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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.
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.
This is the first week of classes for many colleges and universities around the country, including here at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This semester I am teaching a new course: “The Sociology of Immigration” (in case you’re curious, you can download a PDF of the syllabus). It’s a topic that is central and directly relevant to many issues that I cover in this blog, and a course that I have always wanted to teach but haven’t had the opportunity to do so until now.
President Obama has also recently suggested that immigration reform is one of the next major policy issues that he and his administration want to address next (although he said this before the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown in MA). Presuming that he follows through on this promise, immigration is set to again move to the front burner of American discussion and controversy.
With these things in mind, I plan on writing a more detailed post about immigration reform soon but in the meantime, I would like to highlight some new books on different aspects of the immigration issue that I will be using as source material for my “Sociology of Immigration” course and that will hopefully provide some sociological data and analysis to help us tackle the question of immigration reform.
The first book, Reinventing the Melting Pot, is the textbook that I have assigned to my students in my “Sociology of Immigration” course.
In Reinventing the Melting Pot, twenty-one of the writers who have thought longest and hardest about immigration come together around a surprising consensus: yes, immigrant absorption still works-and given the number of newcomers arriving today, the nation’s future depends on it. But it need not be incompatible with ethnic identity-and we as a nation need to find new ways to talk about and encourage becoming American.
In the wake of 9/11 it couldn’t be more important to help these newcomers find a way to fit in. Running through these essays is a single common theme: Although ethnicity plays a more important role now than ever before, today’s newcomers can and will become Americans and enrich our national life-reinventing the melting pot and reminding us all what we have in common.
African Americans grappled with Jim Crow segregation until it was legally overturned in the 1960s. In subsequent decades, the country witnessed a new wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America—forever changing the face of American society. In The Diversity Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean take these two poles of American collective identity—the legacy of slavery and immigration—and ask if today’s immigrants are destined to become racialized minorities akin to African Americans or if their incorporation into U.S. society will more closely resemble that of their European predecessors.
The Diversity Paradox uses population-based analyses and in-depth interviews to examine patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. Lee and Bean . . . show that Asians and Latinos with mixed ancestry are not constrained by strict racial categories. Racial status often shifts according to situation. Individuals can choose to identify along ethnic lines or as white, and their decisions are rarely questioned by outsiders or institutions. These groups also intermarry at higher rates, which is viewed as part of the process of becoming “American” and a form of upward social mobility.
African Americans, in contrast, intermarry at significantly lower rates than Asians and Latinos. Further, multiracial blacks often choose not to identify as such and are typically perceived as being black only—underscoring the stigma attached to being African American and the entrenchment of the “one-drop” rule. Asians and Latinos are successfully disengaging their national origins from the concept of race—like European immigrants before them.
The Diversity Paradox is an extensive and eloquent examination of how contemporary immigration and the country’s new diversity are redefining the boundaries of race. The book also lays bare the powerful reality that as the old black/white color line fades a new one may well be emerging—with many African Americans still on the other side.
As the authors state in Chapter 1, “[T]he movement of people across national borders represents one of the most vivid dramas of social reality in the contemporary world.” This comparative text examines contemporary immigration across the globe, focusing on 20 major nations.
Noted scholars Peter Kivisto and Thomas Faist introduce students to important topics of inquiry at the heart of the field, including: (a) Movement: explores the theories of migration using a historical perspective of the modern world; (b) Settlement: provides clarity concerning the controversial matter of immigrant incorporation and refers to the varied ways immigrants come to be a part of a new society; and (c) Control: focuses on the politics of immigration and examines the role of states in shaping how people choose to migrate.
Immigrants and their children comprise nearly three-fifths of New York City’s population and even more of Miami and Los Angeles. But the United States is also a nation with entrenched racial divisions that are being complicated by the arrival of newcomers. While immigrant parents may often fear that their children will “disappear” into American mainstream society, leaving behind their ethnic ties, many experts fear that they won’t—evolving instead into a permanent unassimilated and underemployed underclass.
Inheriting the City confronts these fears with evidence, reporting the results of a major study examining the social, cultural, political, and economic lives of today’s second generation in metropolitan New York, and showing how they fare relative to their first-generation parents and native-stock counterparts. The authors studied the young adult offspring of West Indian, Chinese, Dominican, South American, and Russian Jewish immigrants and compared them to blacks, whites, and Puerto Ricans with native-born parents.
They find that today’s second generation is generally faring better than their parents, with Chinese and Russian Jewish young adults achieving the greatest education and economic advancement, beyond their first-generation parents and even beyond their native-white peers. Every second-generation group is doing at least marginally—and, in many cases, significantly—better than natives of the same racial group across several domains of life. Economically, each second-generation group earns as much or more than its native-born comparison group, especially African Americans and Puerto Ricans, who experience the most persistent disadvantage.
Inheriting the City shows the children of immigrants can often take advantage of policies and programs that were designed for native-born minorities in the wake of the civil rights era. Indeed, the ability to choose elements from both immigrant and native-born cultures has produced, the authors argue, a second-generation advantage that catalyzes both upward mobility and an evolution of mainstream American culture. . . . Adapting elements from their parents’ cultures as well as from their native-born peers, the children of immigrants are not only transforming the American city but also what it means to be American.
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.
As some of my readers have lamented, one of the drawbacks about looking at racial issues is that much of the research and writing focuses on the negatives — what’s wrong with the situation, who/which groups is/are hurt the most, how society is not just flawed but even responsible for the mess, etc. With that in mind, these new books look at the positives and successes — how we can and have moved forward toward more racial equality.
Richard Alba argues that the social cleavages that separate Americans into distinct, unequal ethno-racial groups could narrow dramatically in the coming decades. During the mid-twentieth century, the dominant position of the United States in the postwar world economy led to a rapid expansion of education and labor opportunities. As a result of their newfound access to training and jobs, many ethnic and religious outsiders, among them Jews and Italians, finally gained full acceptance as members of the mainstream.
