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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.

February 17, 2010

Written by C.N.

Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans

As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.

In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:

Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.

In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:

Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.

Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.

What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.

“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”

Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?

In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.

But now that Toyota is in a major consumer and public relations crisis, do its struggles reflect negatively on Asian Americans? With racial/ethnic tensions heightened during the recession, will some Americans use these recent events to launch or intensify some kind of anti-Toyota, anti-Japan, anti-Asian, or anti-foreigner backlash movement?

Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.

I believe this because Toyota has decades of experience and history behind them — they are not new to this industry, and they have weathered recessions before. Let us remember that Toyota is not the only automaker that has experienced mass recalls or bad publicity before. For example, just in the last decade, Ford has recalled over 14.5 million vehicles for various defects and for those who remember, back in the 1980s, Audi’s U.S. sales and overall corporate image virtually collapsed over high-profile allegations of unintended acceleration involving their 5000 model.

To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.

In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.


November 2, 2009

Written by C.N.

Incidents of Anti-Vietnamese Police Brutality in San Jose

As many news organizations have been reporting, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose, CA are blasting the police department there for several incidents of police brutality, the latest one happening last month in which officers were videoed beating a young Vietnamese American man, Phuong Ho, who appeared to be unarmed and submissive, as shown below:

As the San Jose Mercury News reports, the incident started as a private argument with Ho and one of his roommates and escalated due to language and cultural barriers:

The grainy video depicts the event as Siegel struck Ho, a math major from Vietnam, more than 10 times with a baton in the hallway of the house. Payne shocked Ho with a Taser gun. Ho does not appear to be combative in the video, although it does not record the entire interaction between Ho and the officers. . . .

The incident developed after Ho had argued with a roommate over soap being slopped onto a steak. Ho reportedly picked up a steak knife and told the roommate that in Vietnam, “I would kill you” over that. Ho dropped the knife and was not armed by the time police arrived, according to witnesses.

Officer Siegel had trouble understanding Ho when he asked his name, and attempted to enter Ho’s room to look for identification. He told Ho to wait in the hall, according to police reports. When Ho ignored Siegel’s order and attempted to follow him into the room, Payne pushed him into a wall, setting off the events that another roommate captured on cell phone video, in which the officers are seen striking Ho as they yell at him to turn over onto his back.

As the Mercury News article notes and as Raj Jayadev at New America Media elaborates upon, this particular incident was just the latest in a series of questionable conduct by the San Jose police against the Vietnamese American community and other racial/ethnic minorities in the area, who allege that officers have engaged in police brutality on several occasions and on top of them, the police department and city officials have refused to address such allegations:

The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose because it comes on the heels of a year-long sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.

To begin with, last October, the Mercury News released data from the Department of Justice that showed that San Jose had a dramatically higher arrest rate for public intoxication that any other city in California (even those with much larger populations) and were arresting minorities at a disproportionate rate. Latinos in particular were heavily overrepresented in the arrest rates, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all arrests despite only representing 30 percent of the general population.

The news set of a firestorm in San Jose, leading to a raucous City Hall forum, where hundreds of people recounted stories of being arrested without cause, and roughed up in the process. . . .

On Mother’s Day of [2009], Daniel Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man with mental health issues, was shot and killed by police. Police were called after Pham cut his brother with a knife. Pham was dead shortly after they arrived. The San Jose Police Department did not release the police reports and the transcript of the 911 call, despite an overwhelming demand from the Vietnamese community for transparency.

The District Attorney chose to have a closed grand jury for the officer-involved shooting – meaning no one, including Pham’s family members, would be allowed to know what happened inside the courtroom. On Oct.18, 2009, the District Attorney announced the results of the closed grand jury – no indictment. The public still has no answers as to why Pham is dead, and there is a growing sentiment being voiced in the Vietnamese community not to call the police if they need help, lest they risk the fate of being the next Daniel Pham.

And just last week, days before the Phuong Ho video was released and days after the no indictment result of the Pham case, the City Council voted down a set of reforms that would have forced the San Jose Police Department to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding their department, and open up public access to police records. Mind you, these recommendations came from a Sunshine Reform Task Force assembled by the mayor himself, who had now become the most vocal proponent for not disclosing police files.

A number of community groups across ethnic lines – the Asian Law Alliance, NAACP, Vietnamese Association of Northern California, La Raza Lawyers Association, and others – have filed a demand for the immediate release of police reports associated with the Ho case. The city has yet to respond.

There are several aspects of these incidents of brutality and excessive force that are rather troubling. The first is that as the Mercury News article points out, the San Jose police department actually has several Vietnamese American officers and as far as I have heard, has done a relatively good job at recruiting and retaining such officers to supposedly better serve the Vietnamese American community there.

