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 many of you already know, on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire on a worshippers at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding three others before killing himself. The shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and a self-avowed White supremacist.
Clearly, words fail to convey the nature of sadness, loss, and tragedy of this event. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and wounded, to the Sikh American community in the area, and to all of us as human beings that have to live with the specters of hate and violence all around us.
Many, particularly our political leaders, have called this incident “senseless,” implying that it was an irrational and mindless act of a clearly deranged and mentally ill individual. Unfortunately, this sentiment fails to acknowledge that rather than being an isolated incident, these killings have a cause and origins beyond just the state of mind of the person who pulled the trigger.
In other words, there is an entire sociological context to why the killer did this and multi-level factors that, without a doubt, influenced the killer’s thinking and pushed him to go on his murderous rampage.
War on Terrorism an its Collateral Victims
We can start with the legacy of 9/11 and how the subsequent “war on terrorism” has left thousands, perhaps even millions, of innocent bystanders in its destructive wake. Specifically, I am talking about groups such as Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, and particularly Sikh Americans who have been and continue to be perceived as terrorists. In the case of Sikh Americans, much of this unfortunate association is tied to the turban that the men are required by their religious faith to wear. In other words, in the mind of racists, they’re just another “towelhead” and therefore, a terrorist.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Sikh Americans have been murdered as a direct result of 9/11 hysteria — four days after the events of September 11, 2001 and as illustrated in the excellent documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” Balbir Singh Sodhi was similarly gunned down by a person who perceived him to be a Muslim and therefore, a terrorist. On top of that, political “leaders” such as Peter King, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Walsh continue to use their public positions to fan the flames of suspicion and hostility against all Muslim Americans, all of which lends more credibility to equating Muslim with terrorism.
Combined with the recent killings at Oak Creek WI, these incidents of racial and religious hate against anyone perceived to be Muslim are not isolated. Instead, they are part of a clear pattern of mistaken identity, irrational guilt by visual association, and jingoistic hysteria that unfortunately is still alive and well almost 11 years after 9/11.
Anti-Immigrant Nativism and Xenophobia
Related to this is the nativist and xenophobic climate that has also strengthened since 9/11. Much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is seemingly directed at undocumented immigrants but unfortunately, since hate and intolerance cut a wide path, has also been directed at legal immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that have a large immigrant contingent such as Latinos and Asian Americans.
The foundation of this nativist and xenophobic climate is the belief that immigrants (legal and otherwise) are not “real,” “legitimate,” or “official” Americans. In turn, much of this belief about who is a “real” American is based on the “traditional” image of those who are perceived as “real” Americans — White, Protestant, and born in the U.S. Those who lack one of more of these traits are seen by many who do as being inferior to them and therefore, less deserving of the identity of “American.”
As I tell my students, one of the most time-tested and historically consistent patterns in U.S. society is that whenever there is economic competition, almost always, it will lead to racial/ethnic hostility. This pattern has played itself out over and over again, and has involved basically every group of color throughout American history. Unfortunately, it is also rearing its ugly head once again today as the current recession has led to heightened competition for increasingly scarce economic resources between Whites (who have been used to enjoying a relatively stable standard of living but are now fighting just to stay in the middle class) and groups of color and immigrants (who many Whites perceive to benefiting at their expense).
Unfortunately, the conditions for heightened economic competition seem to be the “new normal” as the gulf between the rich (i.e., the top 1%) and everyone else (i.e., the 99%) widens, as powerful financial corporations continue to exploit their political influence and gain unfair advantages in their quest to maximize profit, and as ordinary Americans fight even more among ourselves for an ever-decreasing piece of the pie. With all of this in mind, the bottom line then becomes more clear — when people feel threatened, they become defensive at guarding whatever they have left and hostile towards those who they feel are try to take what is “rightfully” theirs.
This lashing out is part of a larger “White backlash” movement that I have described before. Faced with changing demographics and how the U.S. population is gradually but surely becoming less White, the emergence of people of color, the continuing consequences of globalization and decline of U.S. superiority around the world, and the normalization of economic instability, it is not hard to see why many Whites have become quite angry that their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is being politically, economically, and culturally threatened.
At the moment, many White Americans are feeling very threatened and upset by the changes taking place around them — their economic stability and standard of living are on the decline and, unable to see the institutional forces that have created this situation, their immediate reaction is anger and to lash out at “those other people” — minorities and immigrants.
