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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.

March 2, 2010

Written by C.N.

Racial Incidents on Campus & The Failure of Colorblindness

As many of you have undoubtedly heard about already, there has been a series of racist incidents at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) recently. It was first sparked by a fraternity party held off-campus with a “Compton Cookout” theme in which attendees “celebrated” Black History Month by dressing up in ghetto costumes and imitating racist caricatures of Blacks. As one of their fliers put it, “For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks — Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes.”

As news of this event became publicized and as various members of the UCSD community expressed their outrage, a student-run radio station and newspaper further flamed the tensions by airing a live segment on closed-circuit television in which they expressed their support for the frat party and called the African American students protesting it “ungrateful niggers.”

There followed a series of protests and marches where participants demanded that UCSD’s administration take immediate and decisive steps to improve the campus’ racial climate. After listening to and accepting many of the protesters’ demands (although giving few details about how they will be eventually implemented), the administration organized a teach-in on racial tolerance to publicly address the issues. However, hundreds of attendees of this teach-in walked out, calling the event an inadequate response.

Students protesting peacefully at UCSD © Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

Most recently, a noose was found at the university library. A student of color subsequently admitted to playing with some rope, fashioning the noose and “inadvertently” leaving it at the library. Her apology reads in part: “As a minority student who sympathizes with the students that have been affected by the recent issues on campus, I am distraught to know that I have unintentionally added to their pain.”

The students note that only 1.3% of UCSD’s student population are African American (believed to be the lowest of all the University of California campuses) and that as illustrated by these recent events, there is a climate of ignorance and hostility in which African American students do not feel welcomed or even safe around campus and where their history and culture are routinely ignored, marginalized, or ridiculed.

Unfortunately, these kinds of racial incidents are not new nor isolated incidents (thanks, Lisa and Gwen at Sociological Images). Not only have I written about other similar incidents but as just the latest example of this kind of climate of ignorance and intolerance directed against students of color on college campuses, some cotton balls were recently found scattered in front of the Black Cultural Center at Missouri University. For many, the cotton balls symbolizes the racist legacy of slavery and racial subordination of African Americans. Along the same lines and as a second latest example, an Arizona congressman recently asserted that African Americans were better off under slavery than today.

Beyond feeling profoundly sad and depressed about the state of race relations in this country, what should we make of these incidents?

My colleagues at Racism Review quote activist Tim Wise in analyzing in depth the sociological meanings and implications of these kinds of incidents. I would only add and emphasize that for me, these incidents serve to highlight the utter failure of colorblindness and the tragic belief that if we just don’t acknowledge or talk about race and racial differences in American society that racism will just magically go away.

I’ve written about this on numerous occasions but for those who want to hear from someone else, Wired magazine’s blog cites a recent study that further describes the fallacies of trying to be colorblind:

What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that.

If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good. And what are they learning? Here are a few depressing facts: Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.) The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships. 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.

That is, simply exposing a White child to racial diversity is not enough. Merely expressing generalized respect for racial diversity is not enough. This is because in keeping matters on a general level, racial differences and history get “watered down” and children do not understand why, despite the fact that we’re all supposed to be equal, Blacks and other people of color occupy different statuses and are portrayed in stereotypical ways in the media, which they inevitably are exposed to.

In other words, without a detailed and specific understanding of racial discrimination, children then just assume that it’s because individual Blacks and persons of color are entirely responsible for their subordinate status and have “earned” the scorn, prejudice, and hostility directed at them, not to mention being blind to the subtle privileges they enjoy as being part of the White majority. Ultimately, the assumption becomes, “Since American society is supposed to be equal, why aren’t you successful? What are you doing wrong?”

If we as a society are going to make any headway in alleviating this climate of racial ignorance and intolerance, the first place to start is to simply acknowledge race as a fundamental social distinction in American society. Only from this specific understanding of how racism works can we then begin addressing the consequences of racism.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Update: MSNBC reports that last night, a KKK-style hood was found on a statue outside the main UCSD library:

A university statement said the hood was found about 11 p.m. Monday. The object appeared to be a white pillowcase that had been crudely fashioned into a hood with a hand-drawn symbol. A rose had also been inserted into the statue’s fingers. The university said an aggressive investigation was under way, including fingerprint and DNA analysis, and vowed to punish the culprits to the fullest extent of the law.


December 14, 2009

Written by C.N.

Escalation of Student Racial Violence in Philadelphia

Back in September, I wrote about a pattern of racial violence between predominantly African American and Asian American groups of students in schools in the South Philadelphia area. Unfortunately in recent weeks, the violence seems to have escalated, as described in the news video segment below:

My fellow Asian American blogger Angry Asian Man has done a nice job of covering these events and chronicling the developments that include large numbers of Asian American students boycotting classes last week and an emotional emergency meeting of students, parents, community leaders, and school officials in which students described in detail the brutal nature of such attacks.

