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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.

September 29, 2005

Written by C.N.

New Politics of Race at Berkeley

Despite the college admissions scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s, statistics these days show that Asian Americans are disproportionately overrepresented as students in many of the country’s top universities, especially in California, the state with the largest Asian American population. An article at Inside Higher Education highlights how Asian Americans are approaching 50% of the student population at U.C. Berkeley and how this has led to changes in the racial politics on campus:

When Fred Chang, a senior and president of Pi Alpha Phi, came to the University of California at Berkeley five years ago, he saw not one, but two Asian American fraternities — Pi Alpha Phi and Lambda Phi Epsilon — representing the only two nationally recognized Asian American fraternities in the nation. Only a handful of colleges in the nation outside of California have both. . . .

[Chang] said membership [at Pi Alpha Phi] has been cut in half in his time at Berkeley, and now there are only 16 brothers, all Asian American. He said he doesn’t “really see the point” of having clubs that are exclusively Asian, and does not think Pi Alpha Phi can survive unless non-Asian students are recruited.

Chang thinks that the increasing number of Asians will actually doom some exclusively Asian groups because students don’t feel the need to join a club to fit in. “Everyone tries to assimilate,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a future here in trying to hold on to [exclusively Asian] tradition.” . . .

Chang said there’s even some backlash over Asian organizations. Lambda Phi Epsilon, the other Asian fraternity, no longer attends Interfraternity Council meetings because members didn’t feel welcome. “A lot of the mainstream fraternities throw events together,” he said, but “we’re not as welcome.

In other words, in an environment where being Asian meant that you were in the minority, it would be natural for Asian American students to want to unite around their similar status and situations. However, in this case, as Asian Americans are increasingly becoming the norm — or at least make up a numerical majority — on many campuses around the country, the pressure now is to assimilate and disperse so that other racial groups are not threatened.

Interesting, isn’t it? It seems that the tables have been turned — Whites who used to be the majority and the norm and increasingly feeling resentful of no longer being the majority and the norm around campus these days. It’s actually quite similar to what happened when many suburbs in CA shifted from predominantly White to predominantly Asian — many longtime White residents resented the “takeover” of “their” neighborhood.

The reality is that this demographic shift toward larger numbers of Asians on campuses and in American society in general is not going to stop any time soon. But change always brings resistance and conflict. This article illustrates one example of what that conflict might look like. Needless to say, there are sure to be more to come . . .

September 27, 2005

Written by C.N.

Censorship in the Blogosphere

Reuters has an article that describes that two young ethnic Chinese men in Singapore were recently charged with with violating the country’s strict rules about disseminating Internet postings that are intolerant of racial, ethnic, or religious groups:

The two ethnic Chinese men, aged 25 and 27, face charges for promoting ill-will and hostility between ethnic communities on their personal websites, or “blogs,” in June. The police said both men were accused of posting racist remarks aimed at Singapore’s mostly-Muslim ethnic Malay community. If convicted, they may be jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$5,000, or both.

Singapore has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, but also some of the toughest media laws. Singapore police have wide powers to intercept online messages, and Internet service providers are required to block websites containing material that may be a threat to public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony and public morality.

I’m not sure how I feel about this particular practice. On the one hand, I believe in freedom of expression, even when it’s speech that I strongly disagree with. I’ve said before and I still believe that freedom of expression belongs to everyone, not just for those with whom you agree. Based on that, punishing people for their thoughts is not right.

On the other hand, as a sociologist and a person of color, I am also aware that certain kinds of speech are more dangerous than others. That is, when speech promotes violence or virulent intolerance of minority groups, that is where I draw the line. This is also consistent with hate crimes statutes that prohibit such speech, even if it does not eventually lead to violence. On those grounds, if the postings of these citizens in Singapore promoted this sort of blatant intolerance, that might be a reasonable justification to punish them.

