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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.

November 13, 2008

Written by C.N.

40th Anniversary of SF State Strike for Ethnic Studies

Among academics like me, this month is very significant not just because of the presidential election, but also because it marks the 40th anniversary of the multiracial mass student strikes at San Francisco State University (SFSU) which lasted for several months and eventually resulted in the creation of the country’s first Ethnic Studies (including Asian American Studies) program in the U.S. To commemorate this anniversary and to provide a detailed chronology of the strike’s significant moments, the San Francisco Chronicle has a story that reflects on the strike’s legacy 40 years later:

Critics of the strike said some of its goals did not justify the violence. But ethnic studies experts and historians say it brought positive change to the university, particularly the creation of its College of Ethnic Studies, which includes Asian American Studies, Black Studies, La Raza Studies and Native American Studies. . . .

“Did their 15 demands justify the bombings? Hell no,” he said. “They placed a bomb in the administrative offices while school was in session. They were setting fires in the library. They were putting people’s lives in serious danger.”

But Laureen Chew, now associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies and one of nearly 700 students jailed during the strike, said the battle was necessary. As an Asian American, she had faced racism in high school and from customers of her parents’ laundry shop who called her father a “stupid Chinaman.”

As a scholar whose work and life centers largely on Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies, I feel a lot of complicated and perhaps even contradictory feelings over these events that took place 40 years ago, long before I was even born.

On the one hand, I generally do not subscribe to a “the ends justify the means” approach when it comes to protests or demonstrations. While I was not there 40 years ago and can’t confirm the tactics that the student protesters may have used that put people’s lives in danger, I will say that committing violence to make a point and purposely putting innocent people’s lives in harm’s way is not the answer.

At the same time, I am pretty sure that the violence that the student protesters endured at the hands of the police was far worse than the violence that the students perpetrated against innocent bystanders. With that in mind and paraphrasing Malcolm X, protecting yourself against brutality is not being extremist — it’s basic common sense.

And ultimately, I do agree with Professor Chew’s sentiments that there comes a time when enough is enough — when you or your community endure so much systematic discrimination, inequality, and injustice that everything reaches a boiling point, at which time you must stand up and assert your basic human rights as an American.

Suffice it to say that I probably would not have the job I have now if it weren’t for this strike at SFSU 40 years ago and other student-led movements that paved the way for the creation of Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies programs around the country.

But even beyond that, the SFSU strike stands as an inspiring example and reminder to all who are marginalized that learning about justice and equality is just the first step — the point is to turn that knowledge into action.


November 3, 2005

Written by C.N.

More Allegations of Racial Profiling

There were two stories in the news recently that involved allegations of racial profiling against Asians and other people of color. One involved a Black professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University who was stopped — and eventually arrested — by two campus security officers while he was trying to retrieve a book from his office:

Antwi Akom says he was just going to his office late on the night of October 25 to pick up a book he needed to prepare for class the next day. But after he was stopped by security guards at San Francisco State University, he ended up facing felony charges of resisting arrest and battery of a police officer. Akom, an assistant professor of Africana studies, was briefly jailed.

He has told supporters that he had an identification card and was willing to show it to the guards. Security officials have said that they did ask for the ID. The security report said he did not comply with reasonable requests. Akom’s supporters said that he repeatedly told the officers he was a professor and that he was in a rush because he had young children asleep in the car he drove to campus.

The incident has prompted a wave of meetings and demands for reform at San Francisco State. Professors say that Akom was a victim of racial profiling and that black employees routinely face harassment. The controversy is particularly upsetting to some professors, who say that they have taken pride in San Francisco State’s progressive reputation.

The second involved a small group of Muslim Americans who were detained and then carefully watched after they prayed at a recent NY Giants football game:

The Muslims said they did not know they were in a sensitive area, and they complained that they were subjected to racial profiling while they were praying, as their faith requires five times a day. “I’m as American as apple pie and I’m sitting there and now I’m made to feel like I’m an outsider, for no reason other than I have a long beard or that I prayed,” said Sami Shaban, a 27-year-old Seton Hall Law School student who lives in Piscataway.

Shaban said he and four friends had just gotten to the September 19 New York Giants-New Orleans Saints game when they left their seats to pray. Around halftime, 10 security officers and three state troopers approached the men and told them to come with them, Shaban said. The men were questioned and then were not allowed to return to their seats, but were instead assigned to seats in another section, Shaban said. Three guards stood near them, and escorted them to their cars when they left the stadium, he said.

As with most incidents, there are two sides to each story and conceivably, there may have been legitimate reasons why these two people of color were stopped, questioned, detained, and in the case of the Africana Studies professor, arrested.

But ultimately, these two incidents inevitably highlight the continuing issue of how people of color are still — even in 21st century globalized American society — constantly being questioned and challenged on their status as “real” or “authentic” Americans and whether their actions are considered “appropriate” by people in positions of power and authority, who in most cases, are White.

In other words, it is clear that the White-dominated social institutions and power structures of this country are still clinging on to the firmly-ingrained presumption that the only people who merit the identity of being “American,” and therefore who get to enjoy the direct and indirect privileges of that identity, are White (and perhaps even more specifically, male, upper class, and Protestant). Everyone else who does not fit into this category, apparently including professors working the birthplace of ethnic studies, are automatically seen as potential criminals.

Even when we as a nation and society are in a heightened state of awareness due to possible terrorist attacks, presuming that someone or a group of people are potential enemies based almost entirely on their racial/ethnic/national origin identity is the very definition of racial privilege and racial profiling. In other words, it is flat-out racist, unjust, and wrong.

American citizens theoretically enjoy certain freedoms from invasion of privacy and false searches and imprisonment by authorities. But unfortunately, those rights are apparently only valid if one is White.