Alba proposes that this large-scale assimilation of white ethnics was a result of “non-zero-sum mobility,” which he defines as the social ascent of members of disadvantaged groups that can take place without affecting the life chances of those who are already members of the established majority.
Alba shows that non-zero-sum mobility could play out positively in the future as the baby-boom generation retires, opening up the higher rungs of the labor market. Because of the changing demography of the country, many fewer whites will be coming of age than will be retiring. Hence, the opportunity exists for members of other groups to move up.
However, Alba cautions, this demographic shift will only benefit disadvantaged American minorities if they are provided with access to education and training. In Blurring the Color Line, Alba explores a future in which socially mobile minorities could blur stark boundaries and gain much more control over the social expression of racial differences.
Race, age, political affiliation, country of origin, native language—too often Americans define themselves, and are defined, by the differences that separate them. But if the 2008 presidential campaign has taught us anything, it is that we as a people want to look beyond these divisions to the values and interests that unite us.
New Common Ground embodies this zeitgeist, showing the ways that traditional boundaries among ethnic groups, political ideologies, and generations are blurring, and how to hasten the process. New Common Ground demonstrates that even though the deepest divide in America is said to be racial, the differences in viewpoints and values among races are declining, even in an age of increased intermarriage.
On immigration and other controversial matters, Etzioni argues for diversity within unity and the means to achieve that necessary end. New Common Ground is a provocative and insightful look into how we as Americans can reach consensus not just in spite of our diversity but also in ways that strengthen our commitment to the good of one and all as we seek to overcome the divisiveness that sometimes results from identity politics. The book closes by looking beyond our shores to the bridges that bring America closer to the rest of the world.
In Chains of Babylon, Daryl J. Maeda presents a cultural history of Asian American activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, showing how the movement created the category of “Asian American” to join Asians of many ethnicities in racial solidarity. Drawing on the Black Power and antiwar movements, Asian American radicals argued that all Asians in the United States should resist assimilation and band together to oppose racism within the country and imperialism abroad.
As revealed in Maeda’s in-depth work, the Asian American movement contended that people of all Asian ethnicities in the United States shared a common relationship to oppression and exploitation with each other and with other nonwhite peoples. In the early stages of the civil rights era, the possibility of assimilation was held out to Asian Americans under a model minority myth.
Maeda insists that it was only in the disruption of that myth for both African Americans and Asian Americans in the 1960s and 1970s that the full Asian American culture and movement he describes could emerge. Maeda challenges accounts of the post-1968 era as hopelessly divisive by examining how racial and cultural identity enabled Asian Americans to see eye-to-eye with and support other groups of color in their campaigns for social justice.
Asian American opposition to the war in Vietnam, unlike that of the broader antiwar movement, was predicated on understanding it as a racial, specifically anti-Asian genocide. Throughout he argues that cultural critiques of racism and imperialism, the twin “chains of Babylon” of the title, informed the construction of a multiethnic Asian American identity committed to interracial and transnational solidarity.
2007: The Downside of Diversity A new study questions whether racial/ethnic and cultural diversity actually produces a net benefit for American society.
2006: Latest ACT Scores by Racial Group The latest statistical breakdown of ACT scores across different racial/ethnic groups sheds some light on one aspect of the model minority image for Asian Americans.
2005: Asian Names: Americanize or Not? Examining a common dilemma among Asian Americans: whether to keep using their given Asian name, or switch to an “easier-to-pronounce” Americanized name.
Nikki Randhawa Haley, 37, who is in the fray for the post of governor of South Carolina in the US, says she is in the race to win. If she gets elected, Nikki will be the first Indian American woman to become governor in the US, and the second Indian after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana state. A member of the South Carolina state assembly since 2004, Nikki is one of the three candidates to seek nomination from her Republican party for the 2010 elections. . . .
Asked whether her Indian background will matter in the race, she said: “What matters most in South Carolina — and I imagine elsewhere in the country — is not the personalities of the candidates but the message they carry.” . . . Reminded of her maiden campaign in 2004 when her opponents had raised the issue of her ethnic background, she said: “I imagine my opponents will throw everything they can and more at me over the course of the campaign.
“That said, those opponents will not be the focus of our campaign — we will keep our focus on reforming the backward way South Carolina’s government operates and bringing good government back to the people.” Nikki added: “I am very proud of my background and how I was raised. Just as in 2004 I will hold my head high and focus on what I can do for the people of this state.”
To be honest, this is the first that I’ve heard of Nikki Randhawa Haley. It is interesting to see that like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, she is both Indian American and a Republican. As with Jindal, being a Republican makes her a minority within her own ethnic group, who strongly lean Democratic and with the overall political preferences of Asian Americans in general.
Nonetheless, as with Jindal, I think it’s great that more Asian Americans are participating in the political arenas on the state and federal levels and that they are increasingly vying for — and achieving — the highest political offices and positions available (as a reminder, in addition to Jindal, we have Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Joseph Cao (the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress), Michelle Rhee (high-profile Chancellor of Washington DC’s public schools), and most recently, Councilman Sam Yoon running for Mayor of Boston, Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress), and Jacqueline Nguyen, recently nominated by President Obama to become our country’s only current Asian American federal judge.
I find it very encouraging that Asian Americans are becoming more fully integrated into mainstream American institutions such as politics. This actually leads me to the second news story that caught my eye: I was watching the CBS Evening News the other day and the following segment came on, profiling Edward Tom, Principal at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a magnet school in New York City:
After watching the segment, I basically thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool — a principal who gave up a cushy job to work with inner-city kids and to try to help them succeed in life and overcome the obstacles in front of them. Good for him.”
