thinking, ‘What a weirdo,’ ” Hubble said. “But I just wanted things to be more authentic.”

And of course, it would not be a “reenactment” without the requisite racial slurs against the Vietnamese, as described in the article: “The guys cursed and used racial slurs about the enemy, but a couple of them apologized later. Again, it’s a ‘period’ thing.”

It’s pretty ironic that many of these reenactors consider themselves to be “history buffs” because I wonder if it ever struck Hubble and his colleagues that perhaps one of the reasons why Vietnamese Americans don’t want to participate and play the role of communists is because they consider the communists their enemies too. It was the communists who drove us from their ancestral lands, who made us abandon our home country, and who devastated many of our lives.

I personally don’t care if some people want to reenact the Viet Nam War. But I would be greatly insulted if someone asked me to play the part of the enemy, especially if it also meant that I could expect to be on the receiving end of racial slurs such as “gook” and “chink,” whether it’s a “period thing” or whether it’s just the natural tendencies of many of these participants to be begin with.

August 8, 2005

Written by C.N.

Cultural & Language Differences Lead to Pharmacy Arrests

The New York Times reports that law enforcement officials recently arrested dozens of convenience store owners and clerks in northwest rural Georgia for selling materials and ingredients commonly used to make the drug methamphetamine. However, the article notes that almost all of the people arrested are Asian Indians and that cultural and languages differences may have played a part in the arrests:

Forty-four of the defendants [out of 49 total] are Indian immigrants – 32, mostly unrelated, are named Patel – and many spoke little more than the kind of transactional English mocked in sitcoms. So when a government informant told store clerks that he needed the cold medicine, matches and camping fuel to “finish up a cook,” some of them said they figured he must have meant something about barbecue. . . .

The biggest problem, defense lawyers say, is the language barrier between an immigrant store clerk and the undercover informants who used drug slang or quick asides to convey that they were planning to make methamphetamine. “They’re not really paying attention to what they’re being told,” said Steve Sadow, one of the lawyers. “Their business is: I ring it up, you leave, I’ve done my job.”

For the Indians, their lives largely limited to store and home, it is as if they have fallen through a looking glass into a world they were content to keep on the other side of the cash register. “This is the first time I heard this – I don’t know how to pronounce – this meta-meta something,” said Hajira Ahmed, whose husband is in jail pending charges that he sold cold medicine and antifreeze at their convenience store.

But David Nahmias, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said the evidence showed that the clerks knew that the informants posing as customers planned to make drugs. Federal law makes it illegal to sell products knowing, or with reason to believe, that they will be used to produce drugs.

The article goes on to note that because such a overwhelming proportion of those arrested were Asian Indians, law enforcement authorities are being accused of purposely singling out Indian stores in the area for prosecution, a belief also held by many back in India where this story has been highly publicized.

Obviously I do not know the details of these cases, but many of the charges seem seem rather dubious to me. It is one thing for sting informants to “drop hints” that they were going to use the medicine and materials they bought at the convenience stories to make drugs. However, it is a completely different matter as to whether or not the store owners and clerks clearly understood the slang and idioms the informants were using.

In more general terms, I am also highly skeptical about the tactic of targeting merchants who sell legal products that just might be used illegally. From the article, it seems like most store owners were following the letter of the law and restricting sales to individual customers. If the government wants to tightly control their sales so that they can’t be used illegally, then why don’t they just make them available by prescription only, rather than targeting merchants who are trying to obey the letter of the law and just out make a decent living?

We’ll have to follow this story as it unfolds.

August 5, 2005

Written by C.N.

Calls for Racial Profiling in NYC reports that at least two New York State legislators are calling for New York police authorities to engage in racial profiling in their anti-terrorist activities, rather than inconveniencing “ordinary” citizens who “do not fit the profile”:

Middle Easterners should be targeted for searches on city subways, two elected officials said, contending that police have been wasting time with random checks in efforts to prevent terrorism in the transit system. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have said several times that officers will not engage in racial profiling.

But over the weekend, state Assemblyman Dov Hikind said police should be focusing on those who fit the “terrorist profile.” “They all look a certain way,” said Hikind, a Democrat from Brooklyn. “It’s all very nice to be politically correct here, but we’re talking about terrorism.” . . .

Hikind said he planned to introduce legislation allowing police to racially profile, and [Republican City Councilman James] Oddo said he intended to introduce a resolution in the City Council supporting the measure.

Apparently, many people, especially politicians, still think that it’s perfectly fine to target particular groups of people based on the actions of a very few — to generalize the criminal activities of a few people to an entire community. The last time I checked, not only is that called racial profiling, but it’s also known as racial discrimination, scapegoating, and most importantly, illegal.

I hope other politicians come to their senses and realize that in the long term, this sort of proposal represents the absolute worst response possible when it comes to dealing with terrorism in the U.S., since it will infuriate and alienate the very same group of people that authorities need to cooperate and work with in order to properly address the terrorism issue.

August 3, 2005

Written by C.N.

Raids on Illegal Immigrant Gangs

CBS News reports that federal agencies, headed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (part of the Homeland Security Department) have recently conducted several raids against street gangs around the country, many of whom are comprised primarily of illegal immigrants:

Investigators targeted members in 27 states of what they considered to be the most violent street gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13; Sureños; the 18th Street Gang; Latin Kings; the Mexican Mafia; Border Brothers; Brown Pride and numerous others. The crackdown is part of ICE’s ongoing “Operation Community Shield” campaign, targeting gang activity with other federal and state authorities.

So far, ICE has made 1,057 arrests as part of the sting. In March, the operation netted 103 members of MS-13, a street gang rooted in Central America where members have been known to behead enemies and attack with grenades and machetes. Federal officials estimate between 8,000 and 10,000 MS-13 members live in 31 states — the majority of them in the country illegally.

I’m not sure how many Asian American gang members are involved here, since it appears that the federal agencies are targeting mainly Mexican and Latin American gangs. As an unabashed liberal, I tend to support immigrant rights, including those of illegal immigrants.

I feel that illegal immigration is a structural problem and that in order to address these issues, Americans need to focus their attention and efforts at the institutional level, rather than demonizing and vilifying the illegal immigrants themselves, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding (and as research consistently shows, contribute significant benefits to the American economy).

However, I support these crackdowns on gangs because when illegal immigrants become violent criminals, they give all immigrants, legal and illegal (as well as all people of color), a bad name and further antagonize Americans into fits of xenophobia and racial prejudice, which is then directed at law-abiding immigrants (legal and illegal) and people of color in general.

I understand the motivations of joining gangs in the first place (i.e., alienation, frustration, hopelessness, etc.), but there are enough legal and community-supported programs for young at-risk people of color so that there really is no excuse for them to turn to violent crime. For the greater good of all illegal immigrants in the U.S., I hope that the authorities succeed in cracking down on the small proportion of whom are violent criminals.