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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.

July 31, 2007

Written by C.N.

New Forms of Assimilation

As a sociologist who studies immigration and assimilation, I have written before about how, in the context of today’s globalized and transnational 21st century American society, recent immigrants and the children of recent immigrants are blending old and new to create new forms of assimilation that incorporate elements from both mainstream American society and their ancestral culture. With that in mind, New American Media profiles this process among Latinos:

Latinos are assimilating, but in their own way, keeping much of their identity. Tamales at Christmas. Turkey and menudo at Thanksgiving. English at work and Spanish at home. Dual loyalties to the San Diego Chargers and Guadalajara Chivas. The Fourth of July. Cinco de Mayo. . . .

The big difference between European and Latino immigrants, according to Ramos and some sociologists, is that Hispanics live next to their countries of origin, allowing them to maintain ties with their family, culture and language. In addition, there exists today an extensive network of Spanish-language media. . . .

Defining assimilation is as complex as reforming immigration laws. Can you speak Spanish and be assimilated? Do you have to like hamburgers more than grilled steak tacos? When can you say you have achieved assimilation? . . . Richard Rodríguez, a writer who has published various books about the adaptation of Latinos to U.S. culture, said that assimilating is absorbing the individuality of the United States, and that this is precisely what Hispanics are doing.

This is exactly the type of “new assimilation” that I’ve been writing about, whether it happens to Latinos, Asians, or whoever else. As American society moves forward into the 21st century, it is inevitably becoming much more diverse — demographically and culturally. The practical reality is that non-White groups increasingly make up an every-increasing share of the U.S. population and that this demographic change is certain to bring cultural changes.

However and unfortunately, there are many Americans who bemoan and lament these changes and will insist that you can only be a “real” American if you are born in the U.S. and whose ancestors are White and came from Europe. Ultimately, there’s not much I or anybody else can do to change their mind or to encourage them to broaden their definition of who qualifies to be an “American.”

In the end, reactionaries like that are likely to be replaced by young Americans who are indeed forging their own sense of identity — one that includes being both Mexican, Chinese, or whatever and being American at the same time.

July 29, 2007

Written by C.N.

Racial Integration in Public Schools

You may have heard that in July 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two landmark affirmative action cases. In both cases, the Court basically ruled that school desegregation plans that are based on race/ethnicity are unconstitutional. In other words, using the race/ethnicity of students to decide who goes to what school is illegal.

With that in mind, the question becomes, how about school desegregation plans that are based on social class instead — how effective are they at achieving racial/ethnic integration? Try shed light on this question, the New York Times examines the case of several public school districts around the country and finds that in many cases, using social class instead of race to achieve racial integration is not a magical cure-all:

San Francisco began considering factors like family income, instead of race, in school assignments when it modified a court-ordered desegregation plan in response to a lawsuit. But school officials have found that the 55,000-student city school district, with Chinese the dominant ethnic group followed by Hispanics, blacks and whites, is resegregrating.

The number of schools where students of a single racial or ethnic group make up 60 percent or more of the population in at least one grade is increasing sharply. In 2005-06, about 50 schools were segregated using that standard as measured by a court-appointed monitor. That was up from 30 schools in the 2001-02 school year, the year before the change, according to court filings. . . .

Many of these experiments are modest, involve small districts or have been in place only a few years. But the experiences of these districts show how difficult it can be to balance socioeconomic diversity, racial integration and academic success.

Only a few plans appear to have achieved all three goals. Others promote income diversity but not racial integration while still other plans are limited and their results inconclusive. Those who have studied them say a key to that outcome is how aggressively a plan shifts students around and whether there are many schools that can lure middle-class students from their neighborhoods into poor ones.

To be sure, racial integration in public schools is a complicated issue. In this context, the main point that I want to emphasize is that, while educational policy is not one of my specific areas of expertise, it seems to me that the fundamental problem here is that some schools have more money and other resources than others and that racial segregation is just a symptom of this basic inequality.

In other words, as a result of the larger issue of residential segregation, in many public school districts, Black students are frequently confined to neighborhoods where property values — and therefore property taxes that are used to fund schools in that district — are lower than in predominantly White suburbs. Therefore, while money doesn’t solve everything, these mainly Black schools have less money to hire high quality teachers and to buy equipment, materials, fix their infrastructure, fund extracurricular activities, etc.