However, as news organizations such as CNN report, a new publication by the organization Reporters Without Borders seeks to help dissidents disseminate and promote their views by giving them tips on bypassing repressive censors in their countries:

In a bid to inspire budding Web diarists around the world, the 87-page booklet gives advice on setting up and running blogs, and on using pseudonyms and anonymous proxies, which can be used to replace easily traceable home computer addresses. . . . The advice varies depending on the user’s level of paranoia — from changing cyber cafes to sending cryptographically signed messages via specially formatted e-mail.

The guide explains circumvention technologies that can break through government filters but warns bloggers to check how severe the penalty will be if they are caught using them. The freely available handbook advises bloggers to be ethical and warns that the tips are not intended for terrorists, racketeers or pedophiles who use the Internet to commit crimes.

Although the line that separates freedom of expression from criminal activity may be a little blurry at times, I think this kind of publication can be a useful method to ensure freedom of speech and political dissension in an otherwise oppressive country, while at the same time, maintaining a set of ethics and responsibility so that minority groups are not threatened with hate and violence.

September 26, 2005

Written by C.N.

Another Hate Crime on Campus

There are certain stereotypes applied to young college-aged White men — that they can be loud, obnoxious, frequently drunk, and at times, racist. Here’s an instance in which all of the above seem to be true: as reported by the Michigan Daily, two college students are suspected of committing a hate crime against young Asian students by, among other things, shouting racial epitaphs at them and urinating on them:

The incident began when one of the suspects, a 21-year-old, allegedly urinated from a second-floor balcony on two Asian students walking [by]. . . . After the couple asked why they were being urinated on, the suspect and another student reportedly began to use racial slurs disparaging the couple’s Asian heritage.

The situation escalated, according to a police report, when at least one student began throwing items, which the couple suspected were eggs, at the couple. One of the students was immediately taken into custody. The other student who urinated on the couple, barricaded himself in the apartment, which the police could not enter without a warrant.

However, the AAPD knows the identity of the student, who could face jail time if prosecuted. AAPD Lt. Michael Logghe classified the crime as ethnic intimidation, or verbal or physical attack against a person of another race or gender. Logghe said ethnic intimidation is a felony and carries a maximum penalty of four years in jail.

The suspects could also be charged with assault, and one of the suspects could face a charge of indecent exposure, which would require him to register as a sex offender.

Not surprisingly, the suspects have a different version of what occurred.

Forgive me if I’m a little biased, but at this point, I believe the Asian American students more than the accused suspects. Even if the suspects did not actually urinate on the students, I can almost guarantee that some sort of racially-motivated provocation happened, with racial slurs being used profusely.

Isn’t it nice to see these young White male college students doing everything they can to dispel and contradict these stereotypes about them? I can also already see their parents trying to make excuses for them: “Oh, they were just trying to have fun” or “It was just a small incident that got blown out of proportion.”

If their parents say something like that, will it be any wonder where they learned that such behavior was acceptable?

September 22, 2005

Written by C.N.

Police Working with Asian Merchants

The Boston Herald has a story about how Boston police and working together with several small businesses, many of them owned by Asian Americans — particularly Vietnamese Americans, on preventing unruly teenagers from shoplifting, vandalizing, and even assaulting store owners, as was the case last year:

Vietnamese merchants in Fields Corner who were terrorized by unruly middle school students last school year are back on edge with the start of classes even as police crack down on the young punks. The after-school rush turned violent for many shop owners along Dorchester Avenue during the past year as crowds of students harassed store clerks, shoplifted and even assaulted merchants. . . .

Boston police Capt. Frank Armstrong assigned two beat cops to cover Fields Corner full time in response to the after-school violence. During the day, three patrol cars roam the neighborhood, and two extra uniformed police officers work from 12 to 4 p.m. Armstrong said helping the store owners has become a priority.

It is nice to see examples of local police working with Asian Americans, rather than ignoring them or even working against them. Many times, police and other government agencies are too quick to buy into the image of Asian Americans as the “model minority” who don’t experience any discrimination. Hopefully this cooperation ends up being an example of cultural understanding and community unity.

September 21, 2005

Written by C.N.

North Korea to Give Up Nuclear Program

As many news organizations such as CNN are reporting, North Korea has just announced that it has agreed to give up its entire nuclear program, after initially demanding that it retain the right to develop its civilian sector use of nuclear energy:

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and to IAEA safeguards,” the statement said. . . .

