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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.

June 28, 2011

Written by C.N.

Asian Stereotypes in ‘Hangover 2′: When Enough is Enough

Many of you have probably seen The Hangover Part 2, the sequel to the surprise hit of 2009. I recently watched the first Hangover film and mostly enjoyed it, although it was not quite as uproariously hilarious as many of my friends hyped it up to be. I have yet to see Hangover 2 and now my motivation has declined even further, after reading my friend Jeff Yang’s recent article about it in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some excerpts:

Ken Jeong in Hangover 2 © Warner Brothers

“H2″ made an absurd $103 million over the three-day weekend — an all-time record for a live-action comedy, despite near-universal excoriation by critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.” What few pointed out was that, in seeking to top the already over-the-top comic sensibilities of the original, the filmmakers chose the sleaziest, easiest possible solution, unleashing a relentless bastinado of abuse at the expense of Asians, a group that they presumably felt could be targeted with minimal concern about potential backlash.

If you’re an Asian who swallowed hard upon hearing that the sequel would be set in Bangkok, you’ll need to swallow harder just to keep down your gorge at what they’ve produced. The film’s depiction of Thailand transforms the “Land of Smiles” into a bizarro realm of brute violence, grim depravity and unfettered libido, populated entirely by broad racial stereotypes: Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads. . . .

As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] being soy sauce in the wound.

Jeff Yang could have ranted on about the various ways in which he found Hangover 2 offensive but most of his article actually focuses on what Asian Americans can actually do about this ongoing problem of Asians and Asian Americans consistently being portrayed using racist stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically, he offers some thoughts about the possibility of not only creating an alternative set of filmmakers who would portray Asian Americans more accurately, but also creating an alternative audience that would be able to sustain such independent efforts. But along the way, Jeff raises some important challenges that still need to be addressed:

For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop. . . .

Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.

This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.

Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.

Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers. The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.

Jeff’s idea sounds plausible to me, especially if Asian Americans, young and old, keep railing against movies rife with racial stereotypes like Hangover 2. Jeff’s idea doesn’t even take into consideration the growing numbers of Asian American professionals who are making good money and actually have the financial means to support such independent efforts even more than college students. If there is a plan that can incorporate them into this movement, it would certainly produce positive results.

Either way, I applaud Jeff Yang, Oliver Wang, and others who are doing more than just complaining about injustices against Asian Americans — they’re proposing potential plans of action and solutions to the problem. Their specific ideas may or may not bear fruit immediately but at the least, they get the conversation started, get ideas rolling, and will hopefully lead to some innovative thinking and action to get something done.

Even if it’s a small step, at least it’s a step in the right direction.


May 2, 2011

Written by C.N.

The Racial Undertones of the Birther Movement

I’m sure you have all heard by now that last week, after dealing with increased media publicity about questions regarding his U.S. citizenship, President Obama felt compelled to petition the state of Hawai’i to publicly release his long form Certificate of Live Birth that verifies that he was in fact born in the U.S. and is therefore eligible to be President. Below is a news clip of the story from NBC News:

As many observers point out, this release of the long form Certificate of Live Birth should appease many Americans who may have had a slight doubt about President Obama’s birthplace. However, it is not likely to convince “hardcore” birthers who will undoubtedly continue to question Obama’s status as an American, no matter what the evidence.

So let’s just cut to the chase: this “birther” movement is not really about Obama’s eligibility to be President. Rather, it just another example of the White Backlash that I have been describing for a while now and illustrates the resistance and difficulty that a number of White Americans still have about having a person of color as President and the larger context of demographic and cultural changes taking place in U.S. society. To summarize some of my earlier posts, several institutional trends are fundamentally changing U.S. society:

© James Noble/Corbis
  • The changing demographics of the U.S. in which non-Whites increasingly make up a larger proportion of the population and the projection that in about 35 years, Whites will no longer be a majority in the U.S.
  • The political emergence of non-Whites, best represented by the election of President Obama, and also illustrated by the growing Latino population.
  • The continuing evolution and consequences of globalization, the growing interconnections between the economies of the U.S. with other countries, and the economic rise of China and India.
  • The “normalization” of economic instability and how, even after this current recession ends, Americans will likely still be vulnerable to economic fluctuations that affect the housing market, stock market, and overall unemployment.
  • The unease about the U.S.’s eroding influence and military vitality around the world.

In basic terms, these institutional trends have led many (as always, meaning a large number but not all) White Americans to feel destabilized as their implicit and taken-for-granted position at the top of the U.S. racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially. They are also afraid that, as the U.S. is starting to lose its position of being the dominant political, economic, and military superpower in the world, their standard of living — and hence, their identity — are being threatened in the process.

As social scientists document, whenever anybody or any group feels threatened, they tend to get defensive, reactive, and attempt to cling on to their privileges as much as possible. One mechanism by which they do so is to assert a more rigid cultural boundary between them and “others” — insiders vs. outsiders, us vs. them. In the case of the birther movement, this attempt revolves around differentiating between “real” Americans (in the traditional image of U.S. society — White, middle class, and Protestant) and those perceived as “fake” Americans — immigrants, people of color, and specifically, President Obama.

The birthers usually counter with accusations that critics like me are just “playing the race card” and that their questions about Obama’s status as an American have nothing to do with his race. Unfortunately the evidence is not in their favor. As observers and critics like Tim Wise have argued elsewhere, the racial overtones of the birther movement and the larger White backlash movement are overwhelming.