In my previous post, I covered the sociological background of these kinds of racial violence incidents includes demographic changes taking places in many Philadelphia neighborhoods and the cultural instability that arises from having to adjust to new neighbors and a changing racial/ethnic landscape. This situation is further complicated by economic insecurity leading to scapegoating and displaced aggression on the part of the attackers.

However, there is one important point that I did not discuss in great detail in regard to these particular incidents (but did in a previous post on similar incidents of racial violence in New York City), and which the Asian American students themselves emphasized in their public testimony and descriptions. Specifically, that point is that the violence itself is bad enough. What makes it even worse is that many school officials, staff, teachers, and security personnel have repeatedly ignored the students complaints and concerns and in some cases, have even cheered on the attackers:

” ‘As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we’re animals,’ ” Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student. ” ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Hey, Chinese.’ ‘Yo Dragon Ball.’ ‘Are you Bruce Lee?’ ‘Speak English!’ ” Somekawa said the students are told.

Those aren’t the words of the students who harass Asians, she said. “They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.” . . . The protesters carried signs, some reading: “Stop School Violence,” “It’s Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.” . . .

Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is “not just a bunch of bad kids,” but the school’s leadership.

Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday “to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community.”

A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them. . . At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.

It is truly sad to see that those whose job it is to promote a positive learning environment and racial tolerance are actually a big part of the problem and make such racial tensions worse. In order to effectively address this situation, we need to find those responsible for such attacks, regardless of what racial/ethnic background they are, and deal with them in a way that punishes their actions without criminalizing them and turning them into “repeat racists.”

But just as important, the school officials, teachers, staff, and security personnel who failed in their jobs to protect these students need to be disciplined as well, including being fired if necessary. I personally have no tolerance for officials who shirk their paid responsibilities and in some cases, apparently misuse their authority and actually contribute to the bullying taking place.

In the same way that we chastise and clamor for the termination of government officials who fail to do their jobs and in fact engage in various forms of misuse of power or malfeasance, these school officials and other adults involved have failed miserably in their professional duties and moral obligations and can no longer be trusted and therefore deserve to be fired.

Sometimes, it is only when you “clear house” and start from scratch that true change and healing can begin. I wish everyone involved, especially the Asian American students, the best success in resolving these differences and healing their physical and emotional wounds.


May 11, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Degrees of Immigrant Bashing

Issues related to immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, have always been and continue to be some of the most controversial in American history and society. As I’m sure you’ve seen yourself, such issues easily provoke strong emotions from all sides and can be very divisive between and even within racial/ethnic groups. On top of that, the current recession and fears on the part of many Americans about their financial security only add fuel to the fire.

It’s within this context that many Americans and American institutions look to blame all or part of their problems and difficulties on immigrants. But this immigrant bashing can take many forms — it can be very overt and direct in the form of racial slurs and violence, or it can be subtle and indirect, implicitly supported or set in motion by politicians who are otherwise seen as “liberal” or “progressive.” I would like to explore these different degrees of immigrant bashing as they’ve recently been manifested.

On the more blatant and overt side, we see time and time again that racial prejudice and economic instability often lead to violence. However, the second step in this kind of blatant immigrant bashing is when the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice for the immigrant victim. This was evident is the recent acquittal of two White teens on hate crime charges in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant in Pottsville, PA:

The [all White] jury found the teens innocent of all serious charges, a decision that elicited cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends – and cries of outrage from the victim’s. . . . Prosecutors cast Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But the jury evidently sided with defense attorneys, who called Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically. . . .

The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.

Sadly, violence like this only seems to be more common recently, evidenced by a similar case in New York in which another group of men bludgeoned an Ecuadoran man to death with a baseball bat:

The two men accused of fatally beating an Ecuadorean immigrant with a bat and a bottle after shouting epithets about Hispanics and gays face 78 years to life in prison if convicted on charges handed up by a Brooklyn grand jury and unsealed on Tuesday. The two suspects, Keith Phoenix, 28, and Hakim Scott, 25, are charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault, all as hate crimes, for the Dec. 7 attack on the immigrant, Jose O. Sucuzhañay, and his brother Romel, who survived. . . .

The beating, coming soon after the killing of another Ecuadorean immigrant on Long Island, jangled nerves in immigrant and gay and lesbian communities. . . . Witnesses have described part of what happened next, beginning with slurs shouted from the car about Hispanics and gays. “Suddenly, Hakim Scott jumped out armed with a beer bottle,” Mr. Hynes said. “The two brothers tried to flee, but Scott caught up with Jose and slammed him across the head.”

Mr. Phoenix “rushed from the S.U.V. armed with a baseball bat, ran over to Jose, and repeatedly beat him,” Mr. Hynes said, adding that as Mr. Phoenix walked back to the car he noticed that the victim was still moving. “Phoenix immediately went back to where Jose was laying and slammed him several more times on the head with the baseball bat until his victim was motionless,” Mr. Hynes said.

