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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

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

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

August 15, 2012

Written by C.N.

The Sikh Temple Shootings: Connecting the Sociological Dots

As many of you already know, on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire on a worshippers at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding three others before killing himself. The shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and a self-avowed White supremacist.

Clearly, words fail to convey the nature of sadness, loss, and tragedy of this event. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and wounded, to the Sikh American community in the area, and to all of us as human beings that have to live with the specters of hate and violence all around us.

Sikh memorial © M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Many, particularly our political leaders, have called this incident “senseless,” implying that it was an irrational and mindless act of a clearly deranged and mentally ill individual. Unfortunately, this sentiment fails to acknowledge that rather than being an isolated incident, these killings have a cause and origins beyond just the state of mind of the person who pulled the trigger.

In other words, there is an entire sociological context to why the killer did this and multi-level factors that, without a doubt, influenced the killer’s thinking and pushed him to go on his murderous rampage.

War on Terrorism an its Collateral Victims

We can start with the legacy of 9/11 and how the subsequent “war on terrorism” has left thousands, perhaps even millions, of innocent bystanders in its destructive wake. Specifically, I am talking about groups such as Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, and particularly Sikh Americans who have been and continue to be perceived as terrorists. In the case of Sikh Americans, much of this unfortunate association is tied to the turban that the men are required by their religious faith to wear. In other words, in the mind of racists, they’re just another “towelhead” and therefore, a terrorist.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Sikh Americans have been murdered as a direct result of 9/11 hysteria — four days after the events of September 11, 2001 and as illustrated in the excellent documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” Balbir Singh Sodhi was similarly gunned down by a person who perceived him to be a Muslim and therefore, a terrorist. On top of that, political “leaders” such as Peter King, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Walsh continue to use their public positions to fan the flames of suspicion and hostility against all Muslim Americans, all of which lends more credibility to equating Muslim with terrorism.

Combined with the recent killings at Oak Creek WI, these incidents of racial and religious hate against anyone perceived to be Muslim are not isolated. Instead, they are part of a clear pattern of mistaken identity, irrational guilt by visual association, and jingoistic hysteria that unfortunately is still alive and well almost 11 years after 9/11.

Anti-Immigrant Nativism and Xenophobia

Related to this is the nativist and xenophobic climate that has also strengthened since 9/11. Much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is seemingly directed at undocumented immigrants but unfortunately, since hate and intolerance cut a wide path, has also been directed at legal immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that have a large immigrant contingent such as Latinos and Asian Americans.

The foundation of this nativist and xenophobic climate is the belief that immigrants (legal and otherwise) are not “real,” “legitimate,” or “official” Americans. In turn, much of this belief about who is a “real” American is based on the “traditional” image of those who are perceived as “real” Americans — White, Protestant, and born in the U.S. Those who lack one of more of these traits are seen by many who do as being inferior to them and therefore, less deserving of the identity of “American.”

This conscious and unconscious perceived distinction between “real” Americans and “foreigners” exists even though immigrants and groups of color make numerous contributions to the U.S.’s political, economic, and cultural institutions by bridging diplomatic divides across national borders, investing in local communities and creating jobs for Americans, and by connecting the U.S. to an increasingly globalized and transnational world and diverse cultures.

Economic Competition Breeds Racial Hostility

As I tell my students, one of the most time-tested and historically consistent patterns in U.S. society is that whenever there is economic competition, almost always, it will lead to racial/ethnic hostility. This pattern has played itself out over and over again, and has involved basically every group of color throughout American history. Unfortunately, it is also rearing its ugly head once again today as the current recession has led to heightened competition for increasingly scarce economic resources between Whites (who have been used to enjoying a relatively stable standard of living but are now fighting just to stay in the middle class) and groups of color and immigrants (who many Whites perceive to benefiting at their expense).

Unfortunately, the conditions for heightened economic competition seem to be the “new normal” as the gulf between the rich (i.e., the top 1%) and everyone else (i.e., the 99%) widens, as powerful financial corporations continue to exploit their political influence and gain unfair advantages in their quest to maximize profit, and as ordinary Americans fight even more among ourselves for an ever-decreasing piece of the pie. With all of this in mind, the bottom line then becomes more clear — when people feel threatened, they become defensive at guarding whatever they have left and hostile towards those who they feel are try to take what is “rightfully” theirs.

White Backlash

This lashing out is part of a larger “White backlash” movement that I have described before. Faced with changing demographics and how the U.S. population is gradually but surely becoming less White, the emergence of people of color, the continuing consequences of globalization and decline of U.S. superiority around the world, and the normalization of economic instability, it is not hard to see why many Whites have become quite angry that their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is being politically, economically, and culturally threatened.