This individual and collective anger has emboldened many Whites to publicly, forcefully, and passionately lash out at people of color and immigrants, with examples across the spectrum of violence. The institutional shifts and societal changes that influence these examples of backlash are not going away any time soon, and unfortunately, neither do I expect such examples of White backlash to decline any time soon.
And Yet, There is Still Hope
In the midst of all this, there is still the bright glimmer of humanity — the power of shared suffering to bring us together and for friends and strangers to unite and help each other out. No doubt you have seen examples of this in the aftermath of natural disasters as our fellow Americans donate what little discretionary funds we have to help those who have lost everything, and for friends, neighbors, and total strangers to help rebuild the devastated communities.
The same thing can happen in the wake of acts of violence like this. As the NBC News clip below shows, the memorial service to honor the six Sikhs killed was attended by about a thousand people, with Sikhs and non-Sikhs united in grief, sympathy, and hope.
Ideally, no, it should not take mass murders and hate crimes like this for us as Americans to wake up, recognize how our social environment and many of our national leaders are fanning the flames of hostility and hate, and to unite as human beings to change things are the better. But it seems that sometimes it takes a spark to light a fire, something Asian Americans have known for a while now.
Maybe this is that spark and hopefully, there will be a silver lining to this tragedy.
Today, June 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.
Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.
Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.
Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian- and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.
The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.
As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.
This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.
I don’t always have enough time to write full posts and sociological explanations about every news story or media article about Asian Americans that comes my way, but I would like to at least mention some of them to keep you, my readers, as updated as possible. So below is a sampling of some recent news items concerning Asian Americans.
Federal Authorities Find Merit in Students’ Claims Against School
In a letter to the district, the Justice Department advised school officials to take steps to settle the matter. It was not immediately clear what form a settlement might take, though it would require the district to improve the treatment of Asian students, who say they have been mocked, harassed, and beaten at the school.
The action follows a formal civil rights complaint filed in January by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group. Such complaints do not result in criminal penalties, but can bring broad changes provided that violations are found to have occurred. . . .
News of the Justice Department letter comes as South Philadelphia High readies for a new school year with a new principal, its fifth in six years. Southern, as the school is known, has long failed to meet state academic standards and has been labeled “persistently dangerous” under federal law. The settlement talks indicate an approaching end to a seven-month investigation.
Similar cases generally conclude in one of three ways: The subject of the complaint enters into a written agreement with the government to fix certain deficiencies; the Justice Department requires the signing of a formal consent decree, a court-monitored settlement backed by the threat of a lawsuit; or the Justice Department opts to sue to force change.
Why Abortion Rate Among Asian-American Women Is So High
New America Media reports that recent data show that 35% of all Asian American pregnancies end in abortion, which is the second-highest percentage among the major racial groups after African Americans, and is almost double the 18% rate for Whites. The article goes on to describe many possible reasons for the relatively high rate and also presents several details personal stories to illustrate the cultural conflicts involved in such decisions.
Asian Americans are at risk for unintended pregnancies in part because their knowledge about sex remains pitifully low (which is curious, considering that Asian-American teens start having sex later than other American teens). Clifford Yee, youth program coordinator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, CA, has been asked whether douching with Mountain Dew prevents pregnancy. . . .
A few were so inexperienced that they didn’t know what the withdrawal method was, the program’s former research director Amy Lam says. Unawareness about sexual health combines with risky contraception practices. The withdrawal method has been popular among Asian-American women, who tend to eschew both hormonal birth control and consistent condom use. . . .
The problem begins at home, according to Lam, who has researched sexual behavior in the Asian-American community. “When you come from a culture where your family doesn’t talk about sex, how can you talk to your partner about safe sex when you don’t have that role model?”
Linked to this point is . . . the model minority myth: Asian parents refuse to think their well-mannered, studious children are having sex. Yee remembers one angry mother who found her 15-year-old’s birth control pills and still claimed her daughter was too young to be sexually active. “There’s a little bit of stubbornness there,” Yee says. “Some parents truly don’t want to believe their child can be out there having sex.” . . .
Lam says, “In many Asian-American cultures, it’s not the abortion that’s taboo; that’s a white thing. Having sex is [what's] taboo. Abortions are the strategies used to cover up that you’re having sex. At all costs, you’re not supposed to have sex.”