Therefore, while I may be totally missing the picture, it seems to me that in order to fix the problem at its most basic level, what we need first is a reshuffling of funds before we try to reshuffle students. That is, some kind of redistribution of school funds seems to be the only solution that will begin the process of eventual racial integration.

Of course, affluent school districts won’t be keen to have some of their money taken away. But maybe they won’t have to — maybe the answer is for the state to redistribute funds from other projects or to generate new funds for these needy district some other way. The bottom line is, if educating our young people is the key to our future, we need to look at the root cause of the problem and then every option available to address that problem.

July 26, 2007

Written by C.N.

Allowing Non-Citizens to Vote

One of the basic benefits of being a U.S. citizen is that it gives you the privilege of being able to vote in elections. However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, in many localities around the country, there is a small but growing movement to extend the right to vote to non-citizen immigrants, which not surprisingly, involves strong opinions on both sides:

Supporters argue that non-citizens are long-term residents who care about the same local issues that citizens do: good schools, safe streets, reliable trash collection. Many pay taxes. Some are US military veterans. “They’re living there, they have their kids in school, they’re working, they’re contributing to the local economy,” says Kathleen Coll, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “They’re full, complete local citizens [who are] affected by local policies.” . . .

Some advocates want to limit voting rights to legal immigrants who intend to become citizens but haven’t completed the process. Because naturalization takes on average eight years, the Migration Policy Institute reports, parents could see their 10-year-old graduate from high school before having a say in the public school system. . . .

But enfranchising non-citizens would unfairly dilute the strength of citizens’ votes, says one critic, Steve Cameron, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. . . . For opponents, reviving the practice is just another step in accommodating unnecessary – and sometimes unlawful – immigrants.

As you see, the debate around the merits of immigration — legal and illegal — are still raging in this country. If you’re familiar with any of my previous postings, you already know that I strongly support immigrant rights — legal and illegal. With that in mind, it won’t come as a shock to hear that I strongly support these efforts to give non-citizens the right to vote — provided that they are legal immigrants, however.

I completely support the argument that the most important factor in deciding who gets to vote should be whether a person contributes to the cultural, political, and economic strength of the country, not whether a person happens to be born inside the U.S. or not.

In that sense, a non-citizen immigrant who pays federal, state, and sales taxes, spends almost all of his/her income in the U.S., obeys its laws, etc. should have at least as much of a right to vote than someone who is too lazy to get an education, skips paying taxes, and is constantly engaging in criminal activity, but happens to be born in the U.S.

To paraphrase the great Martin Luther King, Jr., what should matter is not the country in which you were born, but by the content of your deeds and actions while in the U.S.

July 24, 2007

Written by C.N.

Attitudes Towards Muslim Americans

In a previous post, I wrote about a new comprehensive report that describes the socioeconomic characteristics and cultural attitudes of Muslim Americans. Of course, the flip side of this topic is, now that we know what Muslim Americans are like and what they think, what do other Americans think about them — how does American society see Muslim Americans? To try to answer that question, Newsweek just released their own public opinion survey about American attitudes towards Muslim Americans:

Forty percent of those surveyed believe Muslims in the United States are as loyal to the U.S. as they are to Islam. (Thirty-two percent believe American Muslims are less loyal to the U.S.) But close to half (46 percent) of Americans say this country allows too many immigrants to come here from Muslim countries.

A solid majority of Americans (63 percent) believe most Muslims in this country do not condone violence, and 40 percent tend to believe the Qur’an itself does not condone violence (28 percent feel it does). But 41 percent of Americans feel Muslim culture glorifies suicide.

Most Americans surveyed (52 percent) view Muslims who live here as more peaceable than those living outside the United States. (Only 7 percent think Muslims here are less peaceable.) Still, there is a high level of concern among Americans about Islamic radicals inside the United States. A majority of Americans report being either “somewhat” (38 percent) or “very worried” (16 percent) about radicals within the American Muslim community.

The concern over radicalism seems to translate into some support for FBI wiretapping of mosques. Roughly half (52 percent) of the poll’s respondents favor this kind of surveillance. The same number rejects the notion that Muslim Americans are unfairly singled out or profiled by law enforcement, while more than a third (38 percent) do think Muslims are unfairly targeted. Yet if a 9/11-style terrorist attack were to occur again, only 25 percent of Americans would support mass detentions of U.S. Muslims; a solid majority (60 percent) would oppose such detentions.