At this point, it is almost exasperating to list and recount every single example of the racist aspects of the birther and White backlash movement. So for now, perhaps the best way to illustrate this further is to use humor and satire. For that, I will turn to Stephen Colbert and his recent observations about this issue below — make sure you view the video through to the end — punchline is well worth it:


March 23, 2011

Written by C.N.

White Privilege, Colorblindness, & the Model Minority Image: Asians in the Library Video

I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).

For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):

I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.

UCLA’s well-respected Asian American Studies Center summed up the sentiments of many in the academic community very well:

[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.

It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.

I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.

Lesson 1: White Privilege

Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.

© Pascal Campion, Ikon Images/Corbis

In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.

But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.

But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.

That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.

Lesson 2: Colorblindness

A contributing factor that functions to reinforce and perpetuate White privilege is the ideology of colorblindness. Again, I have written about the fallacies and failures of trying to be colorblind in U.S. society many times.

In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?

Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?

Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image

Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.

In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.

This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .

Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia

At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.

The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.

When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:

For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”

Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.


February 22, 2011

Written by C.N.

ECAASU 2011: Lessons in Mis/Understanding Different Levels of Analysis

As I previously promoted on this blog, this past weekend, the annual conference of the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) was held on my home campus, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ECAASU bills itself as the largest Asian American student conference in the nation and from most accounts, it was a big success with almost 1,500 attendees from schools all around the country. Kudos are in order for the organizers, attendees, presenters, and entertainers who all contributed to a dynamic and enriching event.

Inevitably, the conference was not without some controversy. Specifically, many attendees and presenters this year questioned the appropriateness of U.S. military branches such as the Navy and Coast Guard and government agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as sponsors of the event. In fact, there were several contentious instances in which speakers vocally criticized various historical and contemporary aspects of the U.S. military and security agencies along with their presence at the conference, with about 30 or so representatives of such military and security agencies sitting directly in front of them in the audience.

Apparently, these and other military branches and government agencies have prominently sponsored ECAASU conferences in the past, so their presence was not new. Since I have not attended many ECAASU conferences recently, I do not know whether there were similar objections raised in a very public way before. Nonetheless, this year the tensions were clearly out in the open.

In trying to not minimize the positive aspects of the conference, I would also like to reflect a little bit on this particular issue and source of tension. Also at the risk of contradicting one my favorite quotes — “I don’t know what’s the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody” (Bill Cosby) — my personal and sociological thoughts on this matter includes praise and criticism for both sides.

Speaking the Truth

On the one hand, the speakers who criticized the military and government agencies clearly had a right to do so and also had plenty of “ammunition” to back up their criticisms. There can be little denial that through the years, the U.S. military and security agencies and a number of individuals working for them have perpetrated or been directly complicit in innumerable instances of injustice and outright crimes against innocent civilians domestically and abroad and in the process, destroyed lives and livelihoods left and right.

To make a long story short, it is because of these actions that many people around the world have a very intense hatred of the U.S. and in extreme cases, feel compelled to resort to desperate actions to fight back against such historical and contemporary oppression. As such, the opposition to the presence of these U.S. military branches and government agencies at a conference focused on, among other things, counteracting institutional domination and cultural colonialism is perfectly understandable and justified.

Taking a Step Back

© Tina Healey and Images.com/Corbis

On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the fact that many members of the military put their very lives at risk to protect our right to criticize their employers — our government. More specifically, in criticizing the presence of the U.S. military and government agencies, I feel that the speakers missed an important distinction — the actions of individuals versus institutional policies. In other words, as a sociologist, one of the first things that I teach my students is that in order to properly understand a social issue or problem, we first need to recognize its dynamics and dimensions across different levels of analysis — the individual level, the group/community level, and the institutional level.

The issue of racism is an excellent example of the need to recognize how sociological understanding takes place at each of these levels of analysis. For instance, when a person of color points out how racism still exists in U.S. society these days, a White person may interpret that as a personal attack and direct implication against them and that they are being accused of being a racist when in fact, the person of color is referring to racism on the institutional level.

Similarly, many Whites may feel that racism will be eliminated once individuals are taught to be colorblind or that it’s wrong to have racial prejudices, when in fact the most enduring mechanisms that reinforce and perpetuate racism exist not among individuals, but within institutional policies and practices that privilege one racial group over another. Ultimately, it is when people discuss an issue like racism from different levels of analysis that misunderstandings, tensions, and hostility inevitably result.

As applied to the ECAASU conference and the speakers’ criticisms against the U.S. military and government agencies, I feel that they missed the opportunity to engage the military and agency personnel in a constructive sociological discussion because they largely conflated these levels of analysis. This happened in instances in which speakers implied that the military and government personnel in attendance at the conference, by virtue of their employment and position within such agencies, were directly complicit in committing crimes or acts of injustice.

More subtly, the conflating of these levels of analysis prevented speakers from conceptualizing the possibility that the military and government personnel in attendance might actually be agents of social change. In other words, on the one hand, there is the strong possibility that people of color, Asian Americans, or anyone else who has a commitment to racial equality and justice may end up just becoming another cog in the machine or another brick in the wall if they enter these military and government institutions and get swallowed into the perpetual system of bureaucracy.

But on the other hand, it is also possible that such individuals can bring their sense of racial equality and justice into an organization, build a coalition, consensus, or critical mass with like-minded others within the organization through time, and after achieving positions of power and authority, begin to apply their beliefs and little by little, change the culture and policies of that organization toward greater social/racial equality and justice. Organizations, institutions, and as we’re seeing in the Middle East, entire nations do change through individual actions — either toward more oppression, or toward more equality and democracy.

