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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.

November 30, 2009

Written by C.N.

Good News and Bad News: Hate Crimes in 2008

Each year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation releases its official report on Hate Crimes in the U.S. First, a little background — hate crimes are defined as a criminal offense committed against a person or property, which is motivated, in whole or in part, by bias against the victim’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, and that is formally reported to law enforcement. This definition is important in many ways, as I explain a little later.

Regarding the just-released data for 2008, in comparison to the data from 2007, there are good news and there are bad news. First, some of the good news:

  • The number of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans declined from 188 incidents and 219 offenses in 2007, to 137 incidents and 162 offenses in 2008.
  • Similarly, the number of hate crimes committed against Hispanic Americans declined from 595 incidents and 775 offenses in 2007, to 561 incidents and 735 offenses in 2008.
  • The number of hate crimes committed against Muslim Americans also declined, from 115 incidents and 133 offenses in 2007, to 105 incidents and 123 offenses in 2008.

These are positive signs of progress and we should acknowledge them as such. Unfortunately there appears to be at least an equal number of bad news as well:

  • In total, the number of reported hate crimes are at their highest level since 2001. In 2008, there were 7,783 hate crime incidents and 9,168 hate crime offenses reported, an increase from 7,624 and 9,006 reported in 2007, respectively.
  • The number of hate crime crimes directed at Blacks increased from 2,658 incidents and 3,275 offenses in 2007, to 2,876 incidents and 3,413 offenses in 2008. Such anti-Black hate crimes are at their highest levels since 2001 and are pretty clear evidence that despite Barack Obama’s election, racism against Blacks is still alive and well in America.
  • Hate crimes based on sexual orientation are also at their highest level since 2001, increasing from 1,265 incidents and 1,460 offenses in 2007, to 1,297 and 1,617 in 2008, respectively.
  • Aside from the decline in anti-Muslim hate crimes, there was an overall increase in the number of hate crimes based on religious bias in general. For example, the number of hate incidents and offenses committed against Jewish Americans increased from 969 and 1,010 in 2007, to 1,013 and 1,055 in 2008, respectively.

To further put these hate crime numbers in perspective, we should note the specifics related to how they were collected. Specifically, as in years past, the vast majority of the law enforcement agencies who participated in the data collection (84.4% to be exact) reported absolutely zero hate crimes — that there were no hate crime incidents in their particular jurisdiction.

In addition, thousands of police agencies across the nation did not participate in the hate crime data collection program at all, including at least five agencies in cities with a popular of over 250,000 and at least eleven agencies in cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.

Many of these jurisdictions who did not participate or who reported zero hate crimes include areas in the South. I’m sorry, but I have a hard time accepting that there was only one (1) hate crime committed in the state of Mississippi, just two (2) in Georgia, and just four (4) in Alabama in 2008.

On top of this uneven and inconsistent participation and reporting on the part of police agencies, we should also note that, as sociological and criminological studies consistently point out, the majority of hate crime incidents are never reported to police at all — their victims stay silent. This is particularly true with many immigrant groups and communities of color, including Asian Americans.

That is, many victims may not be fluent in English and therefore feel that it is futile to report it to the police. They may also feel that the police would be unlikely to take their reports seriously for lack of cultural competency, or they may distrust the police entirely based on previous negative experiences with police in their area, or with corrupt police and government agencies back in their home country. Also, many victims may simply fear retaliation from the offenders if they report the incidents to police.

As you can see, the “official” data should be taken with a big grain of salt and almost surely represent an undercount — maybe even a significant one — of the real number of hate crimes committed in 2008. Unfortunately, in the quest for racial/ethnic/religious/sexual equality, American society still seems to be taking two steps forward, and two steps back.

November 24, 2009

Written by C.N.

Recession Can Lead to Better Race Relations

Many of my recent posts have described various examples in which the current recession has led many Americans — particularly Whites — to feel financially insecure and threatened. From there, they become more likely to scapegoat or lash out at others around them, particularly those who are racially or culturally different. It’s basic Sociology 101 — economic competition leads to racial hostility.

