Still Not Doing the Right Thing: Black — Asian American Relations

Spike Lee himself might be surprised — saddened, perhaps — that the Black American-Asian American dilemma of ‘90s-era Brooklyn he portrayed in “Do the Right Thing” could be a scene playing out in Baltimore over a quarter of a century later. Recall that in the movie, after mostly black and brown Brooklynites burn down an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in response to the cops killing Radio Raheem, rioters approach a Korean green grocery and its owner, Sonny. He swings a broom to hold the crowd back, shouting in broken parlance, “I no White! I Black! You. Me. Same!”—upon which the rioters decide to spare his store.

But the iconic sixty-second scene does not show what the black and Latino rioters had been taught about Asian Americans like Sonny to make them target his store in the first place. Sadly, media portrayals have not come very far. Recent news reports about West Baltimore mute the same black-Asian history, and, unlike Spike Lee, paint the protestors as mostly hostile – and worse – racist. It’s no wonder that people, from bloggers to Duke professors, recycle the same tired stereotypes of earnest Asian American innocents and “thuggish” black American rioters — the former often the victim of the latter. When the race relations stakes in our country couldn’t be any higher, should the media be so retrograde?

Take NPR’s story that black-Asian American tension was the real race story in West Baltimore. Although the report notes in passing that some Blacks stood in harm’s way to protect Asian-owned stores, the only black voices we hear are from possibly two-faced patrons, from those who heartlessly taunt the Chinese American owner Tina Chen in her hollowed-out store—prompting her tears to fall, her voice to break –and those who feel that the anti-Asian arson was justifiable “payback” (even if not “reasonable”). Besides the fact that the overlay is too convenient and lopsided, these reports say nothing of the broader context – the racial history, the workings of elite power — that dangled in front of Blacks a “foreign model minority” myth about Asian Americans; that “they” aren’t really Americans but their success all the same made a mockery of “your” black failure. That is, they owned farms and homes, had good jobs and kept them, stormed Harvard and Stanford, and could skate or play violin at a world-class level – what have you done lately? — you want to cry racism when even the foreigners can “out-American” you?

Of course, the white elites don’t mention that this divide and conquer tactic was made possible by their own machinations of power: starting in the 1960s they drained the central cities of industry’s unionized, high-paying jobs; put nothing in their place; gutted strong civil rights and anti-poverty programs that would’ve helped; then demonized the black and Latino residents for being jobless, working the “illegal” economy, or simply speaking truth to power. Hello, under-served and over-policed West Baltimore. To add insult to injury, elite institutions made sure to pit the black and brown poor against selective cohorts of college-educated Asian immigrants, many of whom began showing up in central cities as new business owners when US institutions wouldn’t recognize their Asian credentials. To the black and brown residents, here was the “nemesis” filling in the nice shoes of the Italians and Jews before.

It’s no wonder that Spike Lee’s Brooklynites first thought of destroying Sonny’s lifeline, and it’s no wonder today that some of Baltimore’s protestors actually lit the match.

To be sure, Jeff Yang’s rebuke of the NPR report convincingly dispels the existence of widespread Asian-black tensions or the insinuation that they’re central to the rioting. Alliances between black and Asian ethnics certainly exist. Korean-American grocer associations donate hundreds of thousands in college scholarships to black students; Korean church leaders organize and sponsor African American ministers’ visits to heavily Christian Seoul; black Baltimoreans link arms and stop rioters from pillaging Asian-owned stores.

Yet, Yang’s CNN piece also seems to paint too rosy a picture of black-Asian rapport. He could’ve excoriated an American economic, political, and cultural system that makes Asian model minorities the foil for the blame placed on Blacks for West Baltimore. He could’ve devoted more lines to the fact that even if black and Asian Americans did not create these racial messages, they at the same time cannot escape them. And such racial frames do prompt some Blacks to burn and loot Asian-owned establishments; they do raise Asian American merchants’ suspicion and fear, and up goes the bullet-proof partition between them and their customers.