The Times They Are A’ Changing

Here in the U.S., we have three recent examples, including one involving the U.S. military — Gary Locke (Secretary of Commerce), Professor Steven Chu (Secretary of Energy), and General Eric Shinseki (Secretary of Veterans Affairs). Within each of their respective careers, all three of these Asian Americans have personified a sense of working toward greater social equality and while there is still plenty of work to be done, I feel are positive examples and role models of how social change can occur within institutions.

I also recall a conversation I had with a student in which she mentioned that, as an advertising major, she also has a strong commitment to use her experiences and training to work toward greater racial equality and justice for Asian Americans and people of color. But she also expressed reservations about entering the advertising industry with its history of portraying people of color in very narrow and even stereotypical ways. One of the things that I told her was that if students like her self-select out of these kinds of industries, everything will just be perpetual status quo and nothing will change. Instead, I encouraged her to bring her determination with her into the advertising industry and as I described earlier, build a critical mass with others who share similar goals and fight for the change that she wants to see happen.

I cannot guarantee that the 30 or so military or government personnel in attendance at the ECAASU conference have the same kind of drive toward achieving racial equality and justice, but based on the brief speeches that a few of them gave, I am confident that many of them do. As such, while we can and should continue to criticize their institutions for the injustices that they’ve perpetrated through the years, that should not preclude us from encouraging individual members of such institutions from doing what they can to change their institutions from within.


February 14, 2011

Written by C.N.

Best Immigration Documentaries: Part 3, Assimilation & Integration

This is the third of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This third and final part will focus specifically on issues related to socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation — the individual-, community-, and institutional-level processes involved as immigrants (regardless of their legal status) become integrated into the rest of U.S. society.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 2 looked at unauthorized immigration. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

Assimilation © Corbis

Socioeconomic Mobility and Settlement Patterns

What are the historical and contemporary patterns of educational, occupational, and income attainment on the part of immigrants and how do such patterns compare across waves of immigration, nationality/ethnic group, and in relation to U.S.-born racial/ethnic groups? Also, what are some recent developments regarding where immigrants settle, how they create their own communities and enclaves, and role of these ethnic communities in their overall assimilation process?

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

In this section, I focus on the assimilation and integration process on the individual level. Specifically, I look at the different forms of forms of assimilation that immigrants undergo, the factors that affect their own personal racial/ethnic/cultural identity, and how community- and institutional factors influence whether immigrants experience upward or downward assimilation through time.

Language, Religious, and Political Incorporation

This section explores assimilation and integration specifically related to native language retention vs. English acquisition among immigrants, their religious patterns and the roles that religious organizations play in their lives, and their patterns of participating in the political process at various levels and in particular, the prospects of immigrants leveraging their growing population size into greater political power.

Emerging Issues and a Changing National Identity

In this final section of my “Sociology of Immigration” course, I reflect back on where immigrants to the U.S. have been — politically, economically, and culturally — and just as important, take a look at where immigration and immigration policy are headed as we move forward into the 21st century and in particular, as we become more culturally diverse, globalized, and transnational.


February 2, 2011

Written by C.N.

3 Interesting Infographics: Interracial Marriage, Surnames, and Slavery

In my travels around the internet, I recently came across three interesting infographics related to race/ethnicity and immigration.

The first one is a “Map of American Slavery,” published in the New York Times (small thumbnail below, you can click on it to go to the larger version at the NY Times site). For casual historians like me, it is interesting to see that the counties that had the highest concentration of slaves were generally located along the Mississippi River and whose labor was in demand the most to facilitate trade, further reinforcing the notion that so much of the American south’s economy was fundamentally tied to slavery.

Map of American Slavery © Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

The second interesting infographic is entitled “Who is Marrying Whom,” also was published by the New York Times, and shows a visual breakdown of interracial marriage across the major racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. (again, you can click on the thumbnail below to see the full-size version). In looking it over, some of the most interesting results are:

Who is Marrying Whom © New York Times
  • The groups that seem to have the highest rates of being interracially married are American Indians and Black Hispanics.
  • The largest gender disparities are among Blacks and Asian Americans, although the gender pattern is the opposite for each: Black men are 124% more likely to be interracially married than Black women, while Asian American women are 125% more likely to be married interracially than Asian American men.
  • Since around 1990 or so, interracial marriage rates have actually been declining for White Hispanics and American Indians. Moreover, for Asian Americans, they’ve been generally declining since 1980. For White Hispanics and Asian Americans, I believe much of this decline is due to the large influx of immigrants since the ’80s and ’90s, many of whom are already married as they arrive in the U.S. or are less likely to intermarry in general. As such, it would be interesting to see these same numbers for just U.S.-raised members of these racial groups (those who were born in the U.S. or arrived at at 13 or younger and therefore, and therefore were socialized within the U.S. racial landscape).

The interracial marriage graphic is linked to an interesting article also on the NY Times site that discusses the growing multiracial/mixed-race population in the U.S. and how they are increasingly forging their own identity that combines elements of both sides of their ancestry, rather than trying to fit themselves into preexisting and frequently narrowly-defined racial/ethnic categories, as this video clip shows:

A third interesting infographic was published by the National Geographic Society, titled “What’s in a Surname?” and shows some of the most common surnames in different geographic parts of the U.S. The map confirms what demographers have noted for some time now — racial/ethnic minorities (represented here by their surnames) are increasingly becoming the majority population in many parts of the U.S. (again, click on the thumbnail below to view the larger interactive graphic at the National Geographic Society site).

Map of American Surnames © National Geographic Society

As one example, in the southern California part of the map, some of the most common surnames are Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez and even Nguyen (a nod to the huge Vietnamese American “Little Saigon” community in Orange County). There are further large concentrations of Latino surnames (represented in red) in the southwestern U.S., southern Florida, and upstate New York as well. And unbeknown to me, there is apparently a large contingent of Koreans named “Kim” in central California.


