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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.

May 22, 2014

Written by Jerry Z. Park

Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way

The following post was originally published on AAPI Voices on May 22, 2014 by Jerry Z. Park and Joshua Tom.

Are Asian Americans in a state of religious confusion? And are Asian American Protestants fleeing their religion?

Consider the example of Lisa, a 20-year old second-generation Vietnamese American from Houston: “I really don’t think I have a religious preference,” she says “I believe that someone is up there, and I’m pretty much screwed up in the head,” she continued with a laugh. “You know ‘cuz I went to Catholic school until I was in 8th grade, and when my parents got divorced I went to [Buddhist] temple for like about 5 or 6 years. So I got the aspects of both religions, and I think that both of them have good aspects, and both of them have bad aspects. And I do what [my parents] ask me to do, but in my own mind I really don’t have like a set religion y’know?”

Lisa’s story isn’t often told in the writings on Asian American religion, academic or otherwise. This gap is particularly apparent when we try to understand religion among those who are the children of immigrants, sometimes called the second-generation. A quick glance at prior studies gives the impression that there is great vitality in religious affiliation and participation.

Indeed one lone conflicting voice, journalist Helen Lee, back in the 1990s made huge waves when she proposed that a “silent exodus” of second-generation Asian American Protestants was taking place. As she noted, churches developed by immigrant Protestant Christians were not filling to capacity by their children and their friends. As these young men and women matured, their parents expected new congregations with English-friendly worship services alongside the main immigrant churches. Indeed in my various visits with Protestant churches lead by second-generation Asian American Protestants over the past 15 years, the Sunday morning congregation never seemed to number more than a couple of hundred and usually averaged between 25 and 75.

Where were the second-generation Protestants? For that matter how was the Asian American second-generation who were not Protestants, like Lisa Tran, doing with regard to their faith?

The need for quantifiable data on religion among Asian Americans is ever more pressing as this population grows more rapidly than the rest of the nation. One of the most rigorous attempts at surveying Asian Americans comes from the Pew 2012 Asian American Survey (hereafter Pew Survey). Through this survey of over 3,500 Asian Americans (with more than 800 from the second-generation), we are able to identify some important patterns that provide context to the numerous smaller-scale studies on religion among the Asian American second-generation that otherwise suggested great intergenerational vitality.

With respect to the silent exodus of the second-generation, we can look at the data from two vantage points, the percentage of those who retained their faith from childhood, and the percentage of current affiliates who grew up with that faith. The first number tells us whether religious individuals have remained committed to their faith tradition, while the second tells us whether today’s believers are made up of long-term followers or new converts. These figures can grant us insight into the negotiation of cultural identities by second-generation Asian Americans, especially as these identities change over time.

For the second-generation Protestants, these two figures are surprisingly similar. The data shows us that 66 percent of those who grew up Protestant were still Protestant at the time they were surveyed. Similarly, about two-thirds of today’s second-generation Asian American Protestant Christians grew up as Protestant. Either way we look at the data, there does not appear to be a mass exodus, if nearly two-thirds who started their faith journey as Protestants are still Protestant.

Pew Survey Graph 1

Importantly, the Pew survey data also let us see these patterns for Protestants in comparison to other religious groups (see below). As the Pew survey indicates, 88 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Catholics started out as Catholic, a fairly high rate compared to the Protestants. Based on a small sample of only 20 second-generation Asian American Muslims, nearly all grew up Muslim.

religion2

Similarly more than 96 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Hindus were raised Hindu and 81 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Buddhists were raised Buddhist. In this light, it appears that the supply of second-generation Asian American “cradle Protestants” accounts for a smaller fraction of Protestants than the cradle believers of other faiths. So there does appear to be a disproportionate exodus of Protestants.

religion3

At the same time, the exodus does not seem to be towards other religious traditions. The figure above shows the adult religious affiliation of second-generation respondents to the Pew Survey by the religion that they were raised in. The blue bars can be thought of as the ‘retention rate’ for these groups, or the degree to which they avoid losing adherents to other groups However, most of those who change religious affiliation seem to be heading towards a category that sociologists of religion call “nones” or the nonaffiliated.

While this category comprises those who do not identify with a particular religious tradition, religious “nones” encompass a variety of religious orientations including atheists, agnostics and the ‘spiritual but not religious’. A religious “none” may still pray or engage in other identifiably religious activities, or they may be wholly irreligious in identity and behavior.

While there is some variation among religious groups in the likelihood of the second generation becoming religiously nonaffiliated as adults, it is a decidedly popular destination. The green columns in the figure above show the likelihood of second-generation Asian Americans identifying as a religious “none” by the religion they were raised in. Among second-generation Asian Americans, 25% of Protestant-raised and 18% of Catholic-raised currently identify as religiously nonaffiliated.

Buddhist-raised respondents were even more likely to identify as a “none” at the time of the survey, with 34% now claiming no religious affiliation. Small sample size does not permit us to generalize on the proportions for other religious groups, but the data do suggest significant proportions become unaffiliated during adulthood.

