The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
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.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
The start of a new year represents a renewal of hope for many people. In this case, one of my hopes is that, as a nation and society, we as Americans can continue to strive toward racial/ethnic justice and equality and to overcome the individual-, group-, and institutional challenges that get in the way of recognizing and internalizing the many benefits that a diverse and multicultural society provides us. To help in this process, these new books give us some examples of how we as Americans can become more united across racial, ethnic, and cultural divides.
Mosaic in southern California is one of the largest and most innovative multiethnic congregations in America. Gerardo Marti shows us how this unusual church has achieved multiethnicity, not by targeting specific groups, but by providing multiple havens of inclusion that play down ethnic differences. He reveals a congregation aiming to reconstruct evangelical theology, personal identity, member involvement, and church governance to create an institution with greater relevance to the social reality of a new generation.
Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is Frank Meeink’s raw telling of his descent into America’s Nazi underground and his ultimate triumph over drugs and hatred. Frank’s violent childhood in South Philadelphia primed him to hate, while addiction made him easy prey for a small group of skinhead gang recruiters. By 16 he had become one of the most notorious skinhead gang leaders on the East Coast and by 18 he was doing hard time.
Teamed up with African-American players in a prison football league, Frank learned to question his hatred, and after being paroled he defected from the white supremacy movement and began speaking on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League. A story of fighting the demons of hatred and addiction, Frank’s downfall and ultimate redemption has the power to open hearts and change lives.
Fire in the Heart uncovers the dynamic processes through which some white Americans become activists for racial justice. The book reports powerful accounts of the development of racial awareness drawn from in-depth interviews with fifty white activists in the fields of community organizing, education, and criminal justice reform.
Drawing extensively on the rich interview material, Mark Warren shows how white Americans can develop a commitment to racial justice, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because they embrace the cause as their own. Contrary to much contemporary thinking on racial issues focused on altruism or interests, Warren finds that cognitive and rational processes alone do little to move whites to action.
Rather, the motivation to take and sustain action for racial justice is profoundly moral and relational. Warren shows how white activists come to find common cause with people of color when their core values are engaged, as they build relationships with people of color that lead to caring, and when they develop a vision of a racially just future that they understand to benefit everyone — themselves, other whites, and people of color. Warren also considers the complex dynamics and dilemmas white people face in working in multiracial organizations committed to systemic change in America’s racial order, and provides a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role that white people can play in efforts to promote racial justice.
The first study of its kind, Fire in the Heart brings to light the perspectives of white people who are working day-to-day to build not a post-racial America but the foundations for a truly multiracial America rooted in a caring, human community with equity and justice at its core.
Despite recent progress against racial inequalities, American society continues to produce attitudes and outcomes that reinforce the racial divide. In Transcending Racial Barriers, Michael Emerson and George Yancey offer a fresh perspective on how to combat racial division. They document the historical move from white supremacy to institutional racism, then look at modern efforts to overcome the racialized nature of our society. The authors argue that both conservative and progressive approaches have failed, as they continually fall victim to forces of ethnocentrism and group interest.
They then explore group interest and possible ways to account for the perspectives of both majority and minority group members. They look to multiracial congregations, multiracial families, the military, and sports teams-all situations in which group interests have been overcome before. In each context they find the development of a core set of values that binds together different racial groups, along with the flexibility to express racially-based cultural uniqueness that does not conflict with this critical core.
Transcending Racial Barriers offers what is at once a balanced approach towards dealing with racial alienation and a bold step forward in the debate about the steps necessary to overcome present-day racism.
My family and I recently got back from our three week vacation to see family, friends, and sites in California. Our original plans actually involved camping out at the Grand Canyon and driving through Arizona but after the state passed their law to crack down on unauthorized immigrants through racial profiling, we joined the boycott and changed our plans to drive through California instead.
In chronological order, we were in Orange County (OC), Deer Park Monastery in Escondido (just north of San Diego), then back to OC for a couple of days, then up Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) to San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay for a night, then continuing up Highway 1 into San Francisco and Berkeley for a few days, then over to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks for a couple of days, then finally back to OC. While it was a pretty packed schedule, we had a lot of fun cruising around the state in our rented PT Cruiser convertible. I posted a short photo album of our trip at my Facebook page (thanks to reader Kevin for the tip on making the album viewable by everyone).
It was during this time last year that I posted about a couple of incidents at the annual Family Retreat at Deer Park Monastery that illustrated some curious racial/ethnic differences that still exist in an otherwise progressive and peaceful social environment. As you can see by the comments at the end of that post, my observations generated a fair amount of controversy and discord.
This time around, I would like to share some more observations about racial/ethnic issues that I encountered while on vacation, but this time describe how they illustrate a different set of interactions — harmony and a sense of cross-racial and cross-national community.
Specifically, it was during our visit to Yosemite National Park (picture of El Capitan above, taken by my daughter). We only had about 24 to spend at the park so in order to see as many of the most famous sites as possible in a relatively short amount of time, we decided to drive to the Yosemite Valley area and take their free shuttle around to different stops. At the stop nearest to Half Dome, we got out and walked up the trail a little bit to get a closer look, then walked back and got back on board the next arriving shuttle.