The main drawback to this Newsweek survey is that we don’t have any other racial/ethnic/religious group with which to compare these attitudes about Muslim Americans. In other words, when 32% of Americans say Muslim Americans are more loyal to Islam than to the U.S., how would that compare to, say, Asians. In other words, how many Americans believe that Asian Americans are more loyal to their Asian ancestral country than to the U.S.?

Despite this particular weakness of the survey, my interpretation of the results is that while Newsweek seems to portray Americans’ attitudes as largely accepting of Muslim Americans, I tend to think otherwise. To me, 40% of Americans saying that Muslim Americans are more loyal to the U.S. than to Islam is not something to celebrate.

In other words, while it may seem as though “most” Americans tend to be more sympathetic rather than hostile towards Muslim Americans, ultimately, the relatively tepid level of support and understanding that comes across in these results does not suggest to me that most Americans are accepting of Muslims in the U.S.

July 22, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Future of Chinatowns

When most Americans think about how or why the first Chinatowns appeared in California in the mid-1800s, most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to live among each other and to seclude themselves from the rest of American society. In fact, the real reason why Chinatowns first appeared was just the opposite — Chinese immigrants were basically forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no other choice.

You see, as after the end of the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, White workers increasingly saw Chinese immigrants as economic threats who would someday take over their jobs. Based on these paranoid and racist sentiments, an anti-Chinese movement emerged that eventually culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S., and for those already here, forbidden from becoming U.S. citizens.

Other local and state laws restricted where the Chinese could live, what jobs they could have, denied them a public education, and prevented them from marrying Whites. In other words, it was not a matter of the Chinese not wanting to assimilate into mainstream American society — in fact, they weren’t even given the option of even attempting to do so.

Therefore, in the face of this overwhelming hostility, for their physical and economic survival, Chinese immigrants had no other choice but to form their own ethnic enclaves — the first Chinatowns. These Chinatowns at least allowed the Chinese to make a living among themselves, taught them small business ownership skills, and as some scholars argued, ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.

In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best, seen as curious outposts where visitors could experience a “taste of the exotic” and at its worst, as filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land. Based on these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone — until now.

Starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country began to flourish and expand (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. As more Chinese immigrants moved in and ethnic businesses opened up, these Chinatowns almost single-handedly revitalized many largely abandoned urban downtown areas.

However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, their recent success has started to lead to their undoing — as downtown areas become hip, fashionable, trendy, and desirable again, many Chinatowns are fighting for their existence in the face of overwhelming demands for their land and grand development plans:

Residents of [Boston’s] Chinatown next door see the 20 acres – called the “Chinatown Gateway” on zoning maps – as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch. But the city’s redevelopment authority has dubbed the area “South Bay” and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

This struggle in Boston is the latest in a land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America’s downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, usually with few skills and no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as magnets for new arrivals. San Diego’s Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as “Chinatown” in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots. . . .

Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?” asks Mr. [Peter] Kwong, the author.

Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history as the article implies? To be honest, the picture is not encouraging. As history shows, much like how the spread of capitalism around the world has fundamentally transformed many societies and economies, the march of gentrification and urban/suburban development has been almost overwhelming and has leveled historic neighborhood after historic neighborhood. Therefore, on that front, the prognosis is not encouraging.

At the same time, the other component of this trend lies with the Asian American population itself and the paradoxes of its successes. That is, as Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority White population — and in some instances, have surpassed them — many Asian Americans feel uninhibited and unrestricted in moving into mixed or predominantly White affluent neighborhoods and other social settings.

In other words, Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream. As a result, many may not longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns any longer. While they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they want to enjoy the products and luxuries of their hard work, many of which are likely to be located outside of traditional urban Chinatowns. In that sense, for many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.

However, in the midst of these developments, there seems to be an interesting middle ground emerging — the development of suburban Chinatowns and ethnic enclaves. Rather than being located inside crowded urban downtown areas, many of these new ethnic enclaves are located in the suburbs and therein lies their appeal — Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities associated with their affluence that only suburbs can provide while at the same time, also enjoy the company and social-psychological comfort of having large numbers of co-ethnic neighbors.

In fact, many suburban Chinatowns and other Asian-majority communities now exist around the country — Monterey Park and its surrounding cities in southern California; Sunnyvale and its neighboring cities in northern California; and Flushing, Bayside, and Palisades Park and others in the New York City metropolitan area. As they continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.