January 31, 2011

Written by C.N.

Best Immigration Documentaries: Part 2, Unauthorized Immigration

This is the second of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This second part will focus specifically on the issue of unauthorized immigration. We all know that unauthorized immigration has become one of the most controversial, hotly-debated, and emotionally-charged issues in American society today. In that context, these documentaries highlight various sides of the debate and taken together, will hopefully provide a more comprehensive picture of this complicate and often contradictory issue.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 3 will look at socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

The Land of Opportunity © Dave Cutler, Images.com/Corbis

Unauthorized Immigration: The Basics

As the name implies, this section lays out the basic historical, political, and economic foundation and concepts that frame the contemporary nature of unauthorized immigration. I focus much of the discussion on such immigration from Mexico but also stress that much of the unauthorized immigrant population are people who had official permission to enter the U.S., and with that in mind, why we as a society focus such a disproportionate amount of attention on those from Mexico.

Nativism and Xenophobia

In this section, I describe historical and contemporary examples of how immigrants from various backgrounds and countries have encountered nativism, xenophobia, and racism upon their arrival. At the same time, I also focus on how such hostility and tensions have been magnified in recent years against unauthorized immigrants and the racial/ethnic connotations behind them.

Immigration Reform

This section explores the various proposals, programs, and laws that attempt to address the unauthorized immigration issue. I cover the pros and cons of both the “enforcement only” and “comprehensive reform” approaches, as well as examining the variety of costs and benefits that unauthorized immigration have on American society and its economy.

Women, Gender, & Family

This section highlights the immigration process and experiences of women, children, and families specifically. I examine the multi-level issues involved in transnational families where parents are separated from their children and the effects that workplace raids by Immigration Control and Enforcement agents have on unauthorized immigrant families.


January 26, 2011

Written by C.N.

Best Immigration Documentaries: Part 1, History and Global Context

This spring semester, I am again teaching my “The Sociology of Immigration” course, whose description reads, “This course examines who, why, and how different groups immigrate to the U.S. and what happens once they arrive — how they are received by mainstream society and how they adjust to their new country. Specific issues include settlement, education, identity, assimilation, discrimination, employment, language, marriage, legal status, and political participation.”

With that in mind, I would like to share my list of films, videos, and documentaries that I think are good choices for showing in introductory classes focused on immigration (the videos are most suited for college and advanced high school courses). As we all know, the political, economic, and cultural issues related to immigration are some of the most emotional, controversial, and hotly-debated topics in American society today. While the documentaries listed here tend to emphasize a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, they all do an excellent job in portraying and highlighting just how complex and even contradictory this issue is.

Statue of Liberty © Vance Vasu, Images.com/Corbis

The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that I consider to be good choices for that topic as well. This post focuses the the first few topics of my immigration course — the history and global context of immigration. Part 2 will focus on issues specific to unauthorized immigration and Part 3 will emphasize socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation.

Basic Concepts: The Racialized Landscape

In this first section of the course, I lay out the sociological framework and institutional nature of the U.S.’s racial/ethnic landscape, within which the issues of immigration are framed and structured. I focus on how, contrary to historical and contemporary ideals of being “colorblind,” American society has been and continues to be highly racialized and these mechanisms of racialization impact immigration.

  • Race: Power of an Illusion (Episode 2): This excellent PBS series explores the social and political construction of race and perceived racial differences. As it relates to immigration, this episode takes an in-depth look at how the identity of “American” has been closely linked with Whiteness and the inherent barriers that people of color and immigrants have to overcome in order to formally and informally be considered “real” Americans.
  • The Color of Fear
  • Race, the World’s Most Dangerous Myth
  • Understanding Race

Historical Patterns of Entry and Restriction

In this section, I summarize the major waves of immigration into the U.S. through the years, along with the evolution of immigration laws and regulation in U.S. history.

Motivations & Incorporation: Past & Present

This section explores the multidimensional and multi-level process of how immigrants have been received by mainstream American society and how they have adapted to the challenges and opportunities in the first generation of life in the U.S. I also discuss the major theories of why and how immigration happens, particularly as they relate to global political, economic, and cultural forces.

The Global Context

Drawing on the global issues inherent in the immigration process, this section explores some examples of the variety of experiences and issues of immigration in other countries around the world. Students in my class find it useful to compare and contrast the experiences of immigrants in other countries to those of immigrants to the U.S.


January 24, 2011

Written by C.N.

Thoughts on the ‘Tiger Mother’ Controversy

I presume that by now, all of you have heard about the debate and controversy over Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her accompanying article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” and the resultant backlash throughout American society and on the internet from Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.

Although I have not yet read her book, from her various public appearances lately and based on other people’s summaries of her points, I understand that her main arguments are that American parents tend to be too lax in their parenting styles, particularly when it comes to not emphasizing hard work, persistence, and total commitment to education and other tasks necessary for your child to be a high achiever in contemporary American and global societies. In her own words on the Wall Street Journal article, she writes:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

Tiger mother © Michael K. Nichols/National Geographic Society
  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin . . .

To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

I’ve been meaning to comment on her points for a while and I also know that there are plenty of other writers and bloggers who have already weighed in on this subject. However, I’ve been occupied with preparing for the start of the new semester and have not been able to read many of their responses yet. Therefore, I apologize if I am restating points that others have already brought up.