The joint statement also includes a pledge that Pyongyang and Washington will “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations” — a considerable change in the tone in relations between the nations. . . . In exchange, the United States, China, Japan, Russian and South Korea have “stated their willingness” to provide energy assistance to North Korea, as well as promote economic cooperation. . . .

A Bush administration official told CNN that Pyongyang’s promise is significant, but noted the North Koreans must show they will allow for verification, including rejoining the international nuclear inspections regime which would allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to re-enter the country.

As with most observers, I think this is a very promising development, perhaps even a breakthrough. But I happen to agree with the administration in this case, that promises are one thing, but actual follow-through and implementation will be something else. However, it does seem as though North Korea’s leaders are sincere this time, as they have been easing their approach towards the west and the U.S. in recent months. We’ll have to hope that this will work out to everyone’s benefit.

September 19, 2005

Written by C.N.

New Asian American Communities

From a demographic point of view, it is only a matter of time before any given Asian American enclave becomes too crowded. After that happens, Asian Americans will then inevitably disperse and move into new areas, creating new Asian American communities. This has happened in southern California, the New York City metro area, and now, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, is apparently starting to happen in northwest Philadelphia:

Immigration advocates have long argued that Philadelphia, a former hub for factories and foreigners, could stem its population loss by recruiting immigrants. Other cities, such as Boston, have used immigration as a strategy for urban renewal. It appears immigrants are arriving even without a plan to lure them. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week, the foreign-born last year were 11 percent of the city population, a jump from 9 percent in 2000.

In Oxford Circle and other areas of the Northeast, cheaper housing appears to be the draw. At least four realty agencies have opened near Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard in the last two years. The Chinese characters on their storefronts hint at marked ethnic change in the neighborhood. . . . Brokers say rowhouses that would have fetched $80,000 in early 2004 now go for double that. Almost all the buyers are Chinese-born New Yorkers. . . .

The influx has been so dramatic that nearby Solis-Cohen Elementary School converted book closets into classrooms and added two trailers in a parking lot for 250 more students – half of them new residents. “The people who’ve resided here for a long time are passing away or moving to retirement communities,” said Joseph Baum, the school’s principal. “And they are being replaced by families with children.”

The article also notes that in this case, it wasn’t just overcrowding and exorbitant housing prices that pushed many Asian Americans out of New York City — it was also the economic fallout as a result of September 11, 2001. Further, as with any form of cultural or in this case residential change, there’s bound to be some resistance, conflict, or hostility from long-term residents of the neighborhood.

We’ll have to see if history repeats itself or if a more orderly form of integration and assimilation takes place — on both sides.

September 15, 2005

Written by C.N.

Cultural Change in China

CBS News has an article that describes the growing cultural divide in China — on the one hand, young, urban, and upwardly mobile citizens who care more about material success and comfort than political democracy, and on the other, poor, rural, and older workers who are increasingly fed up with the rampant corruption and bureaucracy of the communist party:

There was a theory that a richer China would create a generation more liberal and more demanding of democracy. But this post-Tiananmen Square 1989-protest generation grew up with no great interest in politics. Politics, many feel, is a bunch of old guys on TV — the past. This generation seems far more focused on making money and yearns not for more democracy but a bigger apartment and a wider-screen TV. . . .

[On the other hand, in many tiny rural villages], indifference has given way to outright antagonism. We recently visited with activist Yang Maodong. He is involved in a peasant protest at a small village where farmers gave up their land, but allegedly corrupt local officials kept the compensation that farmers were promised for the land.

It’s a battle — riots, hunger strikes and all — against what farmers see as official corruption. How ironic — the Party that came to power as a peasant revolt could end up losing power because the peasants are turning against its corruption and distance from ordinary people.

In addition, a separate article by Reuters describes how a recent killing spree by an angry migrant worker who was denied back wages by his company has focused even more attention on the plight and abuses suffered by China’s “have-nots.”