Once on board the shuttle, a conversation ensued regarding a pine cone — a young Japanese man was holding a large pine cone and a young German couple next to him asked him where he got it. He replied that he found it on his hike up Half Dome. Then an Asian Indian family close by remarked on how cool it looked and asked to take his picture with it. My Asian American wife also commented on how big the pine cone was and then a White American next to us chimed in by pointing out other areas of the park where people might find similar pine cones.
This relatively short interaction encapsulates and symbolizes that there are still plenty of wonderful and beautiful things about the U.S. that we can all enjoy and celebrate together as a community. That is, while there are still plenty of differences across numerous forms of identity that can potentially divide us, there are also many points in which we have in common, in this case, the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park.
As sociologists point out, these physical landmarks and social institutions can serve as a very strong kind of “social glue” to bind people from different backgrounds together across shared interests and values and in the process, start to bridge the social gaps and promote more solidarity between different groups. Other examples of common institutions can include religion, arts and entertainment, education, sports, food and cuisine, tourist attractions, etc.
While social divisions will continue to exist, there are many more things here in the U.S. and beyond that can potentially unite us as Americans and as citizens of the world. Far from being a contradiction, using common interests and institutions can actually help us assert equality and justice for everyone. Indeed, something as simple as a pine cone can also be a very powerful symbol of unity.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them.
As some of my readers have lamented, one of the drawbacks about looking at racial issues is that much of the research and writing focuses on the negatives — what’s wrong with the situation, who/which groups is/are hurt the most, how society is not just flawed but even responsible for the mess, etc. With that in mind, these new books look at the positives and successes — how we can and have moved forward toward more racial equality.
Richard Alba argues that the social cleavages that separate Americans into distinct, unequal ethno-racial groups could narrow dramatically in the coming decades. During the mid-twentieth century, the dominant position of the United States in the postwar world economy led to a rapid expansion of education and labor opportunities. As a result of their newfound access to training and jobs, many ethnic and religious outsiders, among them Jews and Italians, finally gained full acceptance as members of the mainstream.
Alba proposes that this large-scale assimilation of white ethnics was a result of “non-zero-sum mobility,” which he defines as the social ascent of members of disadvantaged groups that can take place without affecting the life chances of those who are already members of the established majority.
Alba shows that non-zero-sum mobility could play out positively in the future as the baby-boom generation retires, opening up the higher rungs of the labor market. Because of the changing demography of the country, many fewer whites will be coming of age than will be retiring. Hence, the opportunity exists for members of other groups to move up.
However, Alba cautions, this demographic shift will only benefit disadvantaged American minorities if they are provided with access to education and training. In Blurring the Color Line, Alba explores a future in which socially mobile minorities could blur stark boundaries and gain much more control over the social expression of racial differences.
Race, age, political affiliation, country of origin, native language—too often Americans define themselves, and are defined, by the differences that separate them. But if the 2008 presidential campaign has taught us anything, it is that we as a people want to look beyond these divisions to the values and interests that unite us.
New Common Ground embodies this zeitgeist, showing the ways that traditional boundaries among ethnic groups, political ideologies, and generations are blurring, and how to hasten the process. New Common Ground demonstrates that even though the deepest divide in America is said to be racial, the differences in viewpoints and values among races are declining, even in an age of increased intermarriage.
On immigration and other controversial matters, Etzioni argues for diversity within unity and the means to achieve that necessary end. New Common Ground is a provocative and insightful look into how we as Americans can reach consensus not just in spite of our diversity but also in ways that strengthen our commitment to the good of one and all as we seek to overcome the divisiveness that sometimes results from identity politics. The book closes by looking beyond our shores to the bridges that bring America closer to the rest of the world.
In Chains of Babylon, Daryl J. Maeda presents a cultural history of Asian American activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, showing how the movement created the category of “Asian American” to join Asians of many ethnicities in racial solidarity. Drawing on the Black Power and antiwar movements, Asian American radicals argued that all Asians in the United States should resist assimilation and band together to oppose racism within the country and imperialism abroad.
As revealed in Maeda’s in-depth work, the Asian American movement contended that people of all Asian ethnicities in the United States shared a common relationship to oppression and exploitation with each other and with other nonwhite peoples. In the early stages of the civil rights era, the possibility of assimilation was held out to Asian Americans under a model minority myth.
Maeda insists that it was only in the disruption of that myth for both African Americans and Asian Americans in the 1960s and 1970s that the full Asian American culture and movement he describes could emerge. Maeda challenges accounts of the post-1968 era as hopelessly divisive by examining how racial and cultural identity enabled Asian Americans to see eye-to-eye with and support other groups of color in their campaigns for social justice.
Asian American opposition to the war in Vietnam, unlike that of the broader antiwar movement, was predicated on understanding it as a racial, specifically anti-Asian genocide. Throughout he argues that cultural critiques of racism and imperialism, the twin “chains of Babylon” of the title, informed the construction of a multiethnic Asian American identity committed to interracial and transnational solidarity.