That is, as the world in general but American society in particular continue to become more globalized and transnational, the definition of what it means to be an American is changing and expanding. The new, emerging picture includes room for those who may not have been born in the U.S., who may not be White, and who might prefer to live in a co-ethnic enclave, but who nonetheless consistently make valuable contributions to American society, its culture, and its economy.

Ultimately, we may not know what will become of the traditional urban Chinatowns that are increasingly becoming gentrified. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that while the form and location of these ethnic enclaves may change, their vibrancy, attraction, and value to American culture remains as strong as ever.

July 11, 2007

Written by C.N.

Temporary Hiatus: Going to a Meditation Retreat

This post is to let you, my loyal readers, know that I will be on hiatus for the next week-and-a-half or so — I will be attending a ten-day silent Vipassana Buddhist meditation retreat. I’ve attended this retreat two times already but this time, a couple of buddies are driving in from out-of-town to attend the retreat for the first time, and I will be joining them.

The Vipassana tradition of Buddhist meditation is considered to be a very traditional, orthodox, and rather grueling form of Buddhist meditation and in addition to it being ten days, participants are not allowed to talk at all during the whole period, nor even to acknowledge anyone else’s presence. And of course, there is no TV, radio, books, music, or Internet allowed.

We’re not likely to achieve nirvana any time soon, but each step that gets us closer to that goal is a good thing. In the meantime, thanks for your patience and I’ll blog again when I get back.

July 9, 2007

Written by C.N.

Corporate Sponsorship, Human Rights, and the Chinese Olympics

You might recall that next year, the Summer Olympics will be held in Beijing, China. Ever since Beijing was selected as the host city, there have been a storm of outcry and controversy regarding its appropriateness, given international criticism about internal human rights abuses and individual liberty restrictions, its continuing occupation of Tibet, accelerating environmental degradation, and implicit support of totalitarian regimes such as Sudan, to name the main issues.

Nonetheless, with the 2008 Olympics fast approaching, China’s critics are preparing to use the Games to amplify their criticisms against China. However, since the Olympic Games also represent a major corporate sponsorship opportunity for many U.S. companies, many of whom stand to be judged guilty by association if they have any involvement in the Games. As BusinessWeek magazine reports, these companies are seemingly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place:

[M]ost sponsors are counting on a high-profile presence in Beijing to build their brands in the mainland and win favor among Chinese consumers and officials alike. . . . [At the same time,] says Matt Whitticase, press officer with The Free Tibet Campaign, which opposes Chinese rule in Tibet: “You cannot as a large multinational trumpet your corporate responsibility credentials, while at the same time indulging China and refusing to criticize it.” . . . .

To deflect criticism, most sponsors seem to be following a three-pronged strategy: They stress the global nature of the Games, point to other charitable work, and show concern for the activists’ causes without directly mentioning Beijing. Companies are likely to “express their commitment to human rights in ways that don’t clearly embarrass their Chinese hosts,” says Shireman of Future 500. . . .

McDonald’s says the Olympics are not the right forum for discussing Darfur. GE notes that its foundation has given $2 million to fund humanitarian efforts in Sudan. United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) highlights its work in aiding the poor worldwide. . . . Adidas says it is open to dialogue with activists. But rather than lean on the Chinese government, the maker of athletic shoes prefers to spur change by pressuring its suppliers, “where we have direct influence,” says Frank Henke, Adidas’ global director for social and environmental affairs.

Some time ago, I wrote about the controversy surrounding Internet search giants such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft censoring their search results for users in China, in accordance with the Chinese government’s restrictions. In that post, I said that it was rather hypocritical for companies, particularly Google and its corporate-wide credo of “Don’t Be Evil,” to turn around and ignore these principles of free speech by helping the Chinese government with their censorship activities.

In this case with Olympics sponsors, there is no such contradiction — these multinational corporations have no corporate credo about not doing evil, promoting free speech, or any other idealistic principle about furthering the human community. Instead, their own credo is maximum profits and maximum returns for their shareholders. Therefore, I am not surprised at all to hear that apparently, the vast majority of them consider activist protests against their participation in the Chinese Olympics as a mere public relations nuisance.

On the other hand, with the power of the Internet and its ability to facilitate communication and coordination of activism, these corporations may be in for a rude awakening if calls for boycotts and other actions against them reach a critical mass, due to their implicit support of Chinese repression. We’ve seen it before — General Electric leaving the defense contractor business, Nike paying more attention to working conditions in their overseas factories, companies divesting from Sudan, campaigns to get colleges to stop doing business with Coke, etc.