It only dawned on me a little bit later that he was Asian American.
I had to take a few minutes to reflect on this quick realization. Combined with the first part of this post about the emergence of new Asian American politicians, I struck me that perhaps I am now beginning to see what I hoped I would see one day in my lifetime: Asian Americans are so much an integral part of American society that it’s no longer a surprise when I see them in the news or in other media.
In other words, perhaps we are beginning to see that mainstream American society no longer thinks of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, as “the other,” or as completely invisible altogether. Instead, with the recent examples of Randhawa Haley, Jindal, Chu, Shinseki, Locke, Rhee, Cao, Yoon, Chu, Nguyen, Tom, and other Asian Americans increasingly attaining high-level and high-profile positions, maybe we as a community have turned the corner in our quest for true integration into American society.
Having said that, I am under no illusions that we no longer experience racial prejudice or outright discrimination or that our identities as “real” Americans will no longer be questioned (you only have to read my recent posts for examples of that). There is still plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence that Asian Americans are still underrepresented and under-appreciated in many aspects and institutions of American society.
Nonetheless, I think these are very positive developments and it gives me hope that despite the struggles still to come, American society is moving in the right direction.
For my readers who like (or are brave enough) to keep on top of the latest sociological research on immigration, assimilation, and the adaptation of second generation Asian Americans and Latino Americans, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2009, Volume 35 Issue 7) has just released a special issue that they’ve titled, “Local Contexts and the Prospects for the US Second Generation.”
Unfortunately, if you’re not in academics, you’re unlikely to find this journal in your local public library, only in college libraries. Below are the citations and abstracts for each of the articles contained in the issue:
Local Contexts of Immigrant and Second-Generation Integration in the United States
Authors: Mark Ellis and Gunnar Almgren
Pages 1059 – 1076
Abstract: Our paper introduces this special issue of JEMS on the role of the local context in immigrant and second-generation integration in the United States. Recent literature has argued that national contexts are important for understanding the integration of immigrants and their descendents. The articles in this issue make the case that local contexts, broadly defined at any sub-national scale, are also important for understanding integration within the US; they suggest that it is incorrect to think of a singular and spatially undifferentiated integration process for US immigrants. In addition to previewing the contents of the articles in this issue, our paper includes a review of the meaning of generations and integration and a general discussion of the roles of local contexts in mediating processes of integration. This discussion raises questions about the appropriate spatial scale for the analysis of integration and for comparisons of the integration experience across contexts. The paper concludes with suggestions for future research on local contexts of integration within the US.
The Adaptation of the Immigrant Second Generation in America: A Theoretical Overview and Recent Evidence
Authors: Alejandro Portes, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, and William Haller
Pages 1077 – 1104
Abstract: This paper summarizes a research programme on the new immigrant second generation initiated in the early 1990s and completed in 2006. The four field waves of the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) are described and the main theoretical models emerging from it are presented and graphically summarized. After considering critical views of this theory, we present the most recent results from this longitudinal research programme in the form of quantitative models predicting downward assimilation in early adulthood and qualitative interviews identifying ways for the disadvantaged children of immigrants to escape it. Quantitative results strongly support the predicted effects of exogenous variables identified by segmented assimilation theory and identify the intervening factors during adolescence that mediate their influence on adult outcomes. Qualitative evidence gathered during the last stage of the study points to three factors that can lead to exceptional educational achievement among disadvantaged youths, and which indicate the positive influence of selective acculturation. Finally, the implications of these findings for theory and policy are discussed.
Emerging Contexts of Second-Generation Labor Markets in the United States
Author: Jamie Goodwin-White
Pages 1105 – 1128
Abstract: In this paper I examine how local labor market contexts matter for the Hispanic adult children of immigrants in the United States. Specifically, I consider how these workers fit into ethnic divisions of labour in five metropolitan areas: the traditional immigrant cities of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and the newer immigrant gateways of Atlanta and Phoenix. I focus on the changing economies of these cities in the 1990s, and how industrial changes affect the jobs and relative wages available to immigrants and their adult children. I also examine the extent to which the adult children of immigrants are occupationally clustered in ‘immigrant jobs’. Intergenerational occupational shifts vary by metropolitan area, but are heavily gendered across all of them. I also discuss the interactions of other scales of context, since state and national-level legislation, local organizing efforts and internal migration all shape the settings within which the children of immigrants come of age.
Immigrants and Neighborhoods of Concentrated Poverty: Assimilation or Stagnation?
Author: Paul A. Jargowsky
Pages 1129 – 1151
Abstract: Immigrants in the United States often live, at least for a time, in neighborhoods that have high concentrations of fellow immigrants. Typically, these neighborhoods also have high poverty levels and are located near concentrations of the native-born poor. Conventional wisdom is that living in extremely poor neighborhoods leads to ‘concentration effects’ that exacerbate the problems of poverty and limit economic opportunity. While immigrants are not immune to the problems of crime, gangs, dilapidated housing and failing schools associated with high-poverty neighborhoods, it has been argued that immigrant neighborhoods provide advantages as well. These include the creation of parallel institutions, vernacular information networks and familiar cultural practices. The analyses presented here provide some support for this notion, by showing immigrants’ progress from higher- to lower-poverty neighborhoods over time. Yet Mexican immigrants do not transition nearly as rapidly, providing support for the segmented assimilation hypothesis
How Neighborhoods Matter for Immigrant Children: The Formation of Educational Resources in Chinatown, Koreatown and Pico Union, Los Angeles
Author: Min Zhou
Pages 1153 – 1179
Abstract: This study examines the specific ways in which local institutions in inner-city neighborhoods affect the formation of educational resources for immigrant children. Local institutions here refer to observable neighborhood-based formal and informal organizations. Based on an ethnographic study of three Los Angeles immigrant neighborhoods—Chinatown, Koreatown and Pico Union (Mexican/Central American neighborhood)—I address two main questions. What types of institution exist at the local level, and how does ethnicity shape them? How do local institutions interact with one another to create tangible and intangible resources conducive to education, and how does ethnicity affect access to these resources? My findings suggest that the social structures of immigrant neighborhoods vary due to group-specific modes of incorporation, immigration histories and the host society’s reception; that community organising at the local level centers around certain common parameters in which co-ethnicity is a crucial component; and that neighborhood-based educational resources are available but the access is unequal and ethnically exclusive.