Fiorina addressed a crowd of about 400 during a voter-education forum hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association at California State University, Sacramento. She noted California is home to more Asian-American-owned small businesses than any other state. The former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive said Boxer supports policies that have stifled private-sector job growth. She went on to say opportunities are no longer as plentiful in California because of high taxes and government regulation. . . .
[Boxer's] campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, questioned Fiorina’s commitment to small businesses. She noted the Republican nominee opposes a bill designed to assist small businesses and give them greater access to credit. She said Boxer backs the entire small-business jobs bill, which will provide incentives to expand and hire.
Fiorina said she objects to a $30 billion fund that would be created under the bill and administered by the Treasury Department to increase lending. She said it amounts to another bank bailout. . . .
A Field Poll released last week showed Boxer with 52 percent collective support among Asian-Americans, blacks and American Indians, compared with 22 percent for Fiorina. About a quarter of those voters remained undecided.
Southeast Asians in Sacramento Area Making Strides
Taken as a whole, Southeast Asian Americans (particularly Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians) have struggled in attaining socioeconomic mobility in the U.S., not from a lack of effort or hard work, but mainly due to their refugee experiences and relatively low rates of formal education, English fluency, and formal job skills. However, as the Sacramento Bee reports, new data and examples show that at least in Sacramento area that contains a large Southeast Asian American population, there are signs of progress and success.
In 1990, half the Sacramento region’s Southeast Asians were poor. Today, 52 percent own homes, according to a Bee analysis of census data. They enjoy a median household income of $50,000 annually, up from $17,350 in 1990 – about $28,500, adjusted for inflation. The regional average is $61,000. . . .
Most started at the bottom – without English or job skills – but through teamwork and the will to succeed have gone from roach-infested apartments in gang-controlled neighborhoods to suburban homes. Their children – including those at Florin High that hot August morning – have gone to America’s top universities and become doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers.
Indeed, the Southeast Asian American population in the Sacramento area have a lot to be proud of and should be congratulated. They are living examples of how the :American Dream” is still possible, despite the many inevitable challenges along the way. At the same time, their experiences cautions us to remember that there are still many members of their community who are still struggling and that we should not forget about them.
One of the biggest stories this past week was the suicide of 18-year old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. Most reports describe that he was apparently pushed into ending his life after his roommate and another student (Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei) broadcast a video stream on the internet of Clementi having sex with another male student:
On the evening of September 19, Rutgers student Dharun Ravi is believed to have sent a message by Twitter about his roommate, Clementi. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, New Jersey, surreptitiously placed the camera in their dorm room and broadcast video of Clementi’s sexual encounter on the internet, the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said. Ravi tried to use the webcam again two days later, on September 21. “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi is believed to have tweeted. The next day, Clementi was dead. . . .
Ravi and Wei, 18, of Princeton, New Jersey, are charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy for the September 19 broadcast, according to the prosecutor’s office. Two more counts of invasion of privacy were leveled against Ravi for a September 21 attempt to videotape another encounter involving Clementi, the prosecutor’s office said.
At this point, the focus should be on supporting Tyler Clementi’s family, his friends, and all LGBT persons who are in similar situations of feeling humiliated, alienated, and alone in a society that it often too quick to ridicule and marginalize their identities. This is indeed a sickening tragedy on all levels and for everybody involved and as the NBC video segment below describes, bullying that leads to suicide is a real problem:
Inevitably, many will place the blame squarely on Ravi and Wei for perpetrating such a immature, callous, and reckless act. They indeed need to be disciplined but we also need to consider a few other factors before “locking them up and throwing away the key.”
The Double-Edge Sword
Ultimately people are responsible for their own individual actions, but as a sociologist, I would argue that their actions are another example of one of the unfortunate results of the growing ubiquity of the internet and technology — the erosion of basic social etiquette and norms of behavior. That is, while the internet and social networking sites now allow us to interact with and share information between people much more easily, widely, and quickly than ever before, as some researchers argue, they have also led to the decline of many social norms. A Pew Research Institute report notes that some of the negatives associated with increased internet use are:
. . . time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the internet is being used to engender intolerance.
