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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.

August 3, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Social Significance of Asian Americans in the News

Two recent news stories involving Asian Americans caught my attention. The first is an announcement about an Indian American seeking to become South Carolina’s new Governor:

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.


March 9, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Cultural Emergence of Indian Americans

We all know by now that the previously underdog movie Slumdog Millionaire is a huge hit around the world, but particularly in the U.S., having just won eight Academy Awards and grossing over $120 million dollars in North America. As MSNBC writes, the movie also symbolizes the cultural/popular emergence of Indian Americans as a community:

The past few weeks have underscored their increasingly high profile: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response Tuesday night to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress, while Dr. Sanjay Gupta is under consideration to be Obama’s surgeon general.

Model and cooking author Padma Lakshmi finished another “Top Chef” TV season, then became the celebrity face for a new Procter & Gamble Co. Pantene shampoo line as well as a Hardee’s hamburger promotion. Anoop Desai, dubbed “Noop Dogg,” drew fans with his singing on this year’s “American Idol,” and Aziz Ansari was in TV’s medical comedy “Scrubs” before moving to a regular role in the upcoming comedy series “Parks and Recreation.” . . .

Indian-Americans have been one of the fastest-growing and most successful immigrant groups, though [Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor and dean of student affairs for Columbia University's journalism school] and other Indian-Americans are quick to point out that some Indians continue to struggle economically and socially in this country. . . .

For years, they have proliferated in this country in the fields of health care, information technology and engineering, with higher education levels and incomes than national averages. And recent years have brought more Indian heads of major U.S. companies — PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi is among about a dozen current CEOs.

They also are making their presence felt in journalism. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, have their own weekend shows on CNN, for example.

Slumdog Millionaire’s extraordinary success is well-earned, although we should note that not all Indians and Indian Americans are enthralled by its story. Nonetheless, I agree with the MSNBC article that the film’s success does have cultural, as well as economic, significance for American society and the Indian American community in general.

Among other things, the article also spends some time discussing the political emergence of Bobby Jindal, who despite his less-than-successful televised response to Barack Obama’s recent address to Congress, is undoubtedly being groomed to be a high-profile national leader for the Republican party for years to come. By the way, CBS’s 60 Minutes just did a very interesting profile segment on him, embedded below (about 12 minutes long):

The part of the segment that I found most interesting was that he and his wife hardly identify as Indian American at all — they clearly prefer to think of themselves as just plain “Americans” and “Louisianians.” That is their prerogative of course — not everyone who has non-American ancestry should be compelled to identify with that particular ethnicity. But I am interested to hear what Indian Americans think of Jindal’s sense of his identity (apart from his politics) — does it bother Indian Americans that one of the most high-profile Indian Americans in the country has little if any personal attachment to his ethnic roots?

In the meantime, back to the Indian American community as a whole, the MSNBC article is not really groundbreaking news. As my article on Socioeconomic Statistics and Demographics show, Indian Americans are clearly the most socioeconomically successful of the major Asian American ethnic groups. As such, it should be no surprise that, along with their socioeconomic success, their cultural prominence would soon increase as well.

At the same time, I also wonder what effect political events back in India will have on Indian Americans and the perception that others have of Indian Americans. Specifically, there is still a lot of suspicion and even hostility towards India and the perception that is largely responsible for many jobs being outsourced away from the U.S. and that India is profiting from globalization at the expense of American workers. This is likely to continue being the case as the current recession gets worse before it gets better.

Second, the recent and continuing terrorist attacks and related violence in India have many people worried not just about the physical safety of people inside of India, but also of India’s political stability and even its future economic development. Both of these concerns affect Indian Americans both here in the U.S. and around the world in terms of their public image and of course, the well-being of friends and relatives back in India.

Nonetheless, I for one welcome this cultural emergence of our fellow Americans of Indian descent. Our society and its diverse mosaic of culture is enriched even further by it.