As I describe in more detail below about the specific arguments Chua makes that I agree and disagree with, the main point that I want to emphasize is that parenting does not have to be an “either-or” proposition — there does not have to be a rigid line drawn between “rigorous” and “permissive” styles, nor does there have to be a complete separation of “Chinese” and “American” styles. As I have consistently emphasized throughout this blog, frequently there is an artificial division between these two identities that inevitably creates unnecessary barriers, misunderstandings, and tensions between all those involved.

Instead, I want to emphasize that it is possible to achieve a balance between these two identities. This is what Asian Americans have been doing for a while now — taking different elements of each culture to meld and synthesize them into their own style that includes the best of each. As I discuss below, I believe this applies to parenting styles and the drive for achievement and success as well.

In Defense of Chua

One of her points with which I agree is that for whatever reasons, it is very common and indeed beneficial for many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Asian, Asian American, and immigrant parents to place a very strong and heavy emphasis on educational achievement and success. Many native-born American parents do so as well, but I am reminded of an article that I used for a previous course on racial/ethnic demography, “Test-Score Trends Along Racial Lines, 1971 to 1996: Popular Culture and Community Academic Standards,” written by Ronald F. Ferguson (a chapter in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, 2001). The article described data to show that when it comes to parental expectations of their children’s academic performance, Asian parents who were high school dropouts still had higher expectations of their children than White, Black, and Latino parents who had a college degree.

My point is, it is not necessarily a bad thing to expect your children to not just perform well, but to excel, academically or otherwise. Particularly in this age of globalization, the need for advanced educational and professional skills in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace is readily apparent and increasingly stressed by almost everyone from all backgrounds. We also know that, as it currently stands, the American educational system needs much improvement in terms of preparing our young people to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In other words, as a society, we as Americans should not and cannot settle for mediocrity if we expect to retain our standard of living.

As other sociological research as also shown, many Asian and Asian American parents also understand that as a racial minority in American society, almost by necessity, they need to push their children a little further to make sure that they are able to overcome some of the hurdles and barriers that stand in our way when it comes to socioeconomic success and full institutional integration into American society, especially in tough economic times when competition for jobs and other resources is even more intense and potentially filled with racial tension and hostility.

With this in mind, I also find it quite unfortunate that some of the criticism directed at Chua includes elements of racism that link her to China’s recent emergence to become the new “yellow peril” threat to the U.S. and even death threats against her personally. Time magazine’s recent article on this debate summed up the global context of this debate nicely:

The tiger mother’s cubs are being raised to rule the world, the book clearly implies, while the offspring of “weak-willed,” “indulgent” Westerners are growing up ill equipped to compete in a fierce global marketplace. . . .

These national identity crises are nothing new. . . . In the 1980s, we fretted that Japan was besting us with its technological wizardry and clever product design — the iPod of the ’80s was the Sony Walkman — and its investors’ acquisitions of American name-brand companies and prime parcels of real estate. . . . [Now] our rivalry with the Japanese has faded as another one has taken its place: last year, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

The U.S. is still No. 1 — but for how long? We’re rapidly reaching the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow — and our single biggest creditor is China. How long, for that matter, can the beleaguered U.S. education system keep pace with a rapidly evolving and increasingly demanding global marketplace?

Such fears about the U.S. losing its position as the unquestioned political, economic, and cultural superpower are real and valid. At the same time, it is one thing to criticize Chua for her parenting style, but it’s a different matter altogether to reinforce and perpetuate anti-Asian stereotypes and advocate committing violence towards her and others who are perceived to be threats to the “American” way of life. In fact, for many Asians and Asian Americans, such racism only confirms the ongoing challenges we face and the need to overachieve as a reaction to such racial hostility.

Criticisms for Chua

On the other hand, Chua’s style of parenting is certainly not for everybody and in many respects, has the danger of creating some very negative consequences. When it comes to Asian Americans and the model minority image, I’ve written many times before in this blog about the need to balance the drive for success with caution against excessive parental and societal pressure. As a community, unfortunately Asian Americans have experienced too many incidents in which too much parental pressure on their children has led to incidents of suicide and violence. In fact, it is well worth repeating that Asian American women between 15-24 years old have the highest suicide rates of any racial, ethnic, age, and gender group in the U.S.

More generally, I also feel that Chua unnecessarily and unfortunately reinforces this artificial distinction between “Chinese/Asian” and “American.” Beyond the inherent overgeneralizing that Chinese mothers do this while American mothers do that, Chua does not seem to give much credence to the possibility that many Chinese Americans and Asian American parents do both — that we combined the best elements of the different cultures with which we’re familiar. In fact, this is just another example of the kind of “transcultural” assimilation that Asian Americans have done ever since we first arrived in the U.S.

As this CBS News video shows, even parents in China are increasingly rethinking their “success at any cost” approach to parenting that Chua insists is “superior”:

As it relates to parenting, I also do not believe it is not a contradiction to instill a drive for achievement and excellence while also nurturing a sense of independence and an understanding that there is more to life than just material success. Toward that end, I personally do not feel that, in order to stress the importance of personal achievement, parents need to berate, criticize, or shame their child. Chua’s “tough as nails” methods may eventually instill a sense of confidence and achievement in her daughters but I am pretty sure there are less harsh and extreme ways to accomplish the same thing. They might include letting our children work out herself many of the interpersonal difficulties that they encounter everyday and explaining to the child the various individual and institutional challenges that lie ahead of her them and that if they expect to have a comfortable standard of living, they will need to accomplish and at times, master certain tasks toward that goal.

Perhaps I am being too idealistic to think that my daughter has the ability to truly understand these multi-level and long-term issues about what she needs to do now in order to have certain things later. But then again, isn’t that what Chua is basically telling her daughters as well?