Make no mistake. Blacks and Asian ethnics do stereotype and mistreat one another. Yes, the two don’t always do the right thing. But Blacks didn’t write the laws that excluded Asian groups from the country or denied them citizenship because of how they looked – just as Asian Americans didn’t start the housing segregation that’s connected to today’s urban black poverty, like in Sandtown.And they most certainly didn’t make themselves into the caricatures we see in the news. Rather than turning black protestors into one-dimensional racists and Asian immigrants into hard-working victims, the news could start with the racial system that made both groups its victims. As Sonny would say, “You. Me. Same!”

Fresh Off the Boat: The Asian American Race Conversation We Never Had

Phew, it got renewed. Thank goodness Fresh Off the Boat, only the second Asian American sitcom in US television history, will live on. Why am I so relieved? I’m not Taiwanese American like the main character Eddie (I’m ethnically Korean), nor did I move from a gritty Chinatown to a well-heeled suburb. But I didn’t have that much in common with Mr. Miyagi or Kumiko either, the Japanese-descent coach and paramour of Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso – but, boy, did I identify with both. The simple reason is that, despite some familiar stereotyping, I’d barely seen Asian folks, let alone human-like ones, until the Karate Kid franchise seared my preadolescent eyes. The sad truth is that I could say the same about Asian American family life almost 30 years later, that the trembling glee with which I watched and rewound Karate Kid post-homework matches the rush I feel today when I swipe my iPad for Fresh Off the Boat after a long day’s work.

I’m relieved because nearly a decade after Karate Kid, the first Asian American network sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994), was swiftly panned and canceled for failing to compel viewers like myself – effectively an Asian-faced blip on America’s radar. I’m relieved because I’m with Eddie Huang, the brash chef and restaurateur whose memoir is the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, when he says about Asian Americans: “Culturally, we are in an ice age … We don’t even have the wheel.”

To trace the source of my anxiety and relief, we must ask, Why did it take nearly 70 years (a television ice age) to get Fresh Off the Boat, and why would a so-called successful minority agonize over its content and fate anyway? The answers aren’t obvious because, frankly, America, we’ve never even had our conversation on race. Yes, we’ve seen the tragic limits of the race conversation for Black America. Need we say more than Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray? But at least the conversation’s not a mere idea frozen in time. Moreover, a tête-à-tête requires a back and forth, but on Asian ethnics we’ve mostly had America’s monologue about a “model minority” who has done so well in life that racism’s a non-issue. A model minority therefore gets no seat at the race relations table. Nor did Asian Americans get a spotlight in our more multicultural pop culture after the Civil Rights Movement.

Where did the model minority stereotype and its silencing, disappearing properties come from?: immigration laws that favored educated Asian professionals, academic writing (“model minority” was coined by a fellow sociologist–see Chou and Feagin for this and related issues), and a 1980s’ conservative agenda to dispel the racism argument to gut civil rights enforcement, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action. Asian American success, conservatives alleged, proved Blacks and Latinos could no longer cry foul. Still today, fact tanks like the Pew Research Center inadvertently bolster model minority myths with controversial reports declaring “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

Make no mistake, there’s a kernel of truth in the model minority stereotype, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless. Asian Americans are a diverse, internally unequal group. Second, the model minority feeds and hides a more pernicious stereotype of the threatening “foreigner;” that is, it pats Asian Americans on the head for being a good kid “like us” but spurns her for being “the foreigner” who outsmarted teacher, then denies her the right to cry racism because, hey, look at all those rich and happy Asians.

Examples include the World War Two mass incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans despite the majority holding US citizenship and no evidence of any anti-US activity among this threatening “model minority.” In 1980’s Detroit, two laid-off White US auto workers saw a threatening, model Japan in Chinese American Vincent Chin, murdered him with a baseball bat, yet a night in jail they never spent. More recently, Bill Clinton’s Chinagate scandal prompted the Democratic National Committee to wage a racial witch-hunt of sorts for “foreign” donors within its Asian American constituency. Examples of race-based nativism against other successful Americans abound: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Mirai Nagasu, Korean merchants in the LA unrest, Judge Lance Ito, South Asians since 9/11, Jeremy Lin.