I see this growing cultural divide in China as another example of the power of capitalism to produce inevitable social stratification in whatever political system in which it operates. Whether it’s in a democracy like the U.S. or a communist dictatorship like China, capitalism will always produce a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Will this growing gap take down China’s communist regime sometime in the future? I doubt it, but you never know. Stranger things have happened . . .

September 14, 2005

Written by C.N.

“Anti-Asian” Laws Passed by APA Politicians

Two stories in the news recently caught my eye, both dealing with proposed legislation that many Asian American-owned small businesses say would hurt their livelihoods. The interesting irony in both of these cases is that the proposed legislation was drafted and advocated by Asian American politicians.

In the first example, reported by AsianWeek Magazine, describes proposed legislation in California that would tighten sanitation and safety requirements for nail salons, introduced by State Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Leland Yee. This follows several highly-publicized incidents where customers — most notably Paula Abdul — suffered bacterial infections due to unsanitary instruments and practices.

The second example, as reported by the Queens Chronicle, New York City Korean grocers are upset at legislation proposed by City Councilman John Liu that requires sidewalk displays in front of grocery stores not to obstruct sidewalks and pedestrians. The grocers complain that Liu purposely introduced the proposal so that they would not have enough time to respond to it.

Neither of these two news articles mention anything about the fact that the “anti-Asian” proposals were created by Asian American politicians. In both cases, the proposed legislation was authored by Chinese Americans and would supposedly hurt Korean businesses the most. This leads to the question, does race/ethnicity — or more specifically interethnic rivalry between members of different Asian groups — have anything to do with it?

Or can it be that these Asian American politicians are directly or indirectly trying to demonstrate that they can serve non-Asian constituents just as well as their Asian ones, and that indeed, they’re not afraid to challenge members of their own community in order to “serve the public good?”

I can only speculate at this point, but I would think that both Chinese American politicians are acutely aware of the interethnic and interracial issues involved here, even if it may not be their primary motivations. At least on the surface, the proposed laws do not seem unreasonable to me. However, the bottom line is that politicians — whatever their racial/ethnic background — need to ensure that any such laws are applied consistently to Asians and non-Asians alike.

September 13, 2005

Written by C.N.

Outsourcing to India Slowing Down?

Those of you who have been following the issue of labor outsourcing know that the country at the epicenter of the global economic phenemenon is India, which boasts cheap labor and a well-educated labor force. However, CNN/Money Magazine has an article that suggests India’s outsourcing boom may be ending soon due to rising wages and a developing labor shortage:

A new report from market research firm Gartner, Inc. warns that a labor crunch and rising wages could erode as much as 45 percent of India’s market share by 2007. Indian industry watchers acknowledge that the country’s outsourcing industry — its golden goose of the moment — is indeed facing a “serious” problem. . . .

More importantly, the Gartner report cautions that a host of emerging countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Eastern European nations including Hungary and Poland, are also starting to challenge India’s leadership in offshore business process outsourcing (BPO). . . Gartner estimates that India’s current 85 percent ownership of the BPO market share could dwindle to about 45 percent by 2007.

The article notes that four years ago, the average Indian call center employee earned the equivalent of about US$125 a month. These days, the average wage is about US$180 and that while this increase in wages is not a threat to India yet, if it keeps rising, India may soon experience what Ireland went through about ten years ago when it was the darling of the outsourcing world before wages got too high and companies moved their outsourcing to India.

Not terribly surprising, all in all. Capitalism does not care about this country or that country — it simply wants to find the lowest wages available. Today that is India and China. Years from now, it’s likely to be some other developing country — it’s only a matter of time.

September 11, 2005

Written by C.N.

Jason Scott Lee

I was browsing through and saw that he had this link to a story about what Jason Scott Lee has been doing recently. You might remember Jason as playing Bruce Lee in the movie “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” one of the few major Hollywood productions in the last 15 years or so that had an Asian American man and a White woman in lead romantic roles.