January 12, 2011

Written by C.N.

Ed Lee and Vang Pao: Asian American Leadership in Transition

Over the last few days, news about two prominent Asian American community leaders caught the attention of many Americans around the country. First is the passing of General Vang Pao, the longtime and high-profile leader of the Hmong and Laotian American community, passed away at the age of 81. Commentator Mai Der Vang at New American Media summarizes his personal history and significance to Asian Americans:

General Vang Pao © New America Media

During the 1960s, the U.S. government recruited him to command guerrilla forces against communist Laos in a covert war in which tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians forced into exile. . . .

Many of us also recalled the arrest of Vang Pao and ten other men in 2007 as they were charged with attempting to overthrow the Lao government. Rally after rally, hundreds of his devout supporters participated in demonstrations here in Fresno and Sacramento. They put intense pressure on the US government to release Vang Pao, and put together 1.5 million dollar bail for him. In 2009, charges were dropped. . . .

Many in the Hmong community viewed him as a leader, but Vang Pao also represented for them their lost homeland. When his supporters saw him in public, they saw him not as an aging man in a three-piece suit but, rather, the young valiant war commander he once was. For them, he was the manifestation of a home they once knew and the memories of a life they once lived. . . .

For others in the community, Vang Pao’s passing marks an end to a contentious era. Despite galvanizing support among the masses, there were some who remained skeptical about his leadership perhaps due to his politics, his personal life, or the fallout from histories tied to Laos. Yet whether a person admired him or held their reservations, there is no arguing the fact that he was one of the most prominent figures in Hmong modern history, essentially serving through the decades as the unelected leader of the global diaspora.

As I wrote about in my chapter “‘Better Dead Than Red’: Anti-Communist Politics Among Vietnamese Americans” in the edited volume Anti-Communist Minorities in the US: The Political Activism of Ethnic Refugees and elsewhere on this blog, emotions still run very high for many Southeast Asian Americans when it comes to matters related to the Viet Nam War and its aftermath.

I am not an expert on General Vang’s life but it was clear that he was both admired and disliked by many Laotian and Hmong Americans. In either case, he had a significant impact on many of their lives and transnational history, both in southeast Asia and here in the U.S. Inevitably, his passing creates an environment and opportunity for new leaders to emerge in the Hmong and Laotian American communities. In the process, we are likely to see Asian Americans continue the gradual transition from lives focused primarily on Asia to one focused more on America.

The other notable Asian American leader to make the news recently is Ed Lee who, for all intents and purposes, is on track to become the new mayor of San Francisco and thus one of the first Asian American mayors of a major U.S. city. The San Francisco Chronicle summarizes the recent events that led to this momentous event:

Ed Lee © San Francisco Chronicle

The Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 today to appoint City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor, but the decision is not official until Mayor Gavin Newsom steps down and is sworn in to the lieutenant governor’s job he won in November. Newsom has refused to resign until the new Board of Supervisors with four new members is sworn in at noon Saturday. The new board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Newsom’s successor, who will fill out the year remaining on his term.

As for Lee’s chances to get the nod from the new board, he has it all but locked up. Seven of the supervisors who voted in favor of Lee today will still be on the board Tuesday, providing the majority Lee would need to get the job even without their new colleagues. . . . Voters will elect a new mayor in November.

Although Ed Lee’s presumed position as San Francisco’s new mayor appears to be only an interim position for now, this is still a very historic event for American society. Following on the heels of Jean Quan’s election as Mayor of Oakland, it is personally refreshing and sociologically notable to see that Asian Americans are gradually emerging as political leaders and attaining political power.

Up to this point, even though Asian Americans made up 10% of California’s population and 33% of the population in the Bay Area, we have been consistently underrepresented as political leaders in these areas. There are numerous external and internal factors that influence much of this historical underrepresentation, but as we move forward into the 21st century, as I’ve described in several posts on this blog, there are numerous ways in which the Asian American population can make significant contributions that reflect the political, economic, and cultural changes taking place in the world in general and American society in particular.

With this in mind, there are also many compelling reasons why politicians need to take Asian Americans (along with other immigrant groups and communities of color) seriously as not just a constituent group but also as a major emerging cultural and demographic force in the years to come.


December 20, 2010

Written by C.N.

The Most Significant Racial/Ethnic Issue of the Decade

Not only are we nearing the end of the year but also the end of the first decade of the new millennium. I recently posted about the best and worst news events of 2010. In this post, I would like to take an even broader look at news events and other political, economic, cultural, and demographic trends of the last 10 years to identify what I consider the most important and significant issue that has affected racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. so far in the 21st century.

There are certainly many potential issues, trends, and events from which to choose. An obvious one are the 9/11 Attacks and the resultant War on Terrorism. As I’ve detailed since that fateful day in 2001, lives of Americans from all racial/ethnic backgrounds were literally changed overnight, not the least of whom were and are Arab and Muslim Americans, who have to balance their dual identities of being both Americans while also frequently being seen as “enemies in our own backyards.”

Another clear choice would have been the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.’s first non-White President. His campaign and eventual victory were certainly very historical moments in the racial/ethnic landscape of American society. For good and for bad, they further brought many underlying racial issues to the surface of American society and resulted in both more cohesion and divisions across racial/ethnic lines.

Further, a third good choice could be the emergence of Unauthorized Immigration as a divisive, hot button issue within American society. As the need for cheap labor increased, so did the numbers of immigrants from all over the world but particularly from Mexico and Central America arriving in the U.S. to fill that need. In the process, their presence led to numerous and ongoing debates and conflicts over whether their presence is good and bad for the country.