This kind of sentiment is also reflected in the recent swine flu outbreak. Since the swine flu originated in Mexico, inevitably this has led many to engage in blatant stereotyping and racial profiling against anything and anyone linked to Mexico:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. . . . Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

[T]he growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate. . . . Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say. “This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”

These acts of racial hatred, violence, and blatant stereotyping are undoubtedly tragic. Unfortunately, they are only one example within the range of immigrant bashing. Other examples do not involve physical violence committed onto the immigrant, but nonetheless show the same kind of callous indifference to their histories and experiences. This is exemplified by the case of a Korean Canadian student who stood up to racial taunts and slurs from a bully but was punished for defending himself (tip to AngryAsianMan for covering this story first):

The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist’s nose.

He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm. But 400 of his fellow students walked out of class this week to denounce the racist bullying that preceded the punch, and the outcry reached newspaper front pages. In response, York police reopened the case, and assigned a special investigator to probe whether a hate crime was committed. . . .

The 15-year-old said he regrets throwing the punch, but felt he had no choice after the other boy called him a “fucking Chinese” and punched him in the face, cutting his mouth. His father said the school doesn’t seem to understand the impact of the racial comment. Afterward, a vice-principal asked his son why a Korean was upset about being called Chinese.

“Probably they don’t realize how much it hurts when someone makes a racist comment,” his father said. “My son said, ‘I felt all the way down, like I am nothing, on the floor. Like they’re the master and I’m the slave.’ “

As an update on this case, the school board has reversed the initial actions of the school’s administrators and have reinstated the student, removed the suspension from his record, and canceled the expulsion proceedings. The Korean Canadian student and the bullying student have met face-to-face and have apologized to each other.

This is a small but significant victory for victims of racial taunting and bullying but in the initial actions of the school’s principals and administrators, we once again see the evil twins of immigrant bashing — the first is the physical act itself, in this case the racial slurs, bullying, and first punch directed at the Korean Canadian student. But the second and equally appalling part are the lack of understanding, indifference, and outright hostility of our social institutions to respond to such immigrant bashing. In this case, the school officials initially blame the Korean Canadian student for the entire incident and wanted to expel him not just from the school but also from the entire school district.

Clearly, these officials just don’t get how racism works, most likely because as a White person, they’ve never experienced being called a racial slur, or had their group’s history or experiences denigrated, or had their distinct physical appearance mocked in public.

Unfortunately, examples of immigrant bashing do not end here. The entire range of such sentiments also includes official acts of government supported by politicians who we normally consider to be friends and allies of the immigrant population. One example is the federal “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP) legislation that was passed in February to help bailout struggling financial institutions. One provision of the TARP act requires banks that receive federal bailout money to hire American workers over immigrants. As many community and business leaders argue, such a broad generalization against immigrant workers leads to some very troubling consequences:

In Sacramento, business leaders are worried about completing projects without the specialized expertise of consultants from foreign countries. . . . In California, foreign nationals helped create more than half of the startup companies in Silicon Valley, according to a Duke University study. In 2007, foreign nationals accounted for nearly two-thirds of all engineering doctorates awarded from the University of California and California State University systems, the study found. . . .

Wadhwa, an engineering professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, said some of his students are getting employment offers withdrawn, while others are frustrated and ready to move back home. He says it’s part of a troubling pattern in the United States: “Whenever there’s a downturn, you start blaming foreigners.”

In this example, I understand the need to make sure that federal money is used to help out Americans first. The problem with this is the assumption that immigrants are not Americans. Instead of seeing immigrants as productive Americans who pay American taxes, who buy American goods and services, and who contribute (many times disproportionately) in so many other ways to the economic health of the country — whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or even undocumented — immigrants are the first scapegoats when our country experienced difficulties.

Rather than looking deeper and more reflectively at the institutional issues that caused the current economic crises, such as high-risk loans and excessive greed on the part of financial institutions, we sadly and instinctively look to those living around us who seem to be different from us and based on this “Us versus Them” mentality, who we perceive to be not real, legitimate, or genuine Americans, and therefore, are somehow benefiting at our expense and therefore need to be vilified, dehumanized, and attacked — through our fists or our laws — as the cause of our problems.


September 5, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian American Students Still Deal with Violence

No matter how much we as Asian Americans show that we want to be part of the American mainstream, it seems almost inevitable that we encounter resistance, hostility, and at times, violence in that process. One group of Asian Americans for whom that is a sad part of their daily lives is high school students. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports, the demographics of a town or high school can change, but violence against perceived “foreigners” still lingers:

Student leaders stopped in St. Paul, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake asking school administrators to address problems facing Hmong students. Racism, hostile school climates, college readiness and language barriers were some of the challenges discussed. . . . Students said violence also is often an unavoidable part of their school lives.