Secondly, much like their neighbors in San Francisco to the north, San Jose generally has a very racially and ethnically diverse population and a reputation as a relatively liberal community. With that in mind, one might presume that relations with their constituents would be better.

Nonetheless, despite the presence of Vietnamese American officers and the city’s liberal reputation, these incidents of police brutality and, just as important, the refusal of city and police officials to be transparent and accountable for such incidents continue to exist.

Why would this be the case? What other reasons might account for this widening rift between city and police officials and the residents they are supposed to “protect and serve?”

Until city and police officials open up and directly address these issues, we can only speculate about what else is going on. As such, I would hypothesize that the officials’ actions (or lack thereof) might be an unconscious form of resistance against the changing demographics and political/cultural makeup of the city.

As I’ve written about before, many (as in a large number, but not all) Whites likely feel threatened by the fact that “their” community, “their” state, and “their” country are increasingly become more culturally diverse and that the U.S.’s position as the dominant and most powerful country in the world is slowly eroding in the 21st century. On top of that, the current recession and the continuing effects of globalization have compounded their financial insecurities and personal anxieties.

Faced with these recent trends, many Whites have sought to adapt and indeed embrace such changes. However, these cultural, economic, and political shifts have led many others to become defensive and have led to a backlash. Others have pointed out that the vehement and racially-tinged opposition to President Obama by the far right is an example of this backlash. Further examples include increased interpersonal and institutional hostility towards immigrants and towards people of color in general, and Asian Americans continuing to be questioned on their loyalties and identity as “real” Americans.

It is within this larger social context that we might see the refusal of San Jose city and police officials to account for their actions and to make the details of police brutality allegations public as further examples of this unconscious White interpersonal and institutional backlash.

Change does not come easily and as sociologists have consistently documented, there is inevitably a stage of competition and conflict before things settle down and the cultural and political landscape stabilizes. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and other racial/ethnic minorities and immigrants throughout the country are likely to encounter more examples of these kinds of hostility.


September 15, 2009

Written by C.N.

Child Taken From Mother Because of English Fluency

In a recent post, I described how economic tensions seem to be making many Americans not just more stressed out, but also more likely to lash out against those around them, particularly if they are immigrants. While that post focused on individual-level tensions and hostility, a recent Time magazine article discusses the case of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican from an indigenous background, who recently had her daughter taken away from her because she does not speak English, a case that unfortunately highlights this same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment on the institutional level:

Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she’d left in her mother’s care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.”

Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. . . . [A]dvocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz was later joined [at the hospital] by a Chatino-speaking relative but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was “exchanging living arrangements for sex” in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates, Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. . . .

The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she “had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.” But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling. . . .

In such cases, says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can’t follow the proceedings, “she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case,” she says.

The article goes on to note that Cruz’s advocates also argue that for several centuries now, new immigrants to the U.S. who were not fluent in English have safely and successfully raised their children. So the question becomes, why is this case different and why is Cruz in danger of losing her own child now?

Unfortunately the answer is, because American society’s level of acceptance and even tolerance of new immigrants — particularly if they are unauthorized and lack English fluency — is basically at an all-time low. On top of this general sentiment and as I noted earlier, the economic recession makes Americans much more economically (and therefore emotionally) defensive, insecure, and threatened.

In this particular case, we also have another sociological dynamic — the retrenchment of a “traditional” American identity. In other words, the reality has been that in the past, in order to be considered an American, you basically had to be White, plain and simple. Non-Whites weren’t even given the opportunity to become accepted as American and this country’s history is littered with examples of systematic exclusion — the Cherokee Nation, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, etc.

But in the last few decades and as American society has become more demographically diverse and multicultural, the definition of what it means to be an American was gradually expanding to become more inclusive such non-White and immigrant groups. However, it was also inevitable that such a change would be subtly and explicitly opposed by “traditional” Americans.

Even in the past year or so, we have seen numerous examples of this backlash, including racist reactions to Barack Obama’s election and the upsurge in threats against him, the resurgent popularity of the confederate flag, and the return of anti-minority segregation in public facilities.

As such, we can see that in this particular case, the mother’s lack of English fluency implicitly violated the authorities’ code of “Americanness” and was enough to disqualify her from not just remaining in the country, but from raising her own child as well. An equally tragic part of this episode is our society’s misguided and naive attempt to be colorblind and to ignore and in fact, deny that these racial dynamics even exist.

Unfortunately it looks like things will get worse before they get better for many immigrants in this country.


September 8, 2009

Written by C.N.