But in the end, I believe that one racial/ethnic issue in particular is even more significant than the others. This issue has become a underlying political, economic, and cultural dynamic that has exacerbated, intensified, and reinforced the effects of the other three that I mentioned above. In many ways, this issue has become a fundamental factor upon which many contemporary forms of racial/ethnic inequality and controversy are now based. That issue — the most significant racial/ethnic issue of the decade — is Globalization.

Globalization: Its Forms & Effects

Of course, there are different definitions of globalization. For my purposes, I define it as the contemporary and ongoing institutional process involving increasingly frequent and complex political, economic, and cultural interconnections and competition between countries and groups of citizens around the world.

Globalization © Wojtek Kozak & Images.com/Corbis

Globalization can also take many specific forms. As I detail below, those that have had significant effects on racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. this first decade of the 21st century include demographic change, outsourcing and postindustrial occupational shifts, increased economic competition in the global marketplace, and decreased economic stability on the institutional and individual levels.

In taking each form one at a time, the first significant effect of globalization on American society and racial/ethnic relations is demographic change. For some time now, due to the continuation of high levels of immigration from non-European countries and the relatively high birth rates of non-White racial/ethnic groups, the U.S.’s population is gradually shifting from overwhelmingly White to more racially diverse and multicultural. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that if current trends are sustained, Whites will cease to be the majority population somewhere around 2050. Whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group by far but for the first time in several centuries, non-Whites will comprise more than 50% of the U.S.’s population.

These demographic changes have already transformed the racial/ethnic composition of numerous cities, metropolitan areas, and states around the country. Further, such shifts have inevitably led to political and cultural transformations as well in these locations as well, such as the creation of new ethnic enclaves and communities where the majority of the population are Asian American, as one example. As social disorganization theory describes, such demographic changes have inevitably led to some resentment and tension between more established residents (predominantly White) and “newcomer” groups (who are predominantly non-White).

Globalization has also resulted in accelerating postindustrial trends in the occupational structure of the U.S. While the U.S.’s economy has been gradually shifting from one dominated by manufacturing to one focused more on services, in the past two decades, globalization seems to institutionalized a segmented labor market in which almost all new jobs that are created are located either near the top of the occupational structure (involving knowledge management and information technology, requiring high levels of education and job skills, and resultant high pay) or near the bottom (manual labor service sector jobs that require little education or job skills and involving low pay and job security). New middle-level (for example, “blue collar” skilled manufacturing) jobs are much less common these days.

The New Normal: Economic Instability

What this means for racial/ethnic relations is that there is more economic competition for jobs that offer some opportunity for social mobility. In the past, White workers were able to count on these mid- and high-level jobs that would propel them and their families into the middle and upper classes through succeeding generations. But today, due to globalization (and other factors), Whites face more frequent and more intense competition for such jobs from immigrants and non-Whites.

This is important because one of the most consistent sociological patterns through the years has been that whenever you have economic competition, almost always it will eventually lead to racial/ethnic hostility. Taken together, this increased economic competition seems poised to become the norm in the near future due to the ongoing effects of globalization and related forces.

However, because many White Americans have grown accustomed (perhaps even feeling entitled) to economic security and a middle class standard of living, these fundamental institutional changes and feelings of economic insecurity are likely to be the biggest shock to them. Feeling destabilized themselves and perceiving that others (particularly immigrants, American non-Whites, and international non-Whites) to be benefiting at their expense, it is not surprising that many Whites would ultimately feel threatened, angry, and engage in some form of backlash or scapegoating.

Therefore, it is within this context that I feel that globalization is the most significant racial/ethnic issue of this past decade. The demographic shifts and economic instability brought on by globalization and felt by many Americans, but particularly White Americans, forms the foundation upon which much of the anti-immigrant and anti-minority tensions, hostility, and backlash of the past 10 years is based, along with magnifying its political, economic, and cultural effects.

The war on terrorism and much of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim suspicions involve the conscious or unconscious fear of America’s majority White and Christian cultural dominance being threatened. In many ways, Barack Obama’s election as our first non-White President also symbolizes a loss of power for the majority White establishment. And much of the vehement opposition to unauthorized immigration again is based on the direct and indirect fear that non-Whites are “taking over” or “invading” the U.S., determined to “overthrow” its majority White culture.

So while there have been many notable and important news events in this past decade that have affected racial/ethnic relations, from a sociological point of view, one significant common thread among them all is that, to a large extent, they are based on the demographic, political, economic, and cultural effects of globalization and how such effects are perceived to be a threat to the institutional power and hegemony of the U.S. White majority population.


October 12, 2010

Written by C.N.

China’s Case of Cultural Schizophrenia

A few recent articles about China caught my attention. After taking them all in, one common theme became clear to me: China has made a lot of economic and cultural progress in recent years as it strives to become the next global superpower. At the same, as my previous blog posts have mentioned, China still lags other countries and societies when it comes to certain issues such as human rights, consumer protection, etc.

With this dichotomy in mind and as these most recent articles will highlight, China seems to be at a crossroads: is China willing to and capable of taking the next step and becoming a truly respected global superpower, or is it fated to just have economic power without real global acceptance as a legitimate ‘developed’ nation?

Specifically, in a recent column in Time magazine, Fareed Zakaria argues that despite the ongoing controversy over whether China’s government deliberately devalues its currency to artificially keep its goods cheap in overseas markets, China’s real problem is that, for it to continue to stay globally competitive, it needs to invest in improving the human capital (education, postindustrial job skills, etc.) of its citizens:

The real challenge we face from China is not that it will keep flooding us with cheap goods. It’s actually the opposite: China is moving up the value chain, and this could constitute the most significant new competition to the U.S. economy in the future. For much of the past three decades, China focused its efforts on building up its physical infrastructure. It didn’t need to invest in its people; the country was aiming to produce mainly low-wage, low-margin goods. As long as its workers were cheap and worked hard, that was good enough. . . .