The Neighbourhood Context for Second-Generation Education and Labour Market Outcomes in New York
Authors: John Mollenkopf and Ana Champeny
Pages 1181 – 1199
Abstract: While using a transnational optic to study first-generation immigrants is now widely accepted, most scholars assume that the same approach is not necessary when studying migrants’ children. They claim that, while immigrants might be involved in the economic, political and religious life of their homelands, their children are unlikely to follow suit. In this paper I argue against summarily dismissing the power of being raised in a transnational social field. When children are brought up in households that are regularly influenced by people, objects, practices and know-how from their ancestral homes, they are socialized into its norms and values and they learn how to negotiate its institutions. They also form part of strong social networks. While not all members of the second generation will access these resources, they have the social skills and competencies to do so, if and when they choose. Capturing these dynamics, and tracking how they change over time, requires long-term ethnographic research in the source and destination countries.
The Political Impact of the New Hispanic Second Generation
Authors: John R. Logan, Sookhee Oh, and Jennifer Darrah
Pages 1201 – 1223
Abstract: The rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, particularly those of the second generation, who have automatic rights of citizenship, could be expected to result in increased influence and representation in politics for this group. We show that the effect of a sheer growth in numbers at the national level is diminished by several factors: low probabilities of naturalization by Hispanic immigrants; non-participation in voting, especially by the US-born generations; and concentration of growth in Congressional Districts that already have Hispanic Representatives. It is a challenge for public policy to reduce the lag between population growth and political representation.
Roots and Routes: Understanding the Lives of the Second Generation Transnationally
Author: Peggy Levitt
Pages 1225 – 1242
Abstract: While using a transnational optic to study first-generation immigrants is now widely accepted, most scholars assume that the same approach is not necessary when studying migrants’ children. They claim that, while immigrants might be involved in the economic, political and religious life of their homelands, their children are unlikely to follow suit. In this paper I argue against summarily dismissing the power of being raised in a transnational social field. When children are brought up in households that are regularly influenced by people, objects, practices and know-how from their ancestral homes, they are socialised into its norms and values and they learn how to negotiate its institutions. They also form part of strong social networks. While not all members of the second generation will access these resources, they have the social skills and competencies to do so, if and when they choose. Capturing these dynamics, and tracking how they change over time, requires long-term ethnographic research in the source and destination countries.
It’s a well known and documented fact that in almost all Asian cultures, boys are systematically valued more than girls. Based on centuries of institutionalized patriarchy and traditional cultural practices, most Asian families would rather have children who are boys than girls. This gender bias is one of the reasons why an overwhelming majority of children given up for adoption in Asian countries are girls. This bias has also led to growing gender imbalances in many Asian countries, with some analysts predicting that such a gender imbalance may evolve into a threat to national security as this overpopulation of males become adults.
Here in the U.S., we might think that things are different among Asian Americans. That is, being a part of American society and within its social norms of gender equality, Asian Americans would have more “modern” views about the value of boys and girls so that there would not be any kind of systematic preference of one gender over another when it comes to our children. However, as the New York Times reports, recent Census data shows that at least among Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans, there is a notable gender imbalance among their children in which boys are much more common than girls:
In general, more boys than girls are born in the United States, by a ratio of 1.05 to 1. But among American families of Chinese, Korean and Indian descent, the likelihood of having a boy increased to 1.17 to 1 if the first child was a girl, according to the Columbia economists. If the first two children were girls, the ratio for a third child was 1.51 to 1 — or about 50 percent greater — in favor of boys. . . .
Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion. . . .
Dr. Norbert Gleicher, medical director of the Center for Human Reproduction, a fertility and sex-selection clinic in New York and Chicago, said that from his experience, people were more inclined to want female children, except for Asians and Middle Easterners. . . . The Fertility Institutes, which does not offer abortions, has unabashedly advertised its services in Indian- and Chinese-language newspapers in the United States. . . .
Efforts by clinics to appeal to Indian families in the United States provoked criticism and some community introspection in 2001. Some newspapers and magazines that ran advertisements promoting the clinics, which offered sex-selection procedures, expressed regret at the perpetuation of what critics regard as a misogynistic practice.
This emerging gender imbalance and “son-biased” sex ratio (illustrated in the accompanying New York Times graphic on the right) seems to reflect one fundamental point — that many Asian Americans still have very direct and strong family and cultural connections to their ancestral country. These traditional cultural ties can manifest themselves directly in the form of Asian immigrants still having the “son is superior” mentality that leads them to favor having boys more than girls.
Or, as the New York Times article also mentions, the other way that these traditional cultural ties become exemplified can be that even younger Asian American immigrant couples accept the U.S.’s norms of gender equality, various pressures from family, relatives, or friends in their ancestral Asian country lead them to favor boys over girls. As one example of this, perhaps couples in this situation have parents in the home country who will only give inheritance to male descendants and not female ones.
Ultimately, these demographic patterns (at least among Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans) show us that the connections between Asia and America run deeper than just geographic distance.
That said, we should also recognize that this article and research studies that provide the basis of these demographic trends all note that these findings seem to be limited to Asian immigrant couples in which both spouses are foreign-born. In other words, there does not seem to be any data or evidence that this trend exists among Asian American couples in which both spouses are U.S.-born.