Economic Competition and Intra-Minority Tensions

It is an unfortunate reality in contemporary American society that from time to time, an economic recession occurs, such as the one we’re in right now. As sociologists have documented over and over again, when people experience financial difficulties, many also begin to feel insecure, threatened, and defensive. In such times, it is also common for people to lash out at those around them who they see as a threat to their security or at least someone who contributes to the larger economic difficulties that they are experiencing.

Many have argued that it is this climate of social insecurity that is responsible for the overheated and often viscous arguments taking place all around the U.S. these days around issues such as health care reform. As another example and as described in a recent article from the Philadelphia Weekly, this is exactly what seems to be happening in and around neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, where there have been numerous physical attacks and assaults committed against Asian American students:

Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. . . .

Many Asian students continued living in fear for the remainder of the school year . . . In a cry for help, scared students signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings, staged a walkout and pleaded with school administrators to do something about the attacks.
 But the violence at South Philly High, listed among the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” for the third consecutive year, continued.


Male and female Asian students—especially those new to the country, who speak little or fractured English—have been targeted over the past few years, in schools from the Northeast to South Philly, in elementary and high schools. Students and activists say that Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani and other Asian youth have been singled out, assaulted in cafeterias, hallways, on city streets, school buses and everywhere in between. 


Kids say the violence has often been dismissed by school safety officers as well as administrators. “This is a cultural problem,” Wei Chen claims the former principal at South Philly told Asian students on the day after the subway rumble.
 District officials acknowledge that some situations weren’t handled well.


The article goes on to note that there have been some efforts at addressing the problem through school and community forums and informal mentoring programs to assist newly-arrived immigrant students adjust to their new schools, and that such efforts seem to have had some initial success in reducing the number of physical attacks. However, as the new school year starts, many students are still very tense and apprehensive about whether the situation has actually changed.

The article also acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been perpetrated by African American students, who collectively make up 62% of all students in the school district. Does this mean that African Americans are inherently racist and prone to violence? Or are there some community and institutional-level factors that operate in the background and contribute to tense relations between African Americans and Asians? The article offers one potential insight:

As of 2008, Asians accounted for 5.7 percent of the city’s population, up from 4.4 percent in 2000—an increase of 15,000 Asians. Many of the new arrivals move to areas populated by fellow countrymen, often in neighborhoods adjacent to longtime African-American enclaves.
 “The school may be thought of as black turf by some black students,” says Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, a renowned expert on black urban living.

“The outsiders—the Asians who are making inroads—can then be called into account for any moves they make within that situation. You have race prejudice developing as a sense of group position, a proprietary claim on certain areas of the home turf.” Anderson, who taught at Penn for 32 years and frequently uses Philadelphians in his research, believes that the school tensions are likely about dominance.


It goes without saying that such acts of violence can be devastating for the victims, not just physically and academically but emotionally, and can lead to depression, mental health problems, and even suicide. Being targeted also leads many Asian Americans to join a gang, initially to help protect each other from physical attacks but all too often leading to a downward spiral into criminal activity.

Professor Anderson’s explanation about demographic changes leading to neighborhood instability helps us to begin understanding the larger social forces that contribute to the problem. On top of that, once we add the effects of the recession and feelings of economic insecurity, we begin to see more clearly what sociologists have argued all along — the highest levels of prejudice occur not between groups at the very top and those at the very bottom, but between groups that are directly adjacent to each other on the socioeconomic hierarchy.

This is because groups that are right next to each other on the socioeconomic ladder are competing for the same resources — political, economic, and educational (or at least they perceive themselves to be in competition). And sadly, when groups compete with each other, racial/ethnic tensions, hostility, and violence become almost inevitable. Whether this occurs between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Latinos, Blacks and Asians, this scenario has played itself out over and over and over again throughout American history.

The situation in Philadelphia is the perfect and latest example of this pattern — African Americans have traditionally been marginalized institutionally, then begin to feel further besieged and threatened when newcomers (Asian immigrants) move into “their” neighborhoods and schools, and accuse them to to be “taking over.” Having very little collective political or economic power, African Americans scapegoat and lash out at the Asian immigrant newcomers, likely seeing them easy targets due to their lack of English fluency and familiarity with American society.

This is not to excuse or condone the perpetrators of such attacks — I feel that they need to be stopped and appropriately disciplined, regardless of their race or ethnicity. What I am saying however, is that such attacks are not entirely due to individual motives or prejudices. Instead, we need to recognize that there is an wide range of sociological factors that have directly and indirectly lead to and fueled such inter-racial tensions.

To move forward positively and decisively toward addressing this situation before someone is tragically killed, we need to treat both the symptoms and by curing the fundamental disease — the feelings of political powerlessness, economic insecurity, and culture of glorified violence that leads too many students to internalize anti-Asian stereotypes, ultimately resulting in physical brutality.


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.