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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.

April 6, 2009

Written by C.N.

Trying to Understand the Binghampton Tragedy

I’m sure you have heard by now about the tragedy in Binghampton, New York this past week, when Jiverly Wong (a Vietnamese American of Chinese ancestry) shot and killed 14 people at the American Civic Association immigrant assistance center, then shot himself. I join others in offering my sincere condolences to the family of those killed and to all affected by these shocking events.

In trying to understand this tragedy from a sociological point of view, I am reminded of just how similar this latest incident of violence is to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, when troubled Korean American student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 students and professors before killing himself. Both cases involved a lone gunman who was personally very troubled and perhaps even mentally ill, who felt ridiculed and demeaned by others around him, and who had trouble fitting into mainstream American society.

And of course, both the killers were Asian American.

Inevitably, there will be those who will generalize these and other incidents that involved violence and murder committed by other Americans of Asian descent that have made the news in recent years, and conclude that Asian Americans are inherently socially awkward, emotionally and mentally unstable or inferior, and/or prone to violence. In fact, I felt the same kind of dread that I felt back in 2007 when I heard that the shooter in the Binghampton murders was identified as being of Asian descent.

Let’s put that unfortunate and misguided generalization to rest right now — as the official FBI statistics show, in 2007, in cases where the race/ethnicity of murder offenders is known, those classified as “Other” (the category that includes Asian Americans) represent only 2% of all murder offenders (keeping in mind that Asian Americans comprise 5% of the total U.S. population). More generally, research consistently shows that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than their U.S.-born counterparts (see Reid et al., (2005), “The Immigration-Crime Relationship.” Social Science Research 34:757-780).

Back to more realistic issues, from a sociological point of view, the most interesting difference between the Virginia Tech and Binghampton shootings is the race/ethnicity of the victims. At Virginia Tech, almost all of the victims were White and U.S.-born, whereas here in the Binghampton case, almost all of the victims were non-White and immigrants. Does this mean anything — is this difference significant?

Immigration (both undocumented and legal) is still a very hotly-debated and controversial issue in our society these days, and I’m sure there are some Americans who — consciously or unconsciously — downplay the significance of these Binghampton murder victims by rationalizing that as immigrants, they weren’t “real” or “legitimate” Americans anyway and that therefore, their lives are somehow devalued.

But I hypothesize that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not distinguish between the racial/ethnic identities of the murder victims and that as victims of a senseless tragedy, there is no distinction based on any status.

Ultimately, I actually think that it is this kind of unity of compassion regarding the victims of such tragedies that can serve to bring all Americans closer together. That is, as Americans and as human beings, we can hopefully all share in sympathizing with the families of these senseless shootings. Further, again as Americans, we probably also share the same worries about how the current economic recession will affect our lives and our future, a factor that, along with his apparent mental issues, may have contributed to pushing Jiverly Wong over the edge when he lost his job a few months ago.

In other words, even though we don’t contemplate shooting people after losing our jobs, many of us share the same worries when it comes to how we will pay our bills and save for our children’s future in these tough financial times. Through these kinds of difficulties, a few may unfortunately snap like Wong did, but many more will remember the humanity in us all and the need to help and support others like us so that we can all come out better in the end, like these examples below show us.


August 6, 2008

Written by C.N.

Illegal Immigrant Murdered: Are Racial Tensions Getting Worse?

In one of my recent posts, entitled “Racial Tensions and Living in a Colorblind Society,” I commented on how the economic recession and larger social/economic forces associated with globalization have resulted in many Americans struggling and feeling besieged by current events:

As Americans, particularly White Americans, continue to economically struggle as we enter a recession and as they culturally struggle with maintaining their exclusive hold on the “American identity” while demographic shifts take place all around them, their fear, frustrations, and anger will inevitably boil over and verbal and physical attacks on convenient scapegoats such as Asian Americans will continue.

I also predicted that racial/ethnic tensions are likely to get worse before they get better. Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, the recent death of an illegal immigrant in Pennsylvania seems to represent how these rising tensions have led to physical violence and murder:

Mr. Ramirez, 25, who had been in the country illegally for six years, picking crops and working in factories, died July 14 from head injuries received two days earlier. Investigators said he had gotten into a fight with a group of teenage boys — most or all of them members of the town’s high school football team, the Blue Devils — who left him unconscious in a residential street, foaming at the mouth.

Exactly what happened during the fight is still hotly debated . . . with some saying it was just a street fight that went bad, and others claiming the teenagers singled out a Mexican immigrant for a beating and made anti-Mexican remarks. Since Mr. Ramirez’s death, this town of 5,600 has been bitterly divided over the case, illuminating ethnic tensions that surprised town leaders. . . .

“For many Latinos, this is a case of enough is enough,” said Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And it can help us get attention to the wider issue that this is happening all over the country, not just to illegal immigrants, but legal, and anyone who is perceived to be Latino.”

Of course, defendants of all races/ethnicities are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, the circumstances here seem to paint a clear picture of racial/ethnic tensions, probably combined with economic and cultural insecurity, providing the fuel to ignite a physical confrontation that ultimately led to Mr. Ramirez being beaten to death at the hands of three teenagers who apparently had been drinking and, by virtue of playing on a football team, are used to using physical violence to achieve personal gratification and community status.

What also strikes me is that the article states that town leaders have been surprised at how this murder has exposed ethnic tensions in their town. Why were they surprised when in fact, this town had drafted laws similar to that of their state neighbor Hazelton, that would have severely limited the rights and access of illegal immigrants to basic public resources, such as housing, jobs, and education.

As they say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ramirez’s murder is another example of economic competition and feeling culturally threatened leading to racial/ethnic hostility. As sociologist will tell you, throughout American history, we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over again. In its relatively “mild” state, it may take the form of a resurgent acceptance of the confederate flag, as I talked about in my last post.

But taken to its unfortunate extreme, as has happened so many times before, it leads to murder. On top of that, what makes it even worse is how those in power at the time and whose actions helped to lay the reinforce and perpetuate such tensions, continue to be in denial about the fundamental causes of this horrific event.

Like I said, although I want to be optimistic, it does look like things will get worse before they get better.