It’s with this in mind that I would argue that part of Ravi and Wei’s mindset in perpetrating these acts was based on being desensitized to and detached from the consequences of their actions. This is not an excuse for their actions, which were indeed thoughtless. Nonetheless, from a sociological point of view, like many young people these days who grew up surrounded by the internet and the ease of uploading videos, electronically chatting with friends, and sharing virtually all aspects of their public and private lives, they probably felt that streaming Clementi’s private life online was just like other forms of social life that they engaged in themselves or saw on television through reality shows, etc.
I also need to mention the racial/ethnic aspect of this episode: both Ravi and Wei are Asian American and just like other tragic events in recent history in which the perpetrators were Asian American (the murders at Virginia Tech committed by Seung Hui Cho as one example), there are also likely to be generalizations about Asian Americans being conniving, intolerant, mentally unstable, and/or feeling of superiority perhaps due to their academic success, etc.
I hope that we can all recognize that, as with any racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious group, the unfortunate actions of one person or a small group of people should not indict everyone of that same group as being guilty by association.
As I noted earlier, I agree that Ravi and Wei need to be appropriately disciplined. But even if one or both of them had any anti-gay beliefs beforehand (there does not seem to be any evidence of that so far), as I’ve also written before about those who commit hate crimes against Asian Americans and other minority groups, I do not support criminalizing them in such a harsh and punitive way that they become “lifelong racists” — or in this case, lifelong homophobes.
I hope we can emphasize the need to condemn and punish the act while also making sure the actors learn from their mistakes so that they can eventually join the fight to make sure these kinds of tragedies do not happen again.
Moving Forward Together
As I noted earlier, the focus should be on Tyler Clementi, his family, his social community, and others in a similar position. It’s with this in mind that I point out that LGBT Americans and Asian Americans share many things in common. As I’ve chronicled on many occasions on this blog, many Asian Americans have and continue to endure bullying, racist taunts, and even physical violence in their daily lives. Like Tyler Clementi, many Asian Americans feel isolated, alienated, and even despondent over how they’re treated by mainstream American society — to the point of also taking their own lives as a result.
A tragedy like this can tear us as a society apart, or it can help open up a dialog and ultimately bring us closer together. I believe that the despite inevitable differences that many individuals have within each minority group, the common experiences on feeling shut out of the American mainstream is an unfortunate but powerful bond that we do share together.
A New Jersey jury today found former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi guilty on all counts for using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, having a gay sexual encounter in 2010.
Ravi, 20, was convicted of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest, stemming from his role in activating the webcam to peek at Clementi’s date with a man in the dorm room on Sept. 19, 2010. Ravi was also convicted of encouraging others to spy during a second date, on Sept. 21, 2010, and intimidating Clementi for being gay.
Ravi was found not guilty of some subparts of the 15 counts of bias intimidation, attempted invasion of privacy, and attempted bias intimidation, but needed only to be found guilty of one part of each count to be convicted.
The convictions carry a possible sentence of five to 10 years in prison. Because Ravi is a citizen of India, and is in the US on a green card, he could be deported following his sentencing.
Back in September, I wrote about a pattern of racial violence between predominantly African American and Asian American groups of students in schools in the South Philadelphia area. Unfortunately in recent weeks, the violence seems to have escalated, as described in the news video segment below:
In my previous post, I covered the sociological background of these kinds of racial violence incidents includes demographic changes taking places in many Philadelphia neighborhoods and the cultural instability that arises from having to adjust to new neighbors and a changing racial/ethnic landscape. This situation is further complicated by economic insecurity leading to scapegoating and displaced aggression on the part of the attackers.
However, there is one important point that I did not discuss in great detail in regard to these particular incidents (but did in a previous post on similar incidents of racial violence in New York City), and which the Asian American students themselves emphasized in their public testimony and descriptions. Specifically, that point is that the violence itself is bad enough. What makes it even worse is that many school officials, staff, teachers, and security personnel have repeatedly ignored the students complaints and concerns and in some cases, have even cheered on the attackers:
” ‘As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we’re animals,’ ” Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student. ” ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Hey, Chinese.’ ‘Yo Dragon Ball.’ ‘Are you Bruce Lee?’ ‘Speak English!’ ” Somekawa said the students are told.
Those aren’t the words of the students who harass Asians, she said. “They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.” . . . The protesters carried signs, some reading: “Stop School Violence,” “It’s Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.” . . .
Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is “not just a bunch of bad kids,” but the school’s leadership.
Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday “to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community.”