These proportions, coupled with the data showing the retention rates for religious groups, account for the majority of religious mobility among second-generation Asian Americans. Stated differently, next to staying in one’s religion, the second most preferred religious destination for second-gen Asian Americans is to have no religion at all. As we saw earlier, these religiously mobile individuals comprise half of all second-gen Asian American “nones”. One might say that the silent exodus is not just a Protestant phenomenon for second-gen Asian Americans; it applies to followers from many faiths.

The big question still to be answered is why: Why is nonaffiliation so appealing to a large minority of “cradle believers” in the second-generation? If part of the answer is conformity to the mainstream, we have some indication of a cultural turning point in American society. Whereas being Protestant, Catholic or Jewish was once thought of as an indication of assimilation into American society for the immigrants and their children, perhaps lack of affiliation today marks a new way that today’s immigrants identify with America.

This possibility coincides with the contemporary rise of the religiously nonaffiliated among Americans in general; while such identification hovered around 10% at the turn of the millennium the proportion has grown to 20% in a single decade. This movement toward irreligion may run even deeper than identity; about 18% second generation Asian-Americans say they don’t believe in God or a universal spirit, compared to only 6% of the general public. By these measures first-generation Asian Americans have always been less religious than their contemporaries, so irreligion may be a fundamentally easier shift for the second generation.

Additionally, the Pew survey data suggest that higher educational attainment among second-generation Asian Americans is associated with disaffiliation among former Protestants and Catholics; this is consistent with our knowledge of the religious ‘nones’ generally, and may help explain the religious switching of Asian Americans specifically. Higher educational attainment can indicate a variety of things that contribute to irreligion; for example, particular religious doctrines may become less tenable with exposure to scientific explanations of reality, or individuals may become less sure of their religious convictions upon repeated interactions with people of different worldviews. Perhaps educational attainment serves to create cultural distance from one’s immigrant parents which may include disaffiliation.

The religious story of the second-generation is far from settled. Right now, they constitute only about one-third of all Asian Americans, and they are relatively young compared to the immigrant generation. Perhaps we will see a return to religious affiliation as more of them marry, and raise children. Time will tell if the second-generation of Asian Americans will replicate the pattern of earlier white European immigrants, or if we are indeed facing a changing religious future.


July 24, 2012

Written by C.N.

Pew Report on Asian Americans: A Cautionary Tale

For those who missed it, the Pew Research Center recently released a report titled, “The Rise of Asian Americans” that, among other things, attempted to provide a demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural summary of the Asian American population, using a combination of Census data and the Pew’s own telephone survey of over 3,500 Asian American respondents. Some of the report’s notable findings are:

  • In terms of total population, there are over 18 million Asian Americans as of 2011 and they represent 5.8% of the total U.S. population.
  • Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. in terms of percentage growth. This is also reflected in the most recently-available data from 2010 that shows that 430,000 Asians (legal and undocumented) immigrated to the U.S., compared with 370,000 Latinos.
  • Confirming current patterns, Asian Americans also have the highest proportion of adults 25 years or older who have a college degree and have the highest median household income.

The Pew report also spends much of its time discussing the “cultural” characteristics of Asian Americans and unfortunately, it is at this point where things start to hit the fan. As the New York Times summarizes:

In the survey, Asians are also distinguished by their emphasis on traditional family mores. About 54 percent of the respondents, compared with 34 percent of all adults in the country, said having a successful marriage was one of the most important goals in life; another was being a good parent, according to 67 percent of Asian adults, compared with about half of all adults in the general population.

Asians also place greater importance on career and material success, the study reported, values reflected in child-rearing styles. About 62 percent of Asians in the United States believe that most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.

Soon after its release, numerous Asian American scholars, community organizations, and academic associations began roundly criticizing the report. For example, the Japanese American Citizens League stated, “While our community reflects diversity, this research does not; instead, it sweeps Asian Americans into one broad group and paints our community as exceptionally successful without any challenges. This study perpetuates false stereotypes and the model minority.”

Another nationally-recognized Asian American group, the Organization of Chinese Americans, wrote:

“What is particularly disturbing is that these types of broad generalizations can have serious implications in public policy, civil rights, as well as perpetuation of bias, discrimination, and racial tension between communities of color. Even though the study fills a void for more statistics and information on the APA community, the framing of the contextual data in the report is troublesome. . . . The assertions that our community enjoys an exaggerated level of privilege are simply and unfortunately not the case.

Other statements of criticism and even condemnation of the Pew report came from organizations such as the Association for Asian American Studies, the Asian American Pacific Islander Policy and Research Consortium, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and numerous Asian American Studies departments and programs around the country, to name just a few.

© Tracee Murphy

Perhaps the best critique came from Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California Riverside, and ironically, a member of the Pew’s faculty advisory board on Asian American issues:

Unfortunately, [the report] prioritized questions asked of Asian Americans — regarding their parenting styles and their own stereotypes about Americans — that seemed more concerned with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother than with the priorities of Asian Americans themselves, either as revealed in past surveys or as articulated by organizations serving those communities. . . .

More concerning than the Pew report, however, was the sensationalist headline on the press release that introduced the study to news media: Asians Overtake Hispanics in New Immigrant Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard Work. These few words carried sway in hundreds of newspaper articles in the first two days of the report’s release, provoking outrage among broad swaths of the Asian American community, including many researchers, elected officials, and community organizations. . . .