However and contrary to this established pattern, economic difficulties may also actually lead to better racial relations and harmony. How? Focusing on the situation of White and Black residents in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, a recent article from the New York Times describes:

Blacks and whites have encountered one another in increasing numbers recently in the crowded waiting rooms of the welfare office and at the food pantry, where many of both races have ventured for the first time. Struggling black-owned businesses are attracting the attention of white patrons. Neighbors are commiserating across racial lines. . . .

“Right now, a lot of white people are in this situation,” [Keasha Taylor, who is Black] said, recalling the conversation later. “We’re already used to poverty; they’re really not.” . . .

The recession hit Henry County . . . at a time when it was already struggling to come to terms with startling demographic change. In 1990, the county was almost 90 percent white. Now, as its population has more than tripled to 192,000, according to 2008 census estimates, the white percentage of the population has shrunk to 60 percent.

The county’s elected government is still all white and Republican, and some leaders and newcomers alike have tried in various ways to make local board and governments more diverse. But nothing else has worked to remove barriers as quickly as economic hardship. . . .

One reason blacks have not gained more political power is that they are not heavily concentrated in any single area in the county — the cul-de-sacs carved out of farmland and pastures in the last decade became racially mixed enclaves for the upwardly mobile. Now, the foreclosure notices and uncut lawns in those same subdivisions reinforce the notion that everyone is in the same sinking boat.

I suppose it’s like the old adage, “misery loves company.” On the one hand, it is a little sad that individuals and families apparently have to experience such turmoil for them to eventually turn to their racially diverse neighbors for support and sympathy.

But on the other hand, I personally would much rather have Americans from all racial backgrounds support each other during times of hardship than to compete against, fight with, and scapegoat each other, something that we unfortunately see too much of. It’s important to highlight how Americans from different backgrounds can put aside their “me first” attitudes and instead, draw on our common humanity to help our neighbors in times of need, as this recent NBC News clip shows:

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope all of us as Americans are able to be thankful that people who can give sympathy, support, and assistance in times of need are out there — sometimes they just have a different skin color or come from a different country than yours.

November 19, 2009

Written by C.N.

New Books: Different Aspects of Asian American Life

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.

While these three new books focus on their own particular detail of Asian American life, together they contribute to a larger and fuller understanding of the variety of issues that connect all Asian Americans, and Asian Americans to the rest of American society:

Asian Americans in New England: Culture and Community, edited by Monica Chiu (University Press of New England)

Asian Americans in New England, edited by Monica Chiu

This collection, the first to address Asian and Asian Americans’ contributions to New England, highlights a broad range of Asian American communities and historical experiences. From the poignant writings of a young Chinese immigrant to the influence of hip-hop in a New Hampshire Lao community, this original and unique collection seeks to establish a regional template for the study of Asian American lives and art far from the West Coast.

These essays provide not just a record of particular achievements but a full and vigorous engagement with Asian American culture along with an analysis of the depiction of Asian Americans in New England. This is an important and timely collection highlighting the creativity and diversity of one of the fastest-growing minority populations in the region.

The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University, by Mark Chiang (New York University Press)

The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies, by Mark Chiang

Originating in the 1968 student-led strike at San Francisco State University, Asian American Studies was founded as a result of student and community protests that sought to make education more accessible and relevant. While members of the Asian American communities initially served on the departmental advisory boards, planning and developing areas of the curriculum, university pressures eventually dictated their expulsion. At that moment in history, the intellectual work of the field was split off from its relation to the community at large, giving rise to the entire problematic of representation in the academic sphere.

Even as the original objectives of the field have remained elusive, Asian American studies has nevertheless managed to establish itself in the university. Mark Chiang argues that the fundamental precondition of institutionalization within the university is the production of cultural capital, and that in the case of Asian American Studies (as well as other fields of minority studies), the accumulation of cultural capital has come primarily from the conversion of political capital.

In this way, the definition of cultural capital becomes the primary terrain of political struggle in the university, and outlines the very conditions of possibility for political work within the academy. Beginning with the theoretical debates over identity politics and cultural nationalism, and working through the origins of ethnic studies in the Third World Strike, the formation of the Asian American literary field, and the Blue’s Hanging controversy, The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies articulates a new and innovative model of cultural and academic politics, illuminating the position of ethnic studies within the American university.

