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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

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

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

July 24, 2012

Written by C.N.

Pew Report on Asian Americans: A Cautionary Tale

For those who missed it, the Pew Research Center recently released a report titled, “The Rise of Asian Americans” that, among other things, attempted to provide a demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural summary of the Asian American population, using a combination of Census data and the Pew’s own telephone survey of over 3,500 Asian American respondents. Some of the report’s notable findings are:

  • In terms of total population, there are over 18 million Asian Americans as of 2011 and they represent 5.8% of the total U.S. population.
  • Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. in terms of percentage growth. This is also reflected in the most recently-available data from 2010 that shows that 430,000 Asians (legal and undocumented) immigrated to the U.S., compared with 370,000 Latinos.
  • Confirming current patterns, Asian Americans also have the highest proportion of adults 25 years or older who have a college degree and have the highest median household income.

The Pew report also spends much of its time discussing the “cultural” characteristics of Asian Americans and unfortunately, it is at this point where things start to hit the fan. As the New York Times summarizes:

In the survey, Asians are also distinguished by their emphasis on traditional family mores. About 54 percent of the respondents, compared with 34 percent of all adults in the country, said having a successful marriage was one of the most important goals in life; another was being a good parent, according to 67 percent of Asian adults, compared with about half of all adults in the general population.

Asians also place greater importance on career and material success, the study reported, values reflected in child-rearing styles. About 62 percent of Asians in the United States believe that most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.

Soon after its release, numerous Asian American scholars, community organizations, and academic associations began roundly criticizing the report. For example, the Japanese American Citizens League stated, “While our community reflects diversity, this research does not; instead, it sweeps Asian Americans into one broad group and paints our community as exceptionally successful without any challenges. This study perpetuates false stereotypes and the model minority.”

Another nationally-recognized Asian American group, the Organization of Chinese Americans, wrote:

“What is particularly disturbing is that these types of broad generalizations can have serious implications in public policy, civil rights, as well as perpetuation of bias, discrimination, and racial tension between communities of color. Even though the study fills a void for more statistics and information on the APA community, the framing of the contextual data in the report is troublesome. . . . The assertions that our community enjoys an exaggerated level of privilege are simply and unfortunately not the case.

Other statements of criticism and even condemnation of the Pew report came from organizations such as the Association for Asian American Studies, the Asian American Pacific Islander Policy and Research Consortium, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and numerous Asian American Studies departments and programs around the country, to name just a few.

© Tracee Murphy

Perhaps the best critique came from Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California Riverside, and ironically, a member of the Pew’s faculty advisory board on Asian American issues:

Unfortunately, [the report] prioritized questions asked of Asian Americans — regarding their parenting styles and their own stereotypes about Americans — that seemed more concerned with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother than with the priorities of Asian Americans themselves, either as revealed in past surveys or as articulated by organizations serving those communities. . . .

More concerning than the Pew report, however, was the sensationalist headline on the press release that introduced the study to news media: Asians Overtake Hispanics in New Immigrant Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard Work. These few words carried sway in hundreds of newspaper articles in the first two days of the report’s release, provoking outrage among broad swaths of the Asian American community, including many researchers, elected officials, and community organizations. . . .

As one of 15 advisors to the project, I felt blindsided by the press release. Words failed me as I read it for the first time, as we had not gotten a chance to review it. The dominant narrative in the release reinforced the frame of Asians as a model minority, stereotypes that the advisors had strongly objected to in the only meeting of the group two months ago.

Generally, the Pew Research Institute produces useful, informative, and reliable data and reports. However, as Prof. Ramakrishnan points out in the full text of his critique, this is not the first time that Pew has mischaracterized, sensationalized, or even misinterpreted its own data. Further, as I pointed out before, on occasion, Pew has inexplicably excluded Asian American respondents in some of its previous studies.

With that point in mind, I suppose we should be somewhat thankful that Pew has been more inclusive of Asian Americans as a valuable source of study lately. Nonetheless, simply including Asian Americans is not the same as accurately representing our community.

Pew might argue that their methodology and data are valid. Technically, I suppose they are. But as the above-referenced criticisms consistently point out, many of the questions they asked were sensationalist and not representative of the real, substantive issues and concerns that the Asian American community have identified themselves.

In the end, this Pew report teaches us a couple of valuable lessons. First, that biases can come in many different forms. That is, most of us thinking of biases in the form of direct and blatant statements that clearly favor one ideological viewpoint over another. But the Pew report shows us that biases can also manifest themselves in the questions researchers ask and how they frame the results of their data, based on the misfocused questions, to emphasize certain interpretations over others.

Second, the Pew report shows us that even something that is initially framed as a positive portrayal of Asian Americans can turn out to be just the opposite — a skewed misrepresentation that actually reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes. This lesson is at the core of the model minority image of Asian Americans and how some naively think that they are paying Asian Americans a compliment by commenting how well-educated we are, or how we’re so good at math or science, or how hard we tend to work. While there is obviously some truth to these observations, the problem is that such characterizations are easily and often generalized to the entire Asian American population. When that happens, they mask the demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity among Asian Americans and marginalize the continuing discrimination, inequalities, and injustices we still experience.

The Asian American community deserves to be represented better than this and research organizations such as Pew need to do a better job at asking us about the issues that we, not they, care about.


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.