Kabee Chang, who is not related to Mysee Chang, has only lived in the United States for two years since emigrating from Thailand. At Minneapolis’ North High School, Kabee Chang said it’s difficult to avoid a fight. His friends have been hit in the head and punched while going from one class to another.

“One time I could see my friend had been hit, so I was afraid to go in the bathroom because the same thing would happen to me,” Kabee Chang said. Out of fear, he said now he won’t go into the bathroom or hallways by himself.

It is nothing less than an outrage and tragedy when students of any racial/ethnic/cultural background encounter violence and harassment in their attempts to get an education, so that they can improve their lives, their family’s lives, and be a productive citizen of the U.S. We cannot expect students to excel academically when even their most basic need to feel physically safe can’t be guaranteed.

In that context, school districts and officials bear the responsibility to ensure that students can get an education in a safe environment. Yes it would be nice if teachers and counselors are culturally-competent and nurture students as much as possible, but at the very least — the bare minimum, schools need to provide their students with an environment that is free from ongoing threats of violence and physical harassment.


November 29, 2005

Written by C.N.

Continuing Violence Against Asian Students

In an earlier post, I wrote about a persistent pattern of discrimination and physical violence perpetrated against Asian American students at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn — so bad that the Justice Department had to step in to force the school to take corrective action to protect the Asian students. Following up on this trend, the Associated Press reports that despite recent efforts to highlight this growing problem around the country, physical attacks still continue to occur:

Nationwide, Asian students say they’re often beaten, threatened and called ethnic slurs by other young people, and school safety data suggest that the problem may be worsening. Youth advocates say these Asian teens, stereotyped as high-achieving students who rarely fight back, have for years borne the brunt of ethnic tension as Asian communities expand and neighborhoods become more racially diverse. . . .

Stories of Asian youth being bullied and worse are common. In recent years: a Chinese middle schooler in San Francisco was mercilessly taunted until his teacher hid him in her classroom at lunchtime; three Korean-American students were beaten so badly near their Queens high school that they skipped school for weeks and begged to be transferred; a 16-year-old from Vietnam was killed last year in a massive brawl in Boston. . . .

Increasingly, some victims are fighting back. A 2003 California survey . . . found that 14 percent of Asian youth said they join gangs for protection. Department of Justice school crime data found the number of Asian youth carrying weapons nearly tripled from 1999 to 2001. “There are more Asian kids being brought to juvenile court for assault and battery,” Arifuku said.

“The thing we’re finding in their history is that they had been picked on — called names and teased — and in some cases they lashed out and retaliated.” Advocates and students say that, typically, large fights erupt after weeks or months of verbal taunting.

It is truly sad and infuriating to see Asian American students — or any students for that matter — first, being targeted for physical violence on an everyday basis, and second, being subjected to utter indifference and even contempt by school officials who deny that there are any problems. It should tell you something that even the Bush administration’s Justice Department felt that things were getting out of hand at Lafayette High and had to finally step in.

For every article or news story that describes how Asian culture is increasingly being accepted, embraced, and integrated into the American mainstream, there are stories like this one that remind us that in many ways, Asian Americans still have to fight an uphill battle not just to be considered “real Americans,” but for many, just to stay alive.


September 8, 2005

Written by C.N.

Education Gone Wrong

You’ve probably heard of the reality TV show “What Not to Wear.” Well, maybe someone should profile Lafayette High School in Brooklyn as “What Not to Do” in terms of supporting the equal education of Asian Americans. As Newsday reports, the Bush administration has just brought federal civil rights charges against Lafayette High, alleging that it failed to address racially-motivated violence against Asian American students and therefore, has violated their rights to a public education:

An Asian student who was a freshman at the Brooklyn school was punched on his way home in April, but administrators refused to investigate or to let anyone look at a student photo book to identify attackers, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan.

Among other cases involving Asian students this past school year, one boy was choked by a classmate in the boys’ locker room, and another boy complained that administrators told him they had lost the paperwork on his report.

“An atmosphere has been bred at the school where students feel free to harass Asian students without much retribution,” the group’s attorney, Khin Mai Aung, said Friday. “It’s been going on for years and nothing has been done to effectively fix things.”

At first glance, my reaction is that I can’t believe Asian American students are still subjected to this kind of treatment. It’s one thing to be the target of a racially-motived physical attack. What conpounds the misery even more is when the people who are entrusted to protect your rights and well-being ignore your complaints and instead, actually make it easier for you to be repeatedly victimized.

The irony is that this high school is not located in some isolated rural community where 98% of the students are White — it’s located in Brooklyn, NY — perhaps the most racially/ethnically diverse city in the entire U.S. and where one-quarter of the students are of Asian descent. Absolutely amazing . . .