Because the model minority myth implies that race doesn’t matter for Asian Americans at the same time that it feeds stereotypes of threatening competitors, Asian Americans effectively live a paradox of being racially invisible and visible as “forever foreigners.” Chef Huang claims the show completely ignored this struggle. But other millennials and this Gen X-er say yes and no. I was grateful to feel my youthful Karate Kid rush when I saw myself in Eddie, both invisible and clearly foreign at school and reliant on Black American hip hop for an Asian American voice. Dad Louis got my sympathy when he worried that he wasn’t “American” enough for his chophouse, so hire a “White face” he did. When Jessica perceived their vandalized billboard as a “hate crime” against “sneaky Asians,” I said, “Thank you! Finally!” To be sure, I cringed, at times, at Eddie’s brothers for verging on model minority poster children and at Jessica for too much Tiger Mom foreignness and exoticism. But I’m now exhaling relief that I’ll get to see more Asian American life on a box that had rarely shown it because we were a “model minority” of foreigners. So yes, this show is finally our wheel. But we shouldn’t expect one wheel to go everywhere. Until the struggles and diversity of Asian America grab the spotlight, I take comfort in knowing that Fresh Off the Boat has helped start, and will continue, a conversation that America didn’t know it was supposed to have. Let the ice thaw.

Nadia Y. Kim is a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.

Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

PART I: VERY OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Social Alexithymia and White Response to Police Brutality

veraNote: My dear friend and colleague, the great and beloved Hérnan Vera, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, died yesterday after a long illness. His influence and impact on his colleagues, including his many students, will last for the ages. He practiced well the empathy about which we have written, as below (from 2010). RIP

The late Hérnan Vera and I have written about the importance of the breakdown of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. We have coined the term “social alexithymia” for the inability of a majority of whites to relate to the commonplace, past and present, police brutality and other racial oppression faced by African Americans and other Americans of color.

Discover magazine’s blog reported in 2010 on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case, whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color — including thousands of police brutality and other malpractice incidents over the last decade — require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to describe people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hérnan and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia.

Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs to be explained most is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.

Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children

There are two main challenges in addressing the border issue of increased numbers of undocumented children traveling alone from Central America to the US.
The first is that the dehumanization of Latinos in the US has been so tremendously successful that a basic call for decency and humanity is absent from the conversations surrounding this situation. For example, I recently highlighted the issue in an op-ed to a local newspaper and the comments reveal people hiding their racism behind arguments of “legal” and “illegal.”

An absence of decency and humanity can also be seen in the protesters who turned away buses of children or who are protesting detention centers across the country where children are housed because we’re a “nation of laws” or because the children “carry diseases,” “bring crime,” will grow up to “rape women.” This is all to familiar language that uses the same fear tactics, dehumanization, and racism once used towards African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow and towards the Chinese during the late 1800s—language used to justify atrocious acts of oppression of these groups then and language used to justify monstrous cruelty to these children today. One has to wonder if these protesters would have the same response to refugee children coming from Eastern Europe. Perhaps there would still be a backlash against thousands of Eastern European refugee children arriving alone to the US; however, I doubt it would rise to the shameless levels we’ve seen recently, or that it would use the kinds of language being used–language that has roots in removing people of color outside of our human and national family throughout American history. This underscores how effective the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. currently is.

The second hindrance with addressing this issue is the problem of politicians who either do not care or if they do care are acting first and foremost in their self-interests by being in lock step with xenophobic Americans’ preferences. This response by our nations leaders underscores Schneider and Ingram’s research revealing that politicians make laws that benefit certain groups and burden others. This explains why Congress refuses to act in a bipartisan fashion and pass laws addressing this situation. This explains why traumatized children are being put on planes and sent back as a deterrence to others. This is not just, rational, or wise public policy but this is what our political leaders are engaged in.

Instead, there must be another way. There must be collaboration and civility between the nations involved to come up with short-term and long-term policy solutions. For example, Héctor Perla Jr. recently provided examples of both short term and long term solutions in a recent article. Perla gives the example of granting the children refugee status rather than seeing them as undocumented immigrants in the short term, and in the long term he argues we must address economic policies in Central America that are creating the conditions pushing children and their parents to migrate.