A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them. . . At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.
It is truly sad to see that those whose job it is to promote a positive learning environment and racial tolerance are actually a big part of the problem and make such racial tensions worse. In order to effectively address this situation, we need to find those responsible for such attacks, regardless of what racial/ethnic background they are, and deal with them in a way that punishes their actions without criminalizing them and turning them into “repeat racists.”
But just as important, the school officials, teachers, staff, and security personnel who failed in their jobs to protect these students need to be disciplined as well, including being fired if necessary. I personally have no tolerance for officials who shirk their paid responsibilities and in some cases, apparently misuse their authority and actually contribute to the bullying taking place.
In the same way that we chastise and clamor for the termination of government officials who fail to do their jobs and in fact engage in various forms of misuse of power or malfeasance, these school officials and other adults involved have failed miserably in their professional duties and moral obligations and can no longer be trusted and therefore deserve to be fired.
Sometimes, it is only when you “clear house” and start from scratch that true change and healing can begin. I wish everyone involved, especially the Asian American students, the best success in resolving these differences and healing their physical and emotional wounds.
Those who are regular readers of this site and blog know that I spend a lot of time defending Asian Americans and criticizing acts of discrimination and violence committed against them. However, in the interest of fairness, I am also happy to point out and bash instances when Asian Americans themselves act like thugs and idiots.
Three UCLA students and four other people have been arrested in connection with a melee at an off-campus fraternity party that left three students injured last month, university officials said Friday. The fight broke the morning of Sept. 22 at a party hosted by Lambda Phi Epsilon, a fraternity that was on probation at the time after an incident last fall that involved an altercation with members of another fraternity. . . . None of the students is listed as being a member of the fraternity. . . .
One student was stabbed in the abdomen and required surgery. A second student was stabbed in the arm but did not require hospitalization. A third was hit over the head with a bottle. . . . [A] preliminary investigation indicates that all the suspects were “uninvited guests.” He said the party eventually became overcrowded and, after some disruptions, the suspects were asked to leave. . . .
The Asian fraternity has faced problems in the past. In 2005, 19-year-old Kenny Luong died from fatal head injuries during a tackle football game held at a city park in Irvine to initiate pledges into Lambda Phi Epsilon. During the game, pledges were gang-tackled repeatedly, police said. The fraternity was officially disbanded by UC Irvine in 2007.
In 2003, San Jose State Lambdas were involved in a melee that left one member fatally stabbed and others hospitalized. Police said about 60 fraternity brothers faced off against rivals from another Asian fraternity.
Since I did not witness the fight personally, I can only speculate about its circumstances based on articles such as this one from the LA Times. I also do not know to what extent members of the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity were involved in this incident. I also hope that the criminal charges brought against those who were arrested are fair and just, not overreactions on the part of the police and criminal justice system.
Nonetheless and as the article notes, this fraternity has a history of violence and legal problems, a few of which have involved the deaths of other Asian Americans.
Incidents like this that involve Asian Americans acting violently remind me of the movie Better Luck Tomorrow that portrays a group of high-achieving Asian American students turning to a life of crime and violence to relieve the stress and monotony of their “model minority” life.
On a more sociological level, incidents like this also bring up the question that I posed several years ago when I wrote about the brawl between Lambda Phi Epsilon and Pi Alpha Phi in San Jose that led to the stabbing death of a young Asian American male student — why are many Asian American males, particularly those associated with ethnic-interest fraternities, emulating the same kind of destructive machismo and violence that has plagued their community for so long?
To be sure, most members of these fraternities nationwide do not resort to violence and in fact, are good students and good community members. But even the casual reader can see that there is a pattern of problems involved with these two Asian American fraternities. As I speculated before:
Is there someone or something to blame here? The Greek system for making these Asian Americans feel like they have to defend the “honor” of their frat and of their “brothers” at all costs, including gang violence and murder, even if their antagonists are other Asian Americans?
A misplaced feeling that rather than the prejudice and discrimination out there in the larger society are their biggest threats, they scapegoat their most immediate rivals as the ones to blame for their problems?
An unconscious inferiority complex in which young Asian American men think they need to be hyper-violent to show that they’re just as masculine as Whites, Blacks, or Latinos?
Youthful bravado, reinforced by a mob mentality? Simple insanity on the part of each person who took part in this fiasco?
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.