The Viet Kieu in America: Personal Accounts of Postwar Immigrants from Vietnam, edited by Nghia M. Vo (McFarland Publishing)

The Viet Kieu in America, edited by Nghia M. Vo

Vietnamese make up one of the largest refugee populations in the United States, some arriving by boat in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and others coming in the 1990s. This collection of 22 essays by 14 authors illuminates Vietnamese-American culture, views of freedom and oppression, and the issues of relocation, assimilation and transition for two million people. It contains personal experiences of the Vietnam War, life under Communist rule, and escape to America.

November 16, 2009

Written by C.N.

The U.S. and China: A Love-Hate Relationship

As all the major media organizations are reporting, President Obama is in the middle of a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting many of our major allies and trading partners, particularly China. Rather than focus specifically on the political and economic policies about which he and his Asian counterparts will speak, haggle, and disagree, I’d like to take his visit as an opportunity to focus on the love-hate relationship that the U.S. seems to have with China these days.

It is undeniable that globalization has made the economies of the U.S. and China much more intertwined and dependent on each other. One result of this trend is that when the U.S. economy is struggling (like it is these days), China has resources in terms of investing in U.S. businesses and opening up markets in China for U.S. businesses to sell to, both of which help alleviate some of those struggles. For example, and as a nice “Globalization 101” lesson, the Washington Post has an article that uses a few examples to describe U.S. companies vying for Chinese investment:

On visits to Shanghai and Beijing, Obama will encounter not simply a rising global power but a nation that is transforming and challenging the way Americans live overseas and at home, from college classrooms to real estate offices to the ginseng farms of central Wisconsin. . . .

“Years ago, it didn’t matter what we grew. They bought everything we had,” said Randy Ross, a 54-year-old former dairy farmer who has been growing ginseng since 1978. “Now we’ve got to learn how to satisfy them. They are changing us.” . . . Hate it or love it, China is a major player in American life. . . .

Meanwhile, in a state that has lost more than 160,000 (or one-third) of its manufacturing jobs in a decade, local newspapers have been running editorials praising the People’s Republic and blasting those who oppose closer trade ties or Chinese investment. “China is a friend to Wisconsin and its businesses, not an enemy in a trade war,” the Wisconsin State Journal said in an editorial.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Chinese undergraduates now account for more than half of the 1,109 Chinese students there. That increase is another sign that China is coming because Wisconsin, like many state schools, doesn’t provide scholarships for international undergrads. Last year, Chinese students paid out $2 billion in tuition nationwide. “That money is keeping some American colleges alive,” said Laurie Cox, who runs the international student center at the Madison campus.

The Washington Post article lists several other ways, many just using businesses in Wisconsin as examples, that Americans and American companies have become dependent on China. In reading over these accounts, one might conclude that to a certain extent, many Americans see China as an “economic savior,” without whom they would be much worse off.

On the other hand, we can contrast those positive sentiments with other, more negative assessments and suspicions about China’s impact on the U.S. I’ve already written Americans being upset towards China for unsafe consumer products, human rights abuses, and allegations of spying and espionage.

More specifically, within this same process of China investing in U.S. companies, many Americans allege that the main reason China is doing so is to take them over and use them to eventually dominate and “take over” the U.S. economy. These suspicions were illustrated loud and clear in a CBS 60 Minutes segment from April of 2008 (entire episode is below, about 12 minutes long):

As I mentioned, these suspicions about China’s “real” intentions are opposite sides of the same coin and are great illustrations of the love-hate relationship that we Americans have with the Chinese. We love their money and their 1.3 billion consumer market, but we hate that their money might lead to them having a say in how our business is run or may eventually lead to them taking over the business completely (this is sometimes referred to as the “New Yellow Peril.”)

In fact, this kind of love-hate relationship that the American society has with Asians, Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans is not new. Starting with when the first large-scale immigration of Chinese to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, reinforced through subsequent decades, and continuing these days, these kinds of contradictory sentiments have manifested themselves in different ways.

For example, mainstream American society loved our cheap labor, how hard we work, and that (at least in the past), we were relatively powerless in asserting our rights for equal treatment. But they hated that we wanted to settle here, raise families here, and that our hard work frequently resulted in us making more money.