Other short term ideas with the goal of preventing further harm to the children immediately by keeping more children from dying or being injured on the train include finding them earlier in the process of migration. This would require creating a coalition between the US and the countries from where the children depart to check the trains and help the kids at that point. Long term of course must address the roots of the problem. This requires taking into consideration why children are fleeing their countries and finding ways to address these issues as Perla suggests. This too, must be done in collaboration with leaders from Mexico and Central America. Of course, civility, compromise, and collaboration across national leaders seems impossible to accomplish when it doesn’t happen across political leaders in this country who follow the desires of many Americans who cannot see Latinos as human beings, not even the children.

Positive Stereotype, Tragic Outcome: Elliot Rodger and the Model Minority Stereotype

This post is by Daisy Ball and Nicholas Hartlep.

Several weeks ago, 22 year old Elliot Rodger committed what has become one in a string of mass shootings in the U.S., this time in Isla Vista, CA. Although not technically a traditional school shooting, the case takes on that air, given that he proclaimed he was targeting a University sorority, and since all of his victims were killed in the vicinity of UC Santa Barbara (and, were college students).

Almost immediately following news of the shooting, a video made by Rodger was released—an eight-minute mantra explaining what he had planned (the massacre), who his targets were, and why. He lamented being a “22 year old virgin” and blamed women for rejecting him, all the while falling for “obnoxious brutes.” His video message seemed to blame the world for the fact that he had not yet found romance or sex, as though these are things the world “owed” to him.
As Hadley Freeman, writing for The Guardian, wisely notes, the race of the perpetrator often determines the way the media frames a story. In the Rodger case, the news media and scholars have both focused on Rodger’s mental health status at the time of the shooting. This is a common trend, especially when a young, white male commits a horrific crime: think Adam Lanza (Newtown shooting), James Holmes (Aurora movie theatre massacre), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting).

Conversely, when a young, African American male commits a horrific crime, it’s chalked up to “poverty” and “thug culture,” and to be expected (if we even hear of it—unless, of course, the victim is white): think Kahton Anderson (A 14-year old Brooklyn teen who fatally shot a father while aiming for a rival gang member on a crowded city bus) and the super-predator myth of the 1990s, which originated in Chicago when Derrick Hardaway and his brother Cragg Hardaway murdered 11-year old gang member Robert Sandifer. And when a young, Middle-Eastern male commits a horrific crime, it’s immediately linked to terrorism (case in point the Tsarnaev brothers—now known as the Boston Bombers—who were immediately pegged as terrorists, rather than mental health patients).

While Rodger did have a significant mental health record—and therefore, we expect this paired with other factors contributed to the events of May 23—a fact few are reporting are that he was part-Asian American. And, it is largely his mixed race—white mixed with Asian—that he attributes to keeping him from being lucky with the ladies. We are interested in this case for its model minority implications: in damming his Asian heritage, Rodger is lending support for the model minority stereotype, which pegs Asian Americans as smart, nerdy, and decidedly not suave. Asian American males are effeminized and deemed to be nerdy or eunuchs. The fact is that Rodger appears to be white—and, the news media coverage approaches the case in the standard way it does when the perpetrator is a young, white male—with a focus on mental health.

But what about when a young, Asian American male commits a horrific crime? While we don’t have very many data points to draw from, we do know that in the cases of Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech massacre), Haiyan Zhu (Virginia Tech beheading), One Goh (Oikos University shooting), and Wayne Lo (Simon’s Rock College shooting), to name just a few, the news media approached the case similarly to how they’ve approached young white males who are behind various modern atrocities: mental health is to blame.

It is important for us to place the Rodger case within a larger societal contex—within the context of the white racial frame and white-imposed racism. Chou and Feagin (2008) contend that the myth of the “model minority” is in fact a form of white-imposed racism. Further, it is particularly insidious because of its “positive” nature, which has allowed the “model minority” myth to escape much criticism. While Asian Americans may stand out academically and economically when compared to other minority groups, studies find that Asian Americans, in particular women and male immigrants earn less than whites with similar educations and are underrepresented in managerial positions in corporations (Min & Kim 2000).