It turns out that Jason has pretty much dropped out of the Hollywood acting scene and instead, is living a relatively primative life (i.e., no electricity, running water, or flush toilet) near a volcano in Hawaii:

In the early ’90s, Lee was the wonder boy of Asian-American actors, wowing audiences with his emotional intensity and physical power in many quality roles. . . . He had five bona fide romantic leads, a major achievement for an Asian actor in Hollywood. Lee loves acting. But even more, he has another dream: He wants to leave his mark other than on the stage or screen. . . .

Turning his back on Hollywood — he dropped his manager and agent — he focused on yet another dream: to build a small performing arts venue for professional-quality, socially conscious plays, workshops and classes. He also hoped to have cast members and instructors live there with him. . . . For his film work, Lee chooses projects that have some significance while providing the income he needs to maintain [his house and land].

I’ve got to hand it to Jason for putting his money where his mouth is. A lot of actors portray themselves as “politically active” or “socially conscious” — right before they drive off in their six figure luxury SUVs to have dinner at a hundred dollar a plate restaurant. But Jason is clearly different — and truly sincere and genuine about his beliefs.

Way to go, my brother!

September 8, 2005

Written by C.N.

Education Gone Wrong

You’ve probably heard of the reality TV show “What Not to Wear.” Well, maybe someone should profile Lafayette High School in Brooklyn as “What Not to Do” in terms of supporting the equal education of Asian Americans. As Newsday reports, the Bush administration has just brought federal civil rights charges against Lafayette High, alleging that it failed to address racially-motivated violence against Asian American students and therefore, has violated their rights to a public education:

An Asian student who was a freshman at the Brooklyn school was punched on his way home in April, but administrators refused to investigate or to let anyone look at a student photo book to identify attackers, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan.

Among other cases involving Asian students this past school year, one boy was choked by a classmate in the boys’ locker room, and another boy complained that administrators told him they had lost the paperwork on his report.

“An atmosphere has been bred at the school where students feel free to harass Asian students without much retribution,” the group’s attorney, Khin Mai Aung, said Friday. “It’s been going on for years and nothing has been done to effectively fix things.”

At first glance, my reaction is that I can’t believe Asian American students are still subjected to this kind of treatment. It’s one thing to be the target of a racially-motived physical attack. What conpounds the misery even more is when the people who are entrusted to protect your rights and well-being ignore your complaints and instead, actually make it easier for you to be repeatedly victimized.

The irony is that this high school is not located in some isolated rural community where 98% of the students are White — it’s located in Brooklyn, NY — perhaps the most racially/ethnically diverse city in the entire U.S. and where one-quarter of the students are of Asian descent. Absolutely amazing . . .

September 7, 2005

Written by C.N.

Hmong Hunter Trial to Start

As CBS News reports, the trial of Chai Soua Vang, the Hmong American accused of killing six Whites after a hunting confrontation in Wisconsin, is set to begin this week. In an earlier post, I commented that Vang’s defense is that he was subjected to numerous racial taunts and epitaths during the confrontation and that he only shot back in self-defense after one of the White hunters first shot at him.

The article notes that while the trial will be conducted in the same county as the shootings, the jury pool was moved to a different country due to publicity and “possible racial animosity,” which has many local residents upset:

Jury selection was moved to Dane County — home of the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — because of concern about pretrial publicity and possible racial animosity. The jurors will be bused to Hayward for testimony.

Some residents of the region wonder if they will get justice. Madison is vastly different from this rural, slow-paced area that is the home of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. “The guy admitted he shot people in the back,” said Larry Jarvela, mayor of Rice Lake, where the victims were from. “Some people are upset that they are going to bring all the liberals up from Madison for the jury.”

This trial has all the makings of a bad made-for-TV drama. In the end, even with the potential of a few more “liberal” jurors from Madison, I don’t think it looks good for Vang. As I noted in my earlier post, he may have suffered years of racial prejudice and abuse by Whites in Wisconsin and this particular incident was the last straw, but his reaction — especially how he shot several of the victims in the back — was extreme to say the least.

This case is a pretty sad tragedy for both sides.

On September 16, 2005, Vang was indeed found guilty on six counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Vang will now spend the rest of his life in jail with no possibility of parole (Wisconsin does not have the death penalty).