Now China wants to get into higher-quality goods and services. That means the next phase of its economic development, clearly identified by government officials, requires it to invest in human capital with the same determination it used to build highways. Since 1998, Beijing has undertaken a massive expansion of education, nearly tripling the share of GDP devoted to it. In the decade since, the number of colleges in China has doubled and the number of students quintupled, going from 1 million in 1997 to 5.5 million in 2007. China has identified its nine top universities and singled them out as its version of the Ivy League.

That rationale makes perfect sense to me — as the world economy becomes more globalized, postindustrial, and information- and data-intensive, workers with these advanced educational and job skills are poised to have an advantage in the labor market. This is basically what the rest of the world believes as well. But as a New York Times article points out, the problem in China however, is that this rush and pressure to improve one’s education seems to be increasingly associated with academic fraud:

The exposure of Mr. Zhang’s faked credentials provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing over what many scholars and Chinese complain are the dishonest practices that permeate society, including students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who promote fake or unoriginal research, and dairy companies that sell poisoned milk to infants. . . .

[A] lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say. . . . Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation — has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. . . . [E]arlier this year, The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a “research superpower” by 2020. . . .

[P]lagiarizers often go unpunished, which only encourages more of it. . . . The Chinese government has vowed to address the problem. Editorials in the state-run press frequently condemn plagiarism and last month, Liu Yandong, a powerful Politburo member who oversees Chinese publications, vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eager to inflate their publishing credentials.

Fang Shimin and another crusading journalist, Fang Xuanchang, have heard the vows and threats before. In 2004 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education announced antifraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

We do need to keep in mind that in many Asian countries, there is a greater sense of collective harmony and group cooperation that differs from the ethos of individualism and “every-man-for-himself” that is more prominent in western countries. Also considering the rash of American corporate greed and deceit that contributed to the onset of the current recession, fraud is certainly not exclusive to China.

At the same time, and as Chinese authorities seem to recognize at least verbally, it is clear that this mentality of malfeasance is a problem that needs to be addressed for China to move closer toward full acceptance and respect as a true global superpower.

Another aspect of China’s “cultural schizophrenia” that caught my attention concerns the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a former literature professor who has been variously persecuted by the Chinese government the past 20 years for championing democratic reform. The vast majority of the world is applauding the choice of Liu for the prize, with the obvious exception being the Chinese government. However, as a different New York Times article notes, another notable group of critics against Liu are other Chinese pro-democracy dissidents:

In recent days, a group of 14 overseas Chinese dissidents, many of them hard-boiled exiles dedicated to overthrowing the Communist Party, have been calling on the Nobel committee to deny the prize to Mr. Liu, whom they say would make an “unsuitable” laureate. In a letter, the signatories accused Mr. Liu of maligning fellow activists, abandoning persecuted members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and going soft on China’s leaders. “His open praise in the last 20 years for the Chinese Communist Party, which has never stopped trampling on human rights, has been extremely misleading and influential,” they wrote. . . .

The letter and calls from other detractors have infuriated many rights advocates, inside and outside of China, who say the attack distorts Mr. Liu’s record as a longtime proponent of peaceful [and pragmatic] change. . . . More recently, Mr. Liu was given an 11-year prison sentence last Christmas for his role in shaping a manifesto, known as Charter ’08, that called for popular elections and an end to the Communist Party’s unchallenged grip on power. . . .

Whatever the merits of the anti-Liu Xiaobo camp, their very public sentiments provide a window into the state of the overseas Chinese dissidents, a fractured group beset by squabbling and competing claims of anti-authoritarian righteousness. . . . Even if they have differences over strategy, many intellectuals and activists inside China describe Mr. Liu as a dynamic thinker who appealed both to members of the party and many of its die-hard opponents.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Mr. Liu’s compassionate and forgiving nature, he seems to be caught in the “key to failure” conundrum as articulated once by Bill Cosby: “I don’t know what’s the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In other words, his opposition to authoritarian rule has made him an enemy of the state to the Chinese government, but apparently he is not considered “radical” enough for other pro-democracy Chinese dissidents. It’s the classic no-win scenario.

It also reminds me of similar intra-ethnic tensions within the Vietnamese American community in which hard-line anti-communist refugees often accuse others within their community of being a communist when there is a disagreement on some issue. Another example is when some Asian Americans dismiss or criticize other Asian Americans for not being “Asian” enough, particularly those who are adopted or mixed-race.

On the one hand, it’s obviously unrealistic to expect that all Chinese — both inside and outside the country — to agree on all issues and aspects of their society and government policies. On the other hand, when members of your own community reject one of their own, particularly when it comes to a highly prestigious award such as the Nobel Peace Prize, it makes me wonder about whether such a fractured group can effectively act as a respected counterbalance to China’s authoritarian rule and its continuing less-than-stellar record on human rights.

Every country has its own problems and its contradictions when it comes to establishing a united identity and collective path forward so in that regard, China is no different from, say, the U.S. Also, I am not suggesting that China should blindly conform to all social aspects and policies that are characteristic of western societies. But what is unique in China’s case is that it wants very, very badly to ascend to the position and status of being a globally respected political, economic, and cultural superpower.

In many ways, China already has enormous global influence. But that is not necessarily the same as global respect and authority.