A central reason that the “model minority” idea is readily accepted by the mainstream is that whites tend to view the success of Asian Americans (compared to the gains of other minority groups) as proof that the U.S. really is a land of opportunity. The stereotype helps feed the dominant American ideology of individualism. The “model minority” stereotype, however, places undue pressure on Asian Americans to succeed, both economically and educationally; when they diverge, societal reactions tend to be harsher than reactions stemming from other minority group divergence. This pressure to do well in school can be seen in the case of Eldo Kim, a Harvard student who faked a bomb threat in an attempt to evade taking a final examination. What’s more, the label brings with it negative ideas about Asian Americans as shy and socially awkward, with “funny” accents and specific phenotypical traits. Thus, although initially this might seem to be a positive stereotype, the “model minority” stereotype is as dangerous as any other more negative stereotypes (Sue 1998).

So, while the Rodger case may have been handled by the media in ways similar to white mass killers, underlying his unhappiness may have been his racialization as a model-minority. Roger’s rebellion may come from differential treatment he encountered from girls and society.

An oft-forgotten fact is that the very concept of the model minority was created and originally imposed by whites. While earlier stereotypes concerning Asian Americans cast them as “others,” as “outsiders”—consider historian Ronald Takaki’s (1998) characterization of early Asian immigrants to the United States as “strangers from a different shore,” stereotyped as “heathen exotic, and unassimilable.” Stereotypes emerging in the U.S. in the 1960s cast a noticeably more positive light on this group. As Helen Zia (2000) notes in Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People , when turmoil amongst other immigrant groups began to brew, Asian Americans were suddenly recast as the “American Success Story”:

As urban ghettos from Newark, NJ to Watts in Los Angeles erupted into riots and civil unrest, Asian Americans suddenly became the object of ‘flattering’ media stories. After more than a century of invisibility alternating with virulent headlines and radio broadcasts that advocated eliminating or imprisoning America’s Asians, a rash of stories began to extol [their] virtues (p. 46).

This shift in the stereotyping of Asian Americans is most commonly attributed to the publication of two influential articles: sociologist William Petersen’s 1966 essay “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” published in The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report’s 1966 feature article “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Petersen’s essay argued that Japanese Americans were better off, economically and educationally, than all other groups, including Caucasians, while the article from U.S. News stated that through “hard work,” Asians had become “economically successful” in the U.S.

So, taken together, we have on the one hand the “white” status of Asian American perpetrators, and on the other, Elliot Rodger, who fuels the highly complex and hugely problematic stereotype of the model minority. While at its outset, the model minority stereotype appears to be positive, we know it has detrimental consequences for both those to whom it is applied, and those who embrace it. Having a highly visible person—at least, highly visible in the moment—offer support for this stereotype concerns us, as does the suggestion that being Asian, or part Asian, is so awful it drives one to commit mass murder. Sadly, the first two of Rodger’s six victims were Asian American—his roommates, whom he had described as “…the two biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices”—and definitely not the pretty young blondes he so resented for rejecting him.

Daisy Ball is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University, where she teaches a range of courses, including Criminological Theory, White-Collar Crime, and Juvenile Delinquency. She is coordinator of the Criminology Program at FSU, and recently established an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in collaboration with MCI-Framingham, the local women’s prison. Her research focuses on crime/deviance, race, culture, and Asian American studies.

Nicholas D. Hartlep is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University, where he teaches a range of courses, including the Social Foundations of Education, and the Cultural Foundations of Education. He is the author of The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success (2013) and editor of The Model Minority Stereotype Reader: Critical and Challenging Readings for the 21st Century (2014).

Amy Chua’s “Triple Package”: Success Formula for Some?