This last point goes to show just how powerful a force American assimilation is in the lives of most Asian Americans.
I previously wrote about the evolution of the American identity and how in the context of American society becoming more diverse and globalized, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to use our transnational cultural ties and networks to make meaningful contributions to moving American society and its economy forward into the 21st century. In other words, our “foreignness” may finally be seen as an asset, rather than a liability.
Having said that, I also recognize that there are still “traditional” beliefs about what it means to be an American that we need to overcome and persistent stereotypes about our Asian identity and loyalty to the U.S. that we still need to dispel once and for all. This week, we saw three examples on this kind of “traditional” assumptions about our community and questions about the validity of the “American” part of our identity as Asian Americans.
The first example involves Lori Phanachone, a Laotian American high school student in Des Moines Iowa, who refused to take an English fluency test, arguing that as an Honors student for several years and one who speaks perfect English, the test is insulting, demeaning, and discriminatory. She was initially suspended by her school district and her National Honor Society membership was revoked. Earlier this week, after a lawsuit threat by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Iowa school district finally relented, reclassified Lori as an English proficient student, will waive the test requirement, and reinstate her National Honor Society membership:
Lori Phanachone, a senior who ranks seventh in her class of about 119 and has a 3.9 grade point average, refused to take the English Language Development Assessment several times last month, saying the test was demeaning and racist. Previously, the school district’s curriculum coordinator, Lori Porsche, said taking the test was mandatory for Phanachone because she indicated on her school registration that English was not the first language spoken in her home.
Her parents are Laotian and still speak little English. Phanachone, who was born in California and lived in upstate New York before moving to Storm Lake with her family in 2006, said she has never been enrolled in any English Language Learning or English as a Second Language program.
In the second example in which Asian Americans were questioned on their American identity, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Texas state Republican representative Betty Brown recently urged Asian Americans to change their names to “simpler,” more Americanized names that would be “easier for Americans to deal with”:
A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” The comments caused the Texas Democratic Party on Wednesday to demand an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. But a spokesman for Brown said her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes. . . .
“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said. Brown later told [Organization of Chinese Americans representative Ramsey] Ko: “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”
Finally, the third example involved an incident that unfortunately, too many Asian Americans (especially students) are familiar with. As described in a newly-created Facebook group, this particular example occurred at Tufts University in Boston:
There was a bias incident involving members of the Korean Students Association (KSA) that took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, April 9, in Lewis Hall Lounge, while the club members were practicing for their culture show.
At approximately 1:45AM, a white freshman male living in Lewis Hall approached five male members who were practicing their dance. He had been drinking at a bar prior to arriving at Lewis Hall. He insisted several times that the KSA members teach him the moves to their dance and was repeatedly asked to stop. Despite this request, he continued to molest the dancers, imitating the dance moves and declaring, “This is the gayest shit I’ve ever done.”
The KSA members then asked him to leave, to which he responded, “Fuck you. Fuck you, I could take all of you. I’ll kill you all.” He then threatened to get his fraternity brothers to help him retaliate. At this point, he began to physically harass the dancers, spitting at one member and shoving another one of the guys. An altercation ensued during which the freshman ripped two shirts and inflicted minor cuts to a member’s forehead. In order to restrain him, the KSA members pinned him to the floor and put him into a headlock, at which point the freshman mentioned that he could not breathe and the person holding him down immediately let go.
At this moment, the freshman’s friend and his girlfriend, who watched from the side, stepped in to take him away. When he got up, he started cursing “Fuck you, fuck you” and spitting at the dancers again. As he was being dragged away, he shouted, “Fuck you all, you fucking chinks, go back to China! Go back to your fucking country, you don’t belong in this country.”
His friends took him to the bathroom, where he could be heard repeatedly shouting, “If I see them again, I will fuck them all.” The fight was reported to an RA, who wrote and sent in a bias incident report. According to the RA, submitted within the report was testimony from his girlfriend supporting the fact that her boyfriend initiated the altercation.
In all three incidents, the assumption is pretty clear — that because we may happen to speak a language other than English at home (even though we are still completely fluent in English), or because we don’t have Anglicized “American” names like Smith or Jones, or because we don’t want to indulge the whims of a drunken frat guy, that we as Asian Americans are not real or legitimate Americans. Instead, we’re considered foreigners, outsiders, and troublemakers who make unreasonable demands.
Beyond the sheer ignorance and ethnocentric beliefs fundamentally embedded in these assumptions, what the Iowa school district, Rep. Brown, and the drunken frat guy all fail to see is that contrary to the stereotype that we are intent from being separate from mainstream society, our history and experiences consistently show that we’ve been trying to integrate into mainstream American society all along. In these three cases, it involved using our bilingual skills to help ease our parents into American culture, trying to make sure voting records are correct so that we can participate in the American democratic process, and putting on a performance that bridges Asia and America.
But as with previous incidents and examples over the past 150 years or so since the first Asians immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers, even as we attempt to become Americans and integrate into mainstream American society, we are questioned, challenged, and prevented from doing so time and time again by those who consciously or unconsciously believe that only one group qualifies to be a “real” American — Whites.
Unfortunately, as these three recent incidents demonstrate, this kind of ignorant, narrow-minded, and short-sighted thinking is still with us today and still confronts us as Americans of Asian descent.
As I’ve discussed numerous times on this site and blog, there is no denying that American society is becoming increasingly racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, despite the apprehension that some Americans have toward these demographic trends. With that in mind, it is also inevitable that the number of multiracial Americans is also increasing, with our own President Barack Obama being the most prominent example.
With that in mind, the question for many sociologists is, where will this burgeoning population of multiracial Americans fit into the American racial landscape? Many sociologists have documented — and others can surely attest — that American society tends to be structured around monoracial identities. That is, on the institutional and individual levels, our culture and our thinking has historically revolved around using distinct, “clear cut” racial categories (although of course, these categories exists only culturally, not biologically).