In the past, mainstream American society and the White majority also did not want us to freely intermingle with them — that’s why they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and various other local and state laws that restricted where we could live, what jobs we could work in, and who we could marry. Such rampant hostility forced many of us to live in segregated ghettos as a matter of survival. But at the same time, they also criticized us for congregating in our own ethnic communities and accused us of not wanting to assimilate and to be American.

Fast forward to today and the same kind of cultural schizophrenia still exist in regard to the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society and the White majority. The most visible example seems to be simultaneous hopes and fears over China’s investment in the U.S. economy. Such contradictions are also seen when Asian Americans are both praised and criticized for supposedly being the “model minority.”

Alas, this seems to be the consistent pattern in terms of the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society — two steps forward, one step back.

November 12, 2009

Written by C.N.

Racial Attitudes and Discrimination in South Korea

Often, when I write about racism and anti-minority racial attitudes in the U.S., readers ask how such attitudes here in the U.S. compare with similar attitudes around the world. Frequently, the implication is, how bad do American racial minorities have it here, compared to other minorities around in other countries? This is often a very difficult question to answer because you have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

In other words, just like in any kind of ‘scientific’ study or research, you need to make sure that other conditions or factors are the as similar as possible so that you can isolate the one or two variables that do differ between two sample populations, in this case countries. However, since very few countries share the same history, institutional dynamics, population demographics, etc., such direct cross-national comparisons are difficult to make.

Nonetheless, it can still be interesting to compare and contrast such racial attitudes across countries, as long as we don’t generalize too much about them and prematurely conclude that one country is “better” than another in terms of how racial minorities are treated. In fact, I’ve posted about racial attitudes in Japan and Australia. With that disclaimer in mind, the New York Times recently posted an article that looks at how anti-minority attitudes may be changing in South Korea:

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” . . . is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate. Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. . . .

In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.” . . .

The Foreign Ministry supports an anti-discrimination law, said Kim Se-won, a ministry official. In 2007, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that South Korea adopt such a law . . . But [Critics of the proposed legislation] charged that such a law would only encourage even more migrant workers to come to South Korea, pushing native workers out of jobs and creating crime-infested slums. They also said it was too difficult to define what was racially or culturally offensive.

“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said one of the critics, Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”

The first part of the New York Times article describes specific incidents of discrimination faced by non-Korean individuals in the country and are very telling — anyone who is both non-Korean and non-White generally face a lot of hostility, but non-Koreans who are White (generally American or European) are admired, although still not seen as equal to Koreans. As one example:

[A Korean woman’s] father and other relatives grilled her as to whether she was dating Mr. Hussain [an Indian working in South Korea]. But when a cousin recently married a German, “all my relatives envied her, as if her marriage was a boon to our family,” she said.

Another interesting issue in this larger dynamic relates to how Asian Americans and Korean Americans are treated in South Korea. This example illustrates some of the contradictions that they face in the country:

Tammy Chu, 34, a Korean-born film director who was adopted by Americans and grew up in New York State, said she had been “scolded and yelled at” in Seoul subways for speaking in English and thus “not being Korean enough.” Then, she said, her applications for a job as an English teacher were rejected on the grounds that she was “not white enough.”

It is indeed sad to see that fist, non-White non-Koreans seem to face persistent racial prejudice and discrimination in South Korea. Many people of color in the U.S. can certainly relate to their situation and regardless of the country involved, people from all backgrounds deserve to be treated equally.

Second, it is also sad to see that much of South Korea appears to be in denial about what it means to live in the 21st century. Specifically, with globalization and international migration taking place all around them and leading to inevitable demographic shifts in almost all developed countries around the world, many South Koreans appear to be clinging to age-old stereotypes that “foreigners” are automatically bad for their country and will lead to the destruction of their economy and culture.

What this kind of attitude fails to recognize is that larger institutional trends are what is responsible for their country being in dire conditions to begin with and that the influx of immigrants is just one symptom of these larger social forces, not the original cause of them. In fact, the immigrants in their country likely provide many unseen benefits to the country. Unfortunately, their contributions are easily overlooked due to their status as manual laborers, their non-Korean and non-White background, and the general economic instability that leads many Koreans to vent their frustrations onto immigrants who they perceive to be competitors for scarce resources.

In that sense, the situation in South Korea in terms of how racially-distinct immigrants are treated is very similar to that in many other countries, including the U.S.