At the moment, many White Americans are feeling very threatened and upset by the changes taking place around them — their economic stability and standard of living are on the decline and, unable to see the institutional forces that have created this situation, their immediate reaction is anger and to lash out at “those other people” — minorities and immigrants.

This individual and collective anger has emboldened many Whites to publicly, forcefully, and passionately lash out at people of color and immigrants, with examples across the spectrum of violence. The institutional shifts and societal changes that influence these examples of backlash are not going away any time soon, and unfortunately, neither do I expect such examples of White backlash to decline any time soon.

And Yet, There is Still Hope

In the midst of all this, there is still the bright glimmer of humanity — the power of shared suffering to bring us together and for friends and strangers to unite and help each other out. No doubt you have seen examples of this in the aftermath of natural disasters as our fellow Americans donate what little discretionary funds we have to help those who have lost everything, and for friends, neighbors, and total strangers to help rebuild the devastated communities.

The same thing can happen in the wake of acts of violence like this. As the NBC News clip below shows, the memorial service to honor the six Sikhs killed was attended by about a thousand people, with Sikhs and non-Sikhs united in grief, sympathy, and hope.

Ideally, no, it should not take mass murders and hate crimes like this for us as Americans to wake up, recognize how our social environment and many of our national leaders are fanning the flames of hostility and hate, and to unite as human beings to change things are the better. But it seems that sometimes it takes a spark to light a fire, something Asian Americans have known for a while now.

Maybe this is that spark and hopefully, there will be a silver lining to this tragedy.


March 3, 2011

Written by C.N.

New Books: South Asians

Below are a few more recently-released books that highlight Asian Americans, immigration, and/or other racial/ethnic groups along a variety of historical and contemporary sociological issues. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.

South Asia occupies a very interesting position in the field of Asian Studies and Asian American Studies — countries and cultures such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh share many similarities with those in East Asia and Southeast Asia but at the same time, such South Asian countries and cultures feature very unique histories and characteristics. South Asians here in the U.S. frequently disagree among themselves about whether they should be part of the larger “Asian American” category as well. To help us examine these intricacies in more detail, the follow books focus on the histories, experiences, and identities of people from South Asia.

Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, by Canyon Sam (University of Washington Press)

'Sky Train' by Canyon Sam

Through a lyrical narrative of her journey to Tibet in 2007, activist Canyon Sam contemplates modern history from the perspective of Tibetan women. Traveling on China’s new “Sky Train,” she celebrates Tibetan New Year with the Lhasa family whom she’d befriended decades earlier and concludes an oral-history project with women elders.

As she uncovers stories of Tibetan women’s courage, resourcefulness, and spiritual strength in the face of loss and hardship since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, and observes the changes wrought by the controversial new rail line in the futuristic “new Lhasa,” Sam comes to embrace her own capacity for letting go, for faith, and for acceptance. Her glimpse of Tibet’s past through the lens of the women – a visionary educator, a freedom fighter, a gulag survivor, and a child bride – affords her a unique perspective on the state of Tibetan culture today – in Tibet, in exile, and in the widening Tibetan diaspora.

Gracefully connecting the women’s poignant histories to larger cultural, political, and spiritual themes, the author comes full circle, finding wisdom and wholeness even as she acknowledges Tibet’s irreversible changes.

How to Be South Asian in America: Narratives of Ambivalence and Belonging, by anupama jain (American Literatures Initiative)

'How to Be South Asian in America' by anupama jain

Providing a useful analysis of and framework for understanding immigration and assimilation narratives, anupama jain’s How to Be South Asian in America considers the myth of the American Dream in fiction (Meena Alexander’s Manhattan Music), film (American Desi, American Chai), and personal testimonies. By interrogating familiar American stories in the context of more supposedly exotic narratives, jain illuminates complexities of belonging that also reveal South Asians’ anxieties about belonging, (trans)nationalism, and processes of cultural interpenetration. jain argues that these stories transform as well as reflect cultural processes, and she shows just how aspects of identity, gender, sexual, class, ethnic, and nationality are shaped by South Asians’ accommodation of and resistance to mainstream American culture.

Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India, by Satya P. Mohanty (Palgrave MacMillan)

'Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature' by Satya P. Mohanty

Mohanty has assembled an innovative volume of essays situated at the intersection of at least three multi-disciplinary fields: postcolonial and subaltern theory; comparative literary analysis, especially with a South Asian and transnational focus; and the study of “alternative” and “indigenous” modernities. This definitive new work grounds the political insights of postcolonial and subaltern theory in close textual analysis and challenges readers to think in new ways about global modernity and local cultures.

Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, by Junaid Rana (Duke University Press)

Terrifying Muslims highlights how transnational working classes from Pakistan are produced, constructed, and represented in the context of American empire and the recent global War on Terror. Drawing on ethnographic research that compares Pakistan, the Middle East, and the United States before and after 9/11, Junaid Rana combines cultural and material analyses to chronicle the worldviews of Pakistani labor migrants as they become part of a larger global racial system.