In the early years, research on these kids highlighted their difficulties: the disapproval they faced from neighbors and members of their extended families; the sense that they weren’t “full” members in any racial community; the insecurity and self-loathing that often resulted from feeling marginalized on all sides.
That simple but harsh playground question — “What are you?” — torments many multiracial kids. Psychologists call this a “forced-choice dilemma” that compels children to claim some kind of identity — even if only a half-identity — in return for social acceptance.
But the new Journal of Social Issues paper suggests this dilemma has become less burdensome in the age of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. The paper’s authors . . . write that those kids who identified with multiple racial groups reported significantly less psychological stress than those who identified with a single group, whether a “low-status” group like African-Americans or a “high-status” group like whites. . . .
The writers theorize that multiracial kids who choose to associate with a single race are troubled by their attempts to “pass,” whereas those who choose to give voice to their own uniqueness find pride in that act. “Rather than being ‘caught’ between two worlds,” the authors write, “it might be that individuals who identify with multiple groups are better able to navigate both racially homogeneous and heterogeneous environments than individuals who primarily identify with one racial group.” . . .
In short, multiracial kids seem to create their own definitions for fitting in, and they show more psychological flexibility than those mixed-race kids who feel bound to one choice or another.
For me, the most important part of this study is the finding that multiracial Americans are able to “create their own definitions for fitting in.” In other words, they are actively shaping their own identity, rather than waiting around and letting others dictate to them what their identity should be.
For many of us, this idea may not sound new or significant. That is, isn’t it a given that we shape our own identity? Well, yes and no. Ultimately, we are responsible for choosing how we identify ourselves (“Am I Asian, Asian American, Vietnamese American, or just plain American?”). But, others around us and our society and culture in general exert a very strong influence on our choice, more than most of us realize.
So in that sense, it is somewhat innovative and significant when someone steps out of these conventional identity boundaries and instead, creates their own identity that actively includes elements of both or many cultures.
Having said that, I would like to point out that in fact, Asian Americans (and Latino Americans) have been doing something like this for many generations, as we reconcile our identities as both Asian and American. So actually, we might say that multiracial Americans are now doing through the same process that we as Asian American have been going through for years.
I point this out not to diminish or minimize the cultural significance of multiracial Americans or their increasing population size. Rather, it’s just the opposite — I hope that sharing this common process of actively shaping our own identities that combine elements from diverse cultures is a way for our communities to connect with each other.
This is especially important as the racial dynamics in American society continue to evolve and from time to time, lead to confusion and even conflict. In such times of cultural adjustment, it’s always helpful to have similarities that can bridge any such differences.
In many of my posts on this blog, one consistent theme has been the ways in which American society and institutions are adapting to the increasing racial/ethnic diversity taking place in our society as a result of demographics and globalization.
Within this context, a second point that I have emphasized is that these changes take place on both sides of the fence — among White Americans and among people of color/newcomers.
Recently, Newsweek magazine had an article that illustrates this two-way process very clearly — specifically, in regards to how the Boy Scouts of America are trying to attract more Latinos:
The Scouts have staked their future on Latinos for a simple reason: demographics. Hispanics account for more than one fifth of kids under the age of 5 and are projected to make up one quarter of the nation’s population by 2050. . . . A vast second generation of Latinos is just now emerging from elementary school, offering the Scouts fertile ground for recruiting. . . .
These kids have distinctive traits. . . . [T]hey straddle cultures nimbly. They speak Spanish at home and English at school. They retain traditional values like respect for their elders, but also embrace American ambition and individualism. They’re proud to be Latino and consider themselves cultural vanguardists, yet they’re eager to participate in broader youth culture and wary of “Hispanic products” that single them out. . . .
Hoping to invigorate Latino outreach, [the BSA] hired Carlos Alcazar in 2007. Alcazar [found that] when Hispanic families joined the Scouts, they loved it. But he identified two main problems: Latino ignorance of the BSA, which gave way to rumors that it was some sort of government or military outfit, and a lack of bilingual staff and volunteers to accommodate new recruits and their parents. . . .
The BSA has created a national office for Hispanic initiatives, begun hiring local Latino staff and started crafting a national ad campaign. It has also launched six pilot projects in cities across the country to test new marketing proposals. . . .
The one in Orlando, where Puerto Ricans have been migrating in droves, is led by Eric Santiago. . . . The multitude of misconceptions (“Are you grooming child soldiers?” “Are you going to force my kid to kill a rabbit and eat it?”) can be tiring. When families do express interest, the next challenge is to accommodate their schedules, which are often strained by long hours in service-sector jobs.
More dispiriting still, he has encountered xenophobia on a few occasions. When he visited a school once, an elderly white Eagle Scout wanted to hand off a number of Latino kids rather than integrate them into his troop. “I don’t want to deal with the parents,” he told Santiago. “If they come to us, they should learn English.” Such sentiments have cropped up elsewhere, too, such as this online comment in response to an article about Hispanic recruitment in Delaware: “If they (hispanics) want to fit in—then THEY HAVE to make the changes, not the AMERICAN BOY Scouts of AMERIA [sic].”
As I mentioned, in order for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to be successful in attracting more Latino scouts, adjustments need to be made on both sides. For the BSA, it means not merely translating existing materials into Spanish and calling it a day, but fundamentally changing their organization to incorporate the culture and characteristics of the Latino population.
And it also means confronting the unfortunate xenophobia and racially-ignorant resistance towards doing so, as the comment in the quote above shows. In doing so, the BSA will go a long way toward erasing its traditional image of being “quintessentially White, suburban and middle class.”