As one of 15 advisors to the project, I felt blindsided by the press release. Words failed me as I read it for the first time, as we had not gotten a chance to review it. The dominant narrative in the release reinforced the frame of Asians as a model minority, stereotypes that the advisors had strongly objected to in the only meeting of the group two months ago.

Generally, the Pew Research Institute produces useful, informative, and reliable data and reports. However, as Prof. Ramakrishnan points out in the full text of his critique, this is not the first time that Pew has mischaracterized, sensationalized, or even misinterpreted its own data. Further, as I pointed out before, on occasion, Pew has inexplicably excluded Asian American respondents in some of its previous studies.

With that point in mind, I suppose we should be somewhat thankful that Pew has been more inclusive of Asian Americans as a valuable source of study lately. Nonetheless, simply including Asian Americans is not the same as accurately representing our community.

Pew might argue that their methodology and data are valid. Technically, I suppose they are. But as the above-referenced criticisms consistently point out, many of the questions they asked were sensationalist and not representative of the real, substantive issues and concerns that the Asian American community have identified themselves.

In the end, this Pew report teaches us a couple of valuable lessons. First, that biases can come in many different forms. That is, most of us thinking of biases in the form of direct and blatant statements that clearly favor one ideological viewpoint over another. But the Pew report shows us that biases can also manifest themselves in the questions researchers ask and how they frame the results of their data, based on the misfocused questions, to emphasize certain interpretations over others.

Second, the Pew report shows us that even something that is initially framed as a positive portrayal of Asian Americans can turn out to be just the opposite — a skewed misrepresentation that actually reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes. This lesson is at the core of the model minority image of Asian Americans and how some naively think that they are paying Asian Americans a compliment by commenting how well-educated we are, or how we’re so good at math or science, or how hard we tend to work. While there is obviously some truth to these observations, the problem is that such characterizations are easily and often generalized to the entire Asian American population. When that happens, they mask the demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity among Asian Americans and marginalize the continuing discrimination, inequalities, and injustices we still experience.

The Asian American community deserves to be represented better than this and research organizations such as Pew need to do a better job at asking us about the issues that we, not they, care about.


September 22, 2009

Written by C.N.

Demographic Profiles of U.S. Latino Groups

The Pew Research Group has just released reports based on Census data that describe the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the five largest Latino groups in the U.S. (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, and Dominican).

More than eight-in-ten Hispanics self-identify themselves as being either of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran or Dominican origin. Hispanics of Mexican origin are by far the largest group, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the Hispanic population in the U.S.

The five population groups differ along several dimensions — for example, in the share of each group that is foreign born, citizen (by birth or naturalization) and proficient in English. The groups vary by average age and tend to live in different areas within the United States. Likewise, the groups display varying levels of education, homeownership rates, and poverty rates.

These and other characteristics are explored in five fact sheets, one for each country-of-origin group. Each population is also compared to all Hispanics and the U.S. population overall.

As we all know, issues directly related to the Latino population such as immigration continue to be highly controversial and hotly debated. Hopefully these fact sheets will provide a valid and sound statistical foundation upon which we can all better understand their characteristics as we proceed with such discussions.


August 31, 2009

Written by C.N.

Data on Beliefs and Attitudes Around the World

As our world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected in the 21st century, what happens in one country is more likely than ever to affect what happens in other countries. The global recession that started here in the U.S. is direct proof of that. But in addition to political and economic matters, globalization also involves the diffusion of culture, attitudes, and beliefs from one country to another.

Within this context, it’s in everybody’s interests — particularly for Americans — to understand what citizens from people of different countries around the world feel about various global issues. To help in that process, the well-respected Pew Research Groups has released an interactive compilation of their Global Attitudes Project Key Indicators Database that compares international attitudes on a variety of issues:

This interactive database allows users to explore public opinion trends in 55 countries on topics ranging from attitudes toward the U.S. to people’s assessments of their own lives to views about globalization, democratization, extremism and other important issues.

Data can be searched by question, by topic or by country – and results can be displayed in map, table or chart formats. The findings are from eight surveys conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project from 2002-2009 among a total of more than 200,000 respondents.

Perhaps the most telling result whether citizens around the world have a favorable or unfavorable attitude overall towards the U.S. As shown below, the results show some wide fluctuations between countries and in some cases, within the same country across time (click on the graphic below to see a full-size version):

Click for full-size graphic

For example, European countries such as Britain, France, and Germany had high favorable attitudes of the U.S. in 2002, then declined roughly 50% in just a couple of years, then have rebounded to even higher levels in 2009 with the election of President Obama.

On the flip side, three of the U.S.’s key allies — Japan, Pakistan, and Russia — experienced a slight decline in favorable attitudes toward the U.S. between 2007/2008 and 2009 (some of which probably relates to the U.S. plunging the world into a global recession).

So what’s the take-home message here? These particular results (of course, there are many others to peruse) go to show that international attitudes can change rather quickly and can be influenced by a wide variety of reasons.