Is success monolithic and limited to certain groups? Attributes of success cannot be monopolized by certain groups, cultures, ethnicities, or religious groups. Most people that are successful, in fact, appear to have characteristics in common and these characteristics are not driven by their membership in certain groups. The premise of the American democracy is based on the notion that all can succeed through hard work and access to opportunity. In Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell observes:

Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

Yet according to Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld in their new book, The Triple Package, the combination of three cultural characteristics has led to the success of eight groups in America (Chinese, early Cuban exiles, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians, Lebanese and Jews): 1) a superiority complex; 2) a sense of insecurity; and 3) impulse control. In fact, they assert,

all of America’s disproportionately successful groups have a superiority complex; in fact most are famous for it” (p. 72).

This superiority complex, they state, is “deeply ingrained” (p. 83). And strikingly, the authors do not support these sweeping statements with research findings or empirical sources of evidence.

Chua and Rosenfeld’s thesis has distinct Orwellian overtones by suggesting that some groups have what it takes to be more equal or successful than others. As NYU professor Suketu Mehta points out in an article titled “The ‘Tiger Mom Superiority Complex’” in Time Magazine,the book represents “a new strain of racial, ethnic, and cultural reductivism,” a sort of “ethnocentric thinking writ large” or what he terms “the new racism.” And, he adds, “I call it the new racism—and I take it rather personally.”

The Triple Package touches on some important themes, but also suffers from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the book does not address the nature of structural discrimination that is reflected in disparate historical, economic, and social realities for minorities through the predominance of what social theorist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” According to Feagin, this frame is comprised of racial stereotypes, racial narratives, racial images, and racialized emotions that shape how many whites behave and interact with all Americans of color. Systematic, structural forms of exclusion of minorities have pervaded access to housing, education, distribution of economic resources, and job opportunities.

Arguably, the sense of superiority of any group is affected by forces of social oppression and the internalization of these forces has an impact on the psyche of affected individuals. Chua and Rosenfeld have correctly identified the fact that blacks have been systematically denied access to a group superiority complex and bear a significant cultural burden by susceptibility to stereotype threat. However, the omission of African Americans from the chapter on impulse control seems to do a disservice to hardworking African Americans who have been highly successful.

Second, the co-authors’ emphasis is on immigrant success. Factors in immigrant success, however, are not representative of the American population as a whole. For the most part, the legal immigration system has provided upper and middle class individuals the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Take, for example, the fact mentioned by Chua and Rosenfeld indicate that 65 percent of Iranian Americans are foreign born. They also distinguish between the success of the first wave of Cuban immigration between 1959 and 1973 which included an influx of mostly white middle and upper class professionals “at the pinnacle of a highly stratified society” (p. 37) with the later wave of Cuban immigrants who were black or of mixed race or mostly poor. As the authors observe, these individuals were not successful in business and are absent from Miami’s power elite. Yet rather than cultural factors, the racism and classicism evident in the treatment of second-generation Cuban immigrants represent powerful structural, social influences in their relative lack of mobility and success.

Third, the authors assert that the Triple Package is a cultural explanation of group success that does not include education or hard work as core components. In their view, education and hard work are dependent and not independent variables. This dismissal of education flies in the face of Horace Mann’s view that education is

a great equalizer of the conditions of men,–the balance wheel of the social machinery” that “gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men.

Or to put it in a more contemporary framework, as Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation points out, “college-level learning is key to individual prosperity, economic security, and the strength of our American democracy.”

And, in Chua and Rosenfeld’s view, America previously had the Triple Package culture, but,

in the latter part of the twentieth century, something happened. America turned against both insecurity and impulse control (p. 208).

As a result, the authors indicate that to recover the Triple Package, Americans would have to recover from “instant gratification disorder” (p. 218).

The basis for these statements is not explained, documented, or footnoted. In essence, individuals from oppressed groups, no matter which group, have similar aspirations and wish for a better life and to be part of the American dream. These aspirations are not driven by cultural characteristics and can be advanced through education, hard work, and structural and opportunity mechanisms that facilitate individual progress. Due to the lack of evidence offered for the assertions of the Triple Package, the book essentially provides commentary on a very complex subject rather than scholarship and, as such, lacks credibility. Should certain groups accept the unsupported premises of this book, self-fulfilling prophecies could set in, and public opinion and debate could be affected by unverified statements that are not grounded in empirical data or social science research.