For Latinos, it means discarding their inaccurate preconceptions about the BSA being some kind of government or military organization, and that it’s only for suburban, middle class Whites.
In other words, one reason for Latinos or any other underrepresented racial/ethnic group to join the BSA is not so they can “act White” and completely assimilate into “mainstream” American society but rather, to have the opportunity to both broaden their cultural environment and continue incorporating elements of traditional American culture into their lives and second, to bring their culture into the BSA and infuse it with new and diverse elements.
In fact, that’s basically a microcosm of contemporary American racial/ethnic assimilation in general.
Update: On March 4, 2009, NBC Nightly News did a short segment on the cultural emergence of the Latino American community in general and specifically, how the Boy Scouts are trying to recruit more of them:
I mentioned in my last post that like many people, my family and I were traveling over the holidays to visit relatives out of state. In these travels, one relatively minor incident in the airport security lines illustrated for me just how complex — and in some ways even contradictory — an Asian American identity is for many of us.
Fortunately, this particular incident did not involve any type of racial profiling against us or somebody else in our presence that made national news, as at least one Muslim American family unfortunately had to endure over the holidays. Instead, this incident was rather ordinary, even mundane, and probably a common occurrence in the lives of many Asian Americans.
Here’s the scene: we were at the St. Louis airport going through the airport security x-ray machines on our way to catch our flight back home to Massachusetts. A few people ahead of us were a relatively young Chinese husband and wife. Perhaps it was their first time traveling through an American airport because they were clearly “unprepared” — their luggage was too big to go through the x-ray machines and should have been checked baggage and they had not separated out their liquids into the standard three ounce containers and baggie.
As a result of this, the airport security workers were trying to explain to them that they were out of compliance with the regulations and what they needed to do to correct the situation. The airport workers were actually polite and understanding but the Chinese couple, perhaps complicated by the fact that their English wasn’t perfect, were understandably a little flustered.
The result of this was that they were holding up the other travelers behind them in line, including my family and I. Initially, everyone was patient but after a few minutes, it was clear that some were getting a little frustrated. Nobody said anything the whole time we were all waiting but there were the inevitably sighs and rolling eyes as the Chinese couple and the airport workers tried to clear everything up.
Initially, that included me as well. My first reaction was also to get a little annoyed and soon thoughts such as “Come one, haven’t ever been through an airport security line before?” and “It would help if you knew English a little better” floated through my mind. I will presume that the other people in line probably had similar sentiments as well. In other words, this was a typical reaction from Americans towards foreigners in such a situation.
But after a while, I caught myself and consciously took a step back from my initial reactions and tried to apply a little sociological thinking to the situation. In doing so, I came to have a little more sympathy for the Chinese couple. First, I kept in mind that for all Americans, each of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time or another. And for me personally as a Vietnamese American, that included my own parents.
I remembered that my own parents went through similar incidents in the past, especially in the early part of our resettlement into the U.S. as they tried to assimilate into American society after leaving Viet Nam. Perhaps not in an airport security line, but my parents almost certainly encountered such cultural embarrassments checking out at a supermarket, talking with a teller at the bank, ordering at a restaurant, and probably many other situations in which they were just trying to become mainstream Americans.
Along with that, even today as an Asian American, I still encounter situations in which even though I am thoroughly Americanized and speak English perfectly, other Americans automatically assume that I’m a foreigner just by looking at me, based on the persistent stereotype that all Asians are foreigners. As Asian American scholars and any average Asian American would confirm, this lingering bias is still a big hurdle for many Asian Americans to overcome as we try to live our lives here in the U.S.
Secondly, I tried to personalize the Chinese couple’s situation by asking myself, How well would I do if I were trying to navigate through a foreign airport for the first time and had to understand its specific regulations and customs, formal and informal, whether it be in China, Brazil, Russia, or any other foreign country that did not speak my native language?
Based on these thoughts in which I indirectly sympathized with the Chinese couple’s situation, I contrasted them with my initial reaction of annoyance at them and came to realize that this was a perfect illustration of just how complicated and even contradictory an Asian American identity is for many of us.
In other words, as Asian Americans, were may feel implicitly obligated to sympathize and be in solidarity with our fellow Asians (foreign and American), either for political purposes or because of our direct ties to our family, relatives, and ancestors from afar. But on the other hand, as a “typical” American, it’s hard to escape sentiments that lead us to feel aggravated when others cause us inconvenience (however brief) or run afoul of our American customs and practices that we ourselves have already internalized into our lives in our own quest to be “mainstream” Americans.
There is no easy answer here. There is no “right” or “correct” way for Asian Americans to react to or handle incidents like this that involve other Asians who are simultaneously similar to and different from us.
Nonetheless, as I reflect on this incident and my initial and secondary thoughts about it, I also see that I’m really glad that I’m a sociologist who has learned the tools to make sense of the multiple levels of factors and the intersections of so many different issues that come into play in situations like this.
That is, as I tell the students in my classes, sociology teaches you to do two seemingly contradictory things — to personalize and depersonalize things at the same time. Being able to personalize and depersonalize an issue or idea then allows you to understand that there are multiple levels of analysis for that issue/idea — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. In a nutshell, this is the first lesson of Sociology 101.
To personalize something is look at a particular idea or situation and to say something like, “Yeah ok, I see how that theory or example can apply to my personal experiences. I can relate to that.” On the other hand, to depersonalize something would be to say something like, “Hmmm, that particular theory or example doesn’t really apply to my personal experiences, but I can see how other people might look at it in that way.”
I also tell my students that the basic foundation of virtually all instances of disagreement, conflict, and even hostility around a race/ethnicity-related issue such as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, etc., is when people can’t properly personalize or depersonalize the issue and unfortunately, end up talking at each other from different levels of analysis (i.e., one person is expressing their opinion from an individual level while the other is coming at it from an institutional level).