November 9, 2009

Written by C.N.

New York Marathon Winner: Not a ‘Real’ American?

A common theme in many of my recent posts has been the backlash among many White Americans against various demographic, cultural, political, economic, and globalized changes taking place in American society and the world in general. As their percentage of the U.S. population continues to shrink, as non-Whites become increasingly prominent in our society (represented at the very top by Barack Obama), and with the recession heightening their fears and insecurities, many White Americans have reacted angrily to their traditional “way of life” being threatened.

As I’ve argued, some recent examples of this kind of subtle and explicit anti-minority and anti-immigrant backlash include incidents of police brutality in San Jose, a newborn taken away from its mother because she was fluent in English, Black and Latino children excluded from an almost all-White swimming club, and various other incidents ranging from harassment to murder.

I don’t really enjoy writing about such incidents and would really like to let it go and instead, focus on more positive aspects of American society moving forward in the 21st century. But unfortunately, these kinds of racist backlash keep happening over and over again. The latest example involves Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean American who recently won the New York City Marathon. This video clip from MSNBC focuses on his well-earned victory:

Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, his victory has also led to charges that his victory should not really count as an “American” victory because he is not “really” American:

He was widely celebrated as the first American to win the New York race since 1982. Having immigrated to the United States at age 12, he is an American citizen and a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels. But, some said, because he was born in Eritrea, he is not really an American runner. . . .

The online postings about Keflezighi were anonymous. One of the milder ones on Letsrun.com said: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.”

A comment on The New York Times’s site said: “Keflezighi is really another elite African runner by birth, upbringing, and training. Americans are kidding themselves if they say he represents a resurgence of American distance prowess! On the other hand, he is an excellent representative of how we import everything we need!”

In a commentary on CNBC.com, Darren Rovell wrote, “Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”

To clarify, Keflezighi came to the U.S. at the age of 12, so he is part of what sociologists tend to call the “1.5” generation — immigrants who came to the U.S. at age 12 or younger and who were raised, socialized, and educated primarily within American society. As the NY Times article also notes, he is “a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels.”

The question becomes, if Keflezighi is not a “real” American, then what exactly are the qualifications of being a “real” American?

Apparently, coming to the U.S. at a young age and being raised and educated in the U.S. doesn’t qualify one as a “real” American. Neither does being a naturalized citizen. And according to many, being born in the U.S. is not enough to qualify someone as a “real” American either, as many Asian Americans will attest to, having their loyalties questioned, challenged, and attacked.

We need to call it for what it is — White racism, plain and simple.

The sad fact is, for many Americans, unless you are White, you will never be a “real” American. That includes non-White or -European immigrants and U.S.-born racial minorities. This institutional mentality has a long tradition throughout American history. Perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the Cherokee Nation.

In the early 1800s, with Whites encroaching on their traditional lands in the south, the Cherokees were basically told that if they wanted to physically survive, they had to discard their “savage” ways and become Americanized. The Cherokees proceeded to do just that and completely changed their way of life — they learned English as well as romanized their traditional language, began wearing “American” clothing, set up a bicameral governing structure based on Congress’s model, and changed their economy from one based on hunting to one focused on farming and trading.

But in the end, their efforts were in vain because they basically learned that despite their actions, since they were not White, they could never be American. The Cherokee were subsequently evicted from their lands and in the infamous “Trail of Tears” episode of American history, forcibly marched from northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee one thousand miles westward. Along the way, about 25% of the estimated 15,000 who started died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, or were murdered before finally reaching the Oklahoma territory and their newly-established “reservations.”

Even though non-Whites may display all the “normal” characteristics and behaviors of a “typical” American — being fluent in English, getting a good education and a good job, owning a nice house in the suburbs, paying taxes, voting in elections, attending Christian churches, going to ballgames and having backyard barbecues — unless you are White, your identity as a “real” American will inevitably be challenged in one way or another.

My fellow Asian American blogger Jenn at Reappropriate argues very succinctly:

Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.

As I’ve said before, change does not come easily and without resistance of one kind or another and unfortunately, this anti-immigrant and anti-minority backlash will exist for the foreseeable future.