Public revolts against oppression — and those implicitly supporting oppression — are real and in many cases, are effective. That’s the bottom line that these corporations might need to pay more attention to.

July 6, 2007

Written by C.N.

Lack of Minority Faculty Still an Issue

As American society becomes more culturally diverse, it seems that it would make sense for our colleges and universities to reflect that change (or if anything, be at the forefront of such changes) and have faculty that also is culturally diverse. But as Diverse Education reports, these efforts still have a long way to go in order to become reality:

This is the breakdown by race/ethnicity of full-time faculty for 2003 according to U.S. Department of Education, IPEDS Fall Staff Survey; EEOC, EEO-6 Survey: White 81 percent; Black 5 percent; Hispanic 3 percent; Asian 6.5 percent; American Indian less than 1 percent; race/ethnicity unknown 1 percent; and non-resident alien 3.3 percent.

They shared their experiences of racism and some universities’ deferred efforts to diversify their institutions as part of a discussion to identify the problem behind low faculty diversity. Some blamed institutional racism, which they agreed to be the most dangerous form of racism, yet the most prominent on their campuses. “We are our own enemies,” said Dr. Marybeth Gasman, chair of the AAUP Committee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When I was in grad school and decided to do my dissertation on philanthropy and African Americans in higher education, I was pulled aside by a senior faculty member who said, ‘I know you’re interested in this but you will be ghettoized if you do this, not get published or find a job.’” Gasman said many students of color are given this same message and a lot of faculty “poo-poo” on their ideas, which is why having a diverse faculty is critical.

To summarize and unfortunately, despite the fact that most academic disciplines and colleges in general tend to be more liberal than conservative and therefore should be much more aware and open to having a more culturally diverse faculty, the practical reality is that there are still too many mechanisms of institutional entrenchment, aversion to change, and outright racial discrimination that result in minority students and faculty feeling unsupported and unwelcome.

In other words, there is plenty of talk, but not much walk.

July 4, 2007

Written by C.N.

Mindfulness Meditation in the Classroom

Hot on the heels of my previous post about the rising popularity of Japanese manga, as a further example of how elements of traditional Asian culture are increasingly becoming incorporated into mainstream American society, the New York Times describes how many elementary schools are increasingly teaching mindfulness meditation to help students reduce stress and concentrate, inside and outside the classroom:

As summer looms, students at dozens of schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept — as they did yoga five years ago. . . .

Although some students take naturally to mindfulness, it is “not a magic bullet,” said Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. center. She said the research thus far was “inconclusive” about how effective mindfulness was for children who suffered from trauma-related disorders, for example. It is “a slow process,” Ms. Winston added.

I applaud these schools for taking the initiative to expand their curriculum to include these meditation techniques to their students. Ultimately, these skills they learn in trying to reduce their stress, staying calm in different social situations, and showing greater thoughtfulness and tolerance to others around them, might be one of the most useful skills they’ll learn while in school.

July 2, 2007

Written by C.N.

Japanese Manga Becomes Mainstream in U.S.

The past several years have seen various forms of Asian popular culture become incorporated into mainstream American culture, including Asian martial arts and horror movies, sudoku, and anime. As AsianWeek Magazine reports, anime’s comic book cousin, manga, is set to become the latest Asian import to make it into the American mainstream:

Manga has gone mainstream, as evidenced by a recent Matcha event, the Asian Art Museum’s monthly Thursday evening mixer. There were pierced art students, curious elderly couples, nerdy white boys, neat businessmen, cliquey Asian high schoolers, and attractive twentysomething hipsters, all immersed in the colorful world of manga via the museum’s new exhibit, Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga.

Manga has melded into so much of pop culture, street art, clothes and Hollywood movies that labeling it “an Asian thing” can make one appear ignorant. “It’s not an Asian thing,” says Tony Benavidez, an emergency medical technician who grew up in Texas. However, “anime draws people to learn about Asian culture. Even in Texas, my Mexican friends watched anime with us on Saturday mornings.”

As I’ve noted in my article on Asian Cultural Icons, I think the popularity of Asian imports such as anime and manga are generally positive trends, since they signify a growing acceptance of Asian culture into American culture. But as I also wrote, it would be nice if such cultural trends would also lead to greater institutional acceptance of Asians and Asian Americans, in the form of fewer hate crimes, greater political representation, no more occupational discrimination, etc.

Oh well, I guess we’ll have to take these little “victories” one at a time.