In this instance, I personalized the Chinese couple’s situation by relating it to how I would fare in a foreign airport for the first time and by remembering my own parents’ struggles to fit into American society. I also depersonalized the situation by recalling that all of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time and that Americans from all backgrounds share a common set of behaviors and that it upsets our sense of a collective identity when a “foreigner” violates such customs.
In the end, I think the lessons here are (1) for anybody in general but Asian Americans in particular, it’s natural and inevitable to have complicated or even contradictory feelings about one’s identity as an “Asian” and how to relate to other Asians and (2) when such contradictions and confusion arise, there are ways to make sense of them — by knowing when to personalize and when to depersonalize and understanding that there are multiple levels of analysis to any issue.
In other words, there are many ways to “do sociology” in our everyday lives.
The “second generation” project looked at five groups [in the NYC metro area] — Russians, Dominicans, South Americans, Chinese and West Indians — and compared them with U.S.-born whites, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Researchers found that most in the second generation were fluent in English and working in the mainstream economy.
When they looked at economic and educational achievement, they found that West Indians were doing better, in general, than African-Americans; Dominicans were doing better than Puerto Ricans; and the Chinese and the Russians were doing as well as or better than native-born whites. . . .
Legal immigration is more difficult today, and researchers note that this may well change the rate of assimilation. But for these five groups, “what we really find is a very rapid assimilation and becoming American,” says Mary Waters of Harvard University, another author of the study, titled Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age. . . .
Although Inheriting the City paints an optimistic portrait of this second generation, it has some warnings about the situation facing native-born minorities. The researchers also say the children of undocumented immigrants tend to do worse and have a tougher time assimilating. Because legal immigration is tougher to come by today, researchers say they wonder whether the path for the next “second generation” will be as smooth.
Although I have not read the Inheriting the City book, given my high regard for the expertise of the book’s authors, I have no doubt that it is a very informative and interesting look at this ongoing issue of assimilation among contemporary immigrants.
I presume that most of you have heard about various campaigns aimed at making English the official language of the U.S., or a particular state, or some other entity or institution. In recent decades, such campaigns have had some successes. But as ESPN reports, the latest high-profile attempt at instituting English as the official language comes from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA):
Players were told by LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens that by the end of 2009, all players who have been on the tour for two years must pass an oral evaluation of their English skills or face a membership suspension. A written explanation of the policy was not given to players, according to the report. . . .
Every Korean player who spoke with Golfweek about the meeting came away with the understanding she would lose her tour card if she failed the test rather than face suspension, according to the report. But Korean players who spoke about the policy supported the tour’s position, though some, including Se Ri Pak, felt fines would be better than suspensions. . . .
Players must be able to conduct interviews and give acceptance speeches without the help of a translator, [an LPGA official] said, according to the report. Galloway said the policy takes effect immediately, but that players’ English proficiency would not be measured until the end of 2009, according to the report. The LPGA’s membership includes 121 international players from 26 countries; 45 are South Koreans.
Based on the disproportionate presence and success of these Asian players, the question becomes, is the LPGA singling them out with this new “English only” rule? Is this the 21st century version of the Foreign Miner’s Tax that was levied only at Chinese immigrants back in the 1800s once they became “too successful?”
The ESPN article seems to suggest that many, perhaps even most, of these Asian and Asian American LPGA players do not object to the rule, presumably because they agree with the LPGA’s stated rationale that it is to attract more corporate sponsors who would be more apt to support the sport if its best players are able to converse in English on television.
I can’t speak for how these Asian and Asian American women golfers honestly feel about this new rule, but I can speak for myself in saying that it sounds discriminatory to me. Before I talk specifically about how this applies to the LPGA, I want to first relate it to the larger “Official English” efforts throughout American society.
I want to make it clear that I support LPGA players and all immigrants to the U.S. in general learning English and trying to integrate into the “mainstream.” I do not support immigrants — Asian or otherwise — isolating themselves into their own ethnic enclaves and not making any effort to assimilate to some degree into American society.
At the same time, we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of immigrants already know that for them to achieve meaningful mobility in American society, they need to learn English. With that in mind, English is already the de facto official language of the U.S.
Campaigns to mandate English as the official language only serve to cause more divisions, resentment on both sides, and will actually hurt immigrants’ attempts to learn English because they eliminate much-needed bilingual programs and resources, leading immigrants to give up on their efforts to learn English.
As applied to the LPGA, the fact that so many players from Asia are participating and doing well in their sport suggests to me that golf’s popularity is spreading all around the world and is becoming less U.S.-centric. This actually corresponds to the larger trends of globalization, as the world becomes more interconnected and American society becomes more culturally diverse.
With that in mind, I see the LPGA’s “English Only” mandate as a reactionary effort to keep the sport as “American” (i.e. White) as possible. Instead of embracing golf’s growing global appeal and perhaps attract more international sponsors, the LPGA apparently wants to stick its head in the sand and pretend that it’s 1958, rather than 2008.
My guess is that most if not all Asian LPGA players are trying to learn as much English as possible, just like the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the U.S. in general. But mandating that they do so is basically an ethnocentric slap in their face.
It also stands in opposition to what’s going on in the rest of the world and American society, as many Americans rush to learn languages such as Chinese. To me, it’s an example of a White-dominated institution desperately clinging to their old identity in the face of change all around them.
It’s a step in the right direction but sorry LPGA, in my book, this does not go far enough. The LPGA’s plan to require English is still a bad policy and even though they now say they won’t suspend players who aren’t fluent enough, they would still fine them. To me, that is still discriminatory and unjust.
LPGA, you just need to wake up and smell what you’re shoveling — this is the 21st century, globalized and transnational, whether you like it not. Instead of trying to turn back the calendar to the 1950s, try to get with the times and realize that the sport is now a global, not exclusively American, game.