November 6, 2009

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: November

You might be interested to read the following posts from Novembers of years past:

  • 2008: 14 Exit Poll Statistics About Obama’s Victory
    Analyzing exit poll data and voting patterns about Barack Obama’s election victory by race, ethnicity, and other social factors.
  • 2007: New Research on Race and Genetics
    New scientific research on genetics may challenge some long-held beliefs about whether there are distinct and inherent biological differences between members of particular racial groups.
  • 2006: Health Care Costs an Issue in China Too
    A recent incident illustrating the tragic consequences of the high cost of healthcare in China highlights some potential similarities with the U.S.
  • 2005: Daniel Dae Kim: One of the Sexiest Men Alive
    People Magazine names actor Daniel Dae Kim of the ABC series Lost as one of the sexiest men alive.
  • 2004: Tragedy in Wisconsin
    The murder of several Whites by a Hmong American leads to shock, grief, tensions, and questions over whether racism on both sides played a part in the incident.

November 4, 2009

Written by C.N.

John Liu: Asian American Politician on the Rise

Yesterday was Election Day and there were many Asian American candidates running for office throughout the country. For those who are curious, APAs for Progress has a summary of how individual Asian American candidates did in their particular contests. Perhaps the biggest win for Asian Americans came with the victory of John C. Liu to be New York City’s Comptroller. As the New York Times summarizes, Liu’s win is significant in many ways:

John C. Liu © Rob Bennett/New York Times

New York City Councilman John C. Liu was elected city comptroller in 2009, becoming the first Asian-American elected to citywide office in New York City. Mr. Liu’s victory could quickly make him a strong contender for mayor in 2013. . . .

In 2001 Mr. Liu, then a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, became the first Asian member of the City Council. The election was hailed as a watershed for the Chinese-American community, which had long been shut out of the political mainstream. Mr. Liu easily won re-election in 2003 and 2005.

These sentiments and early speculation about Liu’s plans for the future are echoed in another news report from New York City’s WCBS TV news station:

[Liu’s successful campaign] is a big deal to many. “He is also an immigrant like me, is not American-born like me, so it’s very exciting,” said supporter Wing Ma. Some see his victory as a fitting reflection of national politics in the age of Obama. “I see a parallel, for him to make history,” said Henry Singleton. . . .

Of course four years is a long way off and no one becomes mayor in this town without a fight, but on Tuesday night, New York’s new comptroller-elect is giving off the glow of a political rising star.

Indeed, a lot of good and bad things can happen to Liu in the next four years, so it is rather early to pencil him in for any higher political office at this point. Nonetheless, he is definitely a rising star in the Democratic party and among many Asian Americans and is worth keeping an eye on in the upcoming years.

I congratulate John C. Liu and wish him the best success.

November 2, 2009

Written by C.N.

Incidents of Anti-Vietnamese Police Brutality in San Jose

As many news organizations have been reporting, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose, CA are blasting the police department there for several incidents of police brutality, the latest one happening last month in which officers were videoed beating a young Vietnamese American man, Phuong Ho, who appeared to be unarmed and submissive, as shown below:

As the San Jose Mercury News reports, the incident started as a private argument with Ho and one of his roommates and escalated due to language and cultural barriers:

The grainy video depicts the event as Siegel struck Ho, a math major from Vietnam, more than 10 times with a baton in the hallway of the house. Payne shocked Ho with a Taser gun. Ho does not appear to be combative in the video, although it does not record the entire interaction between Ho and the officers. . . .

The incident developed after Ho had argued with a roommate over soap being slopped onto a steak. Ho reportedly picked up a steak knife and told the roommate that in Vietnam, “I would kill you” over that. Ho dropped the knife and was not armed by the time police arrived, according to witnesses.

Officer Siegel had trouble understanding Ho when he asked his name, and attempted to enter Ho’s room to look for identification. He told Ho to wait in the hall, according to police reports. When Ho ignored Siegel’s order and attempted to follow him into the room, Payne pushed him into a wall, setting off the events that another roommate captured on cell phone video, in which the officers are seen striking Ho as they yell at him to turn over onto his back.

As the Mercury News article notes and as Raj Jayadev at New America Media elaborates upon, this particular incident was just the latest in a series of questionable conduct by the San Jose police against the Vietnamese American community and other racial/ethnic minorities in the area, who allege that officers have engaged in police brutality on several occasions and on top of them, the police department and city officials have refused to address such allegations:

The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose because it comes on the heels of a year-long sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.

To begin with, last October, the Mercury News released data from the Department of Justice that showed that San Jose had a dramatically higher arrest rate for public intoxication that any other city in California (even those with much larger populations) and were arresting minorities at a disproportionate rate. Latinos in particular were heavily overrepresented in the arrest rates, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all arrests despite only representing 30 percent of the general population.

The news set of a firestorm in San Jose, leading to a raucous City Hall forum, where hundreds of people recounted stories of being arrested without cause, and roughed up in the process. . . .

On Mother’s Day of [2009], Daniel Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man with mental health issues, was shot and killed by police. Police were called after Pham cut his brother with a knife. Pham was dead shortly after they arrived. The San Jose Police Department did not release the police reports and the transcript of the 911 call, despite an overwhelming demand from the Vietnamese community for transparency.

The District Attorney chose to have a closed grand jury for the officer-involved shooting – meaning no one, including Pham’s family members, would be allowed to know what happened inside the courtroom. On Oct.18, 2009, the District Attorney announced the results of the closed grand jury – no indictment. The public still has no answers as to why Pham is dead, and there is a growing sentiment being voiced in the Vietnamese community not to call the police if they need help, lest they risk the fate of being the next Daniel Pham.

And just last week, days before the Phuong Ho video was released and days after the no indictment result of the Pham case, the City Council voted down a set of reforms that would have forced the San Jose Police Department to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding their department, and open up public access to police records. Mind you, these recommendations came from a Sunshine Reform Task Force assembled by the mayor himself, who had now become the most vocal proponent for not disclosing police files.

A number of community groups across ethnic lines – the Asian Law Alliance, NAACP, Vietnamese Association of Northern California, La Raza Lawyers Association, and others – have filed a demand for the immediate release of police reports associated with the Ho case. The city has yet to respond.

There are several aspects of these incidents of brutality and excessive force that are rather troubling. The first is that as the Mercury News article points out, the San Jose police department actually has several Vietnamese American officers and as far as I have heard, has done a relatively good job at recruiting and retaining such officers to supposedly better serve the Vietnamese American community there.

Secondly, much like their neighbors in San Francisco to the north, San Jose generally has a very racially and ethnically diverse population and a reputation as a relatively liberal community. With that in mind, one might presume that relations with their constituents would be better.

Nonetheless, despite the presence of Vietnamese American officers and the city’s liberal reputation, these incidents of police brutality and, just as important, the refusal of city and police officials to be transparent and accountable for such incidents continue to exist.

Why would this be the case? What other reasons might account for this widening rift between city and police officials and the residents they are supposed to “protect and serve?”

Until city and police officials open up and directly address these issues, we can only speculate about what else is going on. As such, I would hypothesize that the officials’ actions (or lack thereof) might be an unconscious form of resistance against the changing demographics and political/cultural makeup of the city.

As I’ve written about before, many (as in a large number, but not all) Whites likely feel threatened by the fact that “their” community, “their” state, and “their” country are increasingly become more culturally diverse and that the U.S.’s position as the dominant and most powerful country in the world is slowly eroding in the 21st century. On top of that, the current recession and the continuing effects of globalization have compounded their financial insecurities and personal anxieties.

Faced with these recent trends, many Whites have sought to adapt and indeed embrace such changes. However, these cultural, economic, and political shifts have led many others to become defensive and have led to a backlash. Others have pointed out that the vehement and racially-tinged opposition to President Obama by the far right is an example of this backlash. Further examples include increased interpersonal and institutional hostility towards immigrants and towards people of color in general, and Asian Americans continuing to be questioned on their loyalties and identity as “real” Americans.

It is within this larger social context that we might see the refusal of San Jose city and police officials to account for their actions and to make the details of police brutality allegations public as further examples of this unconscious White interpersonal and institutional backlash.

Change does not come easily and as sociologists have consistently documented, there is inevitably a stage of competition and conflict before things settle down and the cultural and political landscape stabilizes. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and other racial/ethnic minorities and immigrants throughout the country are likely to encounter more examples of these kinds of hostility.