At the same time, he explains how these migrants’ mobility and opportunities are limited by colonial, postcolonial, and new imperial structures of control and domination. He argues that the contemporary South Asian labor diaspora builds on and replicates the global racial system consolidated during the period of colonial indenture. Rana maintains that a negative moral judgment attaches to migrants who enter the global labor pool through the informal economy. This taint of the illicit intensifies the post–9/11 Islamophobia that collapses varied religions, nationalities, and ethnicities into the threatening racial figure of “the Muslim.”

It is in this context that the racialized Muslim is controlled by a process that beckons workers to enter the global economy, and stipulates when, where, and how laborers can migrate. The demonization of Muslim migrants in times of crisis, such as the War on Terror, is then used to justify arbitrary policing, deportation, and criminalization.


March 19, 2010

Written by C.N.

Academic Research: Asian Americans as Model Minorities

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience, and for readers who like to keep on top of the latest sociological research, I highlight new research and studies in academic journals about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. An article’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.

The following articles focus on different aspects of Asian Americans portrayed as the “model minority” and how such perceptions on the part of White society and social institutions affect how Asian Americans are treated in daily life.

Chao, Melody Manchi, Chi-yue Chiu, and Jamee S. Lee. 2010. “Asians as the Model Minority: Implications for US Government’s Policies.” Journal of Social Psychology 13:44-52.

Asian Americans are often perceived as a ‘model minority’– an ethnic minority that are high achieving, hardworking, self-reliant, law-abiding, as well as having few social and mental health problems. Although the impact of the model minority image on the US government’s redistributive policies is a widely contested topic in public discourses, there has been little research on the association between the model minority image, people’s worldviews, and attitudes towards the US government’s redistributive policies.

In an experiment that measured American participants’ worldviews and manipulated the salience of the model minority image, we have demonstrated that those who believed in a malleable social reality were relatively unsupportive of government policies that help the Asian American (vs African American) communities. Theoretical and practical implications of this finding are discussed.

Brettell, Caroline B. and Faith Nibbs. 2010. “Lived Hybridity: Second-Generation Identity Construction Through College Festival.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 16:678-699.

Recent research suggests that the children of recent immigrants, the so-called second generation, no longer choose to emphasize one identity over the other but that their identities are more fluid and multifaceted. College campuses are often the arenas in which a new hybrid identity develops.

This article addresses how South Asian American college students make sense of and control their various identities through the celebration of Diwali, an event sponsored each year by the Indian Students Association (ISA) on a college campus in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. South Asian students use performative space to help them make sense of their backgrounds in ways that both differentiate them from and allow for association with the majority student population.

They also use this space as a safe place for ‘coming out,’ that is, for communicating their hybrid identity to their parents. This hybrid identity is expressed through a discourse of ‘brownness’ that marks something distinctive and that reflects the process by which the children of immigrants choose among a range of identities to create integrated selves. The campus Diwali festival is the expression of those selves.

Johnson, Brian D. and Sara Betsinger. 2009. “Punishing the “Model Minority”: Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts.” Criminology 47:1045-1090.

Research on racial and ethnic disparities in criminal punishment is expansive but remains focused almost exclusively on the treatment of black and Hispanic offenders. The current study extends contemporary research on the racial patterning of punishments by incorporating Asian-American offenders. Using data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) for FY1997-FY2000, we examine sentencing disparities in federal district courts for several outcomes.

The results of this study indicate that Asian Americans are punished more similarly to white offenders compared with black and Hispanic offenders. These findings raise questions for traditional racial conflict perspectives and lend support to more recent theoretical perspectives grounded in attribution processes of the courtroom workgroup. The article concludes with a discussion of future directions for research on understudied racial and ethnic minority groups.

Oh, David C. and Madeleine Katz. 2009. “Covering Asian America: A Content Analysis Examining Asian American Community Size and Its Relationship to Major Newspapers’ Coverage.” Howard Journal of Communications 20:222-241.

This study attempts to determine whether 4 decades after the Kerner Commission, newspapers report more accurately on an increasingly diverse population. Specifically, it studied whether the size of the Asian American population covered by a newspaper influences the coverage of Asian Americans in newspaper articles.

It appears that although newspapers situated within larger Asian American communities report more frequently, at more depth, and with more prominence on Asian Americans, the quality of that coverage is not influenced by the size of the Asian American community. In cities with larger Asian American populations, newspapers have responded with increased stories and length but not with increased quality of coverage.

This is likely because of newspaper fears of alienating European American readers, leading to a ‘White flight’ in circulation and because of news practices that lead to distorted reports of Asian Americans. These findings renew calls for the newspaper industry to more fairly represent the diverse range of